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Retreat on the Credo
The Faith of Simeon
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The Infancy narratives of the gospels give us four of the most beautiful canticles of our faith. There is the Benedictus of Zachary at the birth of John the Baptist; there is the Magnificat of our Lady at the Visitation; there is the Gloria in Excelsi Deo of the angels in Bethlehem; and finally the Nunc Dimittis of the aged Simeon at Christ's presentation in the temple at Jerusalem. Comparatively speaking the Nunc Dimittis is a short hymn. It is recited or sung in the Divine Office at Compline in preparation for our night's rest, which we should remind ourselves is the nightly preparation for death. God made sure we would normally go to sleep every night to remind us every day come a day when we close our eyes for the last time and open them on eternity.
I like the translation of the Nunc Dimittis from the Latin Vulgate. "Now Thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy word in peace; because my eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples. A Light to the revelation of the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel." Over the centuries the Church's scholars have identified what they call three trophes in the Nunc Dimittis, each deep with meaning and filled with implications for our spiritual life.
We should remind ourselves that this canticle is of course a poem, it is also and mainly a prophecy. It has been admired for its simple beauty, its religious solemnity. But I suggest it is especially a guideline for our life in the following of Christ.
What does Simeon say in the first strophe? It begins in Latin with nunc and it ends with in pace --"now" and it closes with "in peace." Simeon says he can now die in peace. The hope of every child of Adam and our own one great hope, that like Simeon in our last conscious moment we like him can say, "Now You dismiss your servant in peace."
We might ask: Why did Simeon say those words? Why was he at peace as he was to close his eyes on this world? Because with his bodily eyes he saw the One Whom kings and prophets had hoped to see but their desires had not been gratified. It bears emphasis to say that Simeon was overjoyed to see, not merely physically or corporeally to see the Child and hold Him in his arms, but to see with the eyes of faith what so many of Simeon's contemporaries and all through the next thirty-three years, they looked at Jesus, they did not see Him. What a difference between having the faith and seeing. There is all the difference in the world between reciting the Apostles' Creed and seeing what those twelve articles declare.
Before Simeon made this statement, however, Luke made sure to inform us that Simeon had the Holy Spirit dwelling in him, that he was upright and devout, which in biblical language means he was a good man, well-behaved, practiced virtue and said his prayers. The two conditions for having the Holy Spirit dwell in you - that you practice virtue and that you pray. Moral conduct in itself is not enough, it must be joined with prayer. Prayer alone is not enough; I must struggle with my passions, I must strive to overcome my selfishness, in a word, like Simeon, I must try to live an upright life otherwise though I believe, I will not see.
Before we leave this first story let's make sure we appreciate how important it is to see, because the clearer our faith vision thestronger and moreardent will be our love.
The second strophe is an expression of gratitude and the reason why Simeon was so grateful. Because, he says, my eyes have seen Thy salvation. If the first part of the Nunc Dimittis teaches us the importance of having a faith that can see as the foundation of a charity that loves, the second tells us how important it is for us to be grateful. Gratitude is a duty, it is an act of adoration, because every time I thank God I am recognizing that whatever I have is not from myself but from Him. Gratitude is a prayer, it's no mere courtesy, because when I thank God for whatever He gives and gave me in the past I am in effect asking Him, "Lord, keep giving." The surest way of depriving ourselves of God's blessings in the future is not to be grateful for what He has given us in the past.
Note the reason for Simeon's gratitude. He thanks God for the gift of seeing Christ. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of our faith vision. Too often, I'm afraid, we think of our faith as the acceptance on God's word what we do not understand. Do you know that is not true? Of course by comparison with the beatific vision we hope to enjoy in eternity our faith surely is obscure, we do not see the way, please God, we shall in heaven. But on earth we are supposed to see. Faith is light. By faith we see what those who do not believe cannot see. People often ask me, "Whatever happened to the Church of God? So many going back on their lifetime commitments. In the United States this past year - fifty-three divorces to a hundred marriages. After the Ordination ceremonies in New York some months ago a young priest who attended the ceremonies - I believe there were six ordained - said, "I attended the ordination of six men, three of whom statistically will leave the priesthood." There are a thousand possible reasons for the mass infidelity especially among consecrated souls; I believe this is the basic one. Our faith must be clearer; otherwise the minds we have, which are being filled with so many conflicting and contradictory ideas, will be blinded and confused, and the vision of faith grows dim because there are so many appealing, competitive sights to see.
If we wish to preserve our life of faith there is no choice: we must act on what we now believe so that the faith we possess will not be weakened and lost.
Finally, in the third strophe of the Nunc Dimittis Simeon explains what is Christ's role in the world until the end of time. It is to be a Light to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel. This is my seventh year in New York City. I wasn't there seven weeks when I told myself, "Well, it's a big city but one thing I know about it, it is not a Christian city." You have to be there and have come from a Christian environment to sense the difference. As a result, and it's a logical result, I'm doing everything in my power to bring the sons and daughters of Israel to discover their Savior. No one but Christ can satisfy the deep hunger that, by now I've discovered, is in the Jewish heart for fulfillment, by all odds the most educated, most ambitious and the most successful people in the world, such strive as no one else has. They are looking for what Simeon discovered.
But Simeon, beyond saying that Christ is the glory of His people, the fulfillment of all their dreams, He is, and he does not let go of the theme, a Light to the Gentiles. There are many titles by which Christ is known. The New Testament itself has upwards of one hundred. But the most fundamental function of Christ is to be the Light of the world. This means that Christ came into the world, as John couldn't have been plainer in asserting, to enlighten a world lost in darkness. Christ came to show us what is God's will, how we are to do God's will, and why we should do it. What is God's will? Everything that Christ taught us. How do we do God's will? By following in the footsteps of Jesus. And why should we do God's will? For the same reason that Christ did the will of His Father: because He loved Him.
Let us ask Simeon, now in glory, to help us, especially daily as we recite the Nunc Dimittis, to get behind the mystery that the Holy Spirit inspired Simeon to profess, and to include in that a prayer that our last conscious prayer before we close our eyes on time might be and the whole of our lifetime be locked up in those two words Nunc Dimittis - Now You dismiss Your servant, O Lord, in peace. Ah, but only if before that last conscious prayer we had been servants, then our prayer will be answered.
Conference transcription from a retreat
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
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