Simeon’s prophecy over the baby Jesus on the occasion of the child’s presentation in the temple, the Nunc Dimittis, has brightened the service of Evensong throughout the Anglican Communion for centuries. It is inspiring to hear that the salvation represented by this child has been “prepared in the presence of all peoples.” It is all the more inspiring that this child is a light to all nations but is also glory for his own people Israel. (Lk. 2: 31–32) That is, this child will unite all people in the embrace of salvation. The countless musical settings of these words magnify their effect, starting with the hushed entrance of “Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace” then swelling to a brief but overpowering climax with “To be a light to enlighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel,” with the word “glory” often drawn out to dramatic effect. Historians might doubt that an old man made such a prophecy, particularly since it fits the author’s theology so well, but such doubts need not dampen the encouragement these words give us.
But then, Simeon makes a darker and more enigmatic prophecy. The child in his arms is “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.” (Lk. 2: 34) This seems to be a contradiction and retraction of the first prophecy. How can Jesus unite all people, Jews and Gentiles if he is opposed by, apparently, everybody? Simeon gives us a hint when he says that “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” But this hint is far from self-explanatory. We can begin to make sense of this tension when we think about our reactions to suggestions that we try to get together with other people and learn to get along. The idea sounds great until we think of some of the people we have to get together with. What often happens in such situations is that the people who hate each other unite and gain up on the person who suggested they get together. It is worth noting that, for all the musical settings of the Nunc Dimittis, these following words have been rarely set to music, if at all. As my comments about the fate of one who would unite people suggests, this prophecy points to the cross, which is the culmination of Jesus being opposed, and yet it is from the cross that Jesus becomes a light to the nations and the glory of Israel. There are, once again, many ;powerful musical settings of the Passion. This second prophecy also embodies Luke’s own theology. John, in his Gospel, articulates this tension with his use of the word doxa which means both honor and shame. As with John’s Gospel, Luke uses the prophecies of Simeon foreshadow the end of the Gospel where glory and shame are closely intertwined.
We can see all these themes laid out in Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ inaugural sermon. As soon as Jesus finished speaking, Luke says: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (Lk. 4: 22) But then immediately some people murmur that he is just the carpenter’s son. Jesus responds by reminding his listeners of foreigners who were healed by Elijah and Elisha. Next thing we know, all of the people who had just been admiring Jesus try to hurl him over a cliff. The suggestion that some Gentiles might have received grace from God was apparently unpalatable to them. This incident, of course, is another preview of the end of the Gospel. One could say that the inner thoughts of the people in the synagogue were revealed. What inner thoughts are revealed in each one of us as we ponder the implications of Jesus being both a light to the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel?