I’d like to tell you the story of Simeon. It’s one way of explaining the significance of today. At 10:30, we will be celebrating Candlemas, which is why you see candles presented here to be blessed.
In Luke’s Gospel he is simply called Simeon. But in other sources he is Simeon ben Hillel—or Simeon the son of Hillel the Elder. Hillel, who was born in Babylon, migrated to Israel as an adult and became an important rabbi and sage. Despite the high esteem in which people held him, Hillel led an unassuming life of simplicity. His son Simeon, who was born in Jerusalem, grew up in this same way. From a young age, Simeon was always around the Temple. He studied the Torah and read the prophets. He also learned of the promised Messiah who would restore Israel to a place of peace and stability. Things were not good in Israel. The Romans had occupied the land, propping up corrupt client rulers like Herod. Too many people were struggling to make ends meet. Classism was ever more entrenched. The numbers of poor and sick people begging in the streets were out of hand. And the Temple, of all places, was becoming less holy. Its outer court was overtaken by merchants who charged outrageous prices for a simple sacrificial pigeon. How could the Temple become the center of unjust commerce?! It was getting to the point where only the elite could afford to offer sacrifices.
Simeon was deeply troubled by all of this. He longed for the day when the Messiah would redeem Israel. Whenever he would go to the Temple, he would look out for any young couple who were presenting their firstborn son for the rite of pidyon haben—or the redemption of the firstborn. While the firstborn son was always a special blessing, there was a certain stigma attached to firstborn status. It was the firstborn of all households in Egypt who were killed before Israel was liberated, except for those households whose doorways were marked with lamb’s blood. Later, as Israel sojourned in the desert, it was believed that many firstborn sons succumbed to the temptation of worshipping the golden calf. Over time, a ritual developed for the redemption of the firstborn. New parents would publicly present their baby boy in the Temple to priests and other religious leaders. Five symbolic silver coins would be given to the priest, who would then pronounce a redemptive blessing. When he was growing up, Simeon would watch his father Hillel officiate many rites of pidyon haben. Each time, he often wondered whether he was observing the Messiah in infancy.
After a long life, Hillel died. Simeon succeeded his father, ultimately rising to become president of the Sanhedrin, the tribunal council. He relished every opportunity to officiate rites of pidyon haben. Could it be that one of these firstborn baby boys might actually be the long-awaited Messiah? The years went by; still no Messiah. Would it happen in Simeon’s lifetime? One night in Simeon’s advanced age, the Holy Spirit revealed in a dream that he would not die until he had laid eyes on the Messiah. By now Simeon was a frail old man. Every time a young couple would present their newborn son in the Temple, Simeon would pray to God: Is this child the Messiah? The answer was always no. Simeon couldn’t help feel discouraged, but he continued to trust.
One day at the end of a long week, a young couple entered the Temple requesting a pidyon haben. Simeon immediately sensed something different. Then God’s voice became almost audible: This child is the one. At last! Simeon took the infant in his arms and said these memorable words:
"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel."
For his whole life Simeon was awaiting the Messiah. But as he held him in his arms, he recognized that this was not just the Messiah of Israel. He was holding the one who would redeem the world. This child was a light to enlighten all Gentiles.
As Christians began to commemorate and celebrate various events in Jesus’ life, the presentation in the Temple—the pidyon haben—became a celebration of light because of Simeon’s famous declaration. Today it is called Candlemas, when we bless candles—whether for church use or home use—as signs of Jesus’ identity as light of the world.
We can safely assume that Simeon died shortly after officiating Jesus’ pidyon haben. He died never experiencing the fulfillment of the messianic age. Much like Moses, who saw the promised land from a distance but never crossed over the Jordan, so Simeon held the infant Messiah in his arms before knowing what the child would grow up to do. There’s an important lesson in that for us. What we ultimately hope for may not be realized in our lifetime. We may not live long enough to see what we are working toward. But nonetheless we persevere. Our individual lives are but a drop in the vast ocean of the life of God.
Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and philosopher of the early 20th century, wrote these words: “The one who plants trees, knowing that he or she will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.” That is the lesson of Simeon, and one that we should apply to our own lives as well.