2017 February Issue
Sermon Ideas For Luke 2:22-40 Part 6
There are few more moving moments in the spare account we have of Jesus' early days than the moment when Simeon recognized him in the temple. Rembrandt painted three versions of the scene. The first, painted about 1628, shows four figures, Mary, Anna, Simeon with the child in his arms, and Joseph, in the shadow, back toward the viewer.1 The women's eyes are wide with surprise as Simeon, hand outstretched toward the mother, identifies the child. Anna has thrown up her hands in amazement. It is an intimate portrait of the moment; only the temple column and a candle define the background. They seem to be sequestered in a shadowed corner of the building, gathered almost in secret around the miracle. The second, painted in 1631, offers a strong contrast: light falls on the ancient Simeon, mother, father, child, and prophetess from high above.2 Several rabbis are gathered close to witness the old man's words, spoken with his face turned upward toward the heavens. Crowds of people populate the background. It is a public moment, full of life and the idle curiosity, puzzlement, awe, and indifference Jesus was to encounter later in life. In the last of the three, painted the year before Rembrandt died in 1669, we see only Simeon's luminous face and torso, the child in his arms, and Anna peering over his shoulder from a shadowy background.3 It is the most moving of the three; the cost of the long waiting shows on the old man's face. Anna seems almost protective, as if aware that the momentousness of this event might overcome him. The three radiate tenderness and sorrow; all the pain that was to befall the child seems visibly foretold. The sequence of paintings together constitute a study in theological and historical imagination. The artist's own maturity brings stronger feeling to the later renderings, as though his own pain and losses enabled him to endow the prescient old man and woman with more emotional complexity.
T.S. Eliot's "A Song for Simeon", one of his shorter and lesser known poems, imaginatively amplifies the thoughts of the old man, weary with his own life, apprehensive for the troubles to come after him, longing for peace, as he pronounces his "nunc dimittis."4 "My life is light, waiting for the death wind, / Like a feather on the back of my hand…" he muses. And he wonders, "Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children's children / When the time of sorrow is come?" Twice he prays, "Grant us thy peace." A third time he prays the refrain, but more personally: "Grant me thy peace," and ends the poem with the petition we know from Scripture: "Let thy servant depart, /Having seen thy salvation." Like Rembrandt's last portrait of Simeon, Eliot portrays a tired and fragile old man, burdened with cares he longs to lay down. Death will come as a relief. The revelation he has waited for brings both satisfaction and sorrow; the future he can see seems a part of the burden it is given him to bear.
The final verse of today's passage gives us the barest sketch of Jesus' early years—the thread upon which the imagination is required to hang so much speculation. Like the pregnant comma in the Creed that marks the distance between Jesus birth and suffering ("born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…), a mere verse or two covers Jesus' years to the age of twelve, and the gap between there and the beginning of his ministry. A number of artists have depicted the boy Jesus working in a carpenter's shop at Joseph's side. Many have shown him teaching priests in the temple. One of the more unusual representations of Jesus as a child is Caravaggio's Madonna dei Palafreineri.5 The painting is so daring in its subject that, though it was commissioned as an altarpiece for St. Peter's in Rome, it was not allowed to be hung. Against a dark background Mary bends to support a naked boy child who looks to be about six years old. Her bare foot rests on the head of a large, curling snake in the foreground. The child's foot rests on top of hers, as though he is learning that he can "tread on the asp and viper" and not be harmed. An older woman, presumably St. Anne, looks on, her hands folded, unruffled by the raw exposure of the child to the serpent. Again the painting raises the question of how Jesus "grew and became strong, filled with wisdom." Here Mary instructs him by exposing herself both literally and symbolically to the dangers he will have to face. In perfect trust (her face is calm with perfect confidence while the child's brow is furrowed and his body tense with apprehension) she shows him how to confront the enemy. Protestants spend relatively little time contemplating Mary's unique calling, but the subject can be a worthy one for speculation and meditation; God put himself into human hands in the incarnation and continues in other ways to put himself, suffering, defenseless, and vulnerable, into our hands, particularly in entrusting us to raise and equip children to live with courage and faith in a dark world.
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
1. Ludwig Munz and Bob Haak, Rembrandt (NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1984), pp. 50-51.
2. Munz and Haak, pp. 56-57.
3. Rembrandt van Rijn, Gramercy Great Masters Series (NY: Gramercy Books, 1996), pages unnumbered.
4. T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1971), pp. 69-70.
5. Fagiolo dell'Arco, p. 167.