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The meditation of Simeon

One of the great gifts of good poets is the capacity to say well-known truths in ways that make them ring and reverberate with fresh peals of piercing clarity. In this sense, the task of a poet is not to say anything new, to push the boundaries of human knowledge by breaking new intellectual ground or coming up with some original idea. Her task (much like the preacher’s) is rather to say old things “newly,” to endue the same old story, the stable and reliable truth, with a newness and liveliness that strikes a note of liberating delight or courage or hope in the poem’s hearers.

I was reminded of this trait of the ideal poet when, during Advent and Christmas, I worked my way through W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. It is a remarkable meditation on the coming and infancy of Christ, dramatizing those old, familiar events in a way that makes them ring with a new clarity, a fresh and vivid perception of the stark and disorienting difference Christ made to the people who first encountered him.

One section of the poem is called “The Meditation of Simeon,” a series of imagined reflections put into the mouth of the righteous old man and punctuated by a series of enigmatic refrains by a chorus (e.g., “Safe in His silence, our songs are at play”). It seemed a fitting poem to highlight in this Octave of the Presentation. The last of Simeon’s meditations goes like this:

And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.[1]

The substance of what Simeon says is not new to me, or to any reflective Christian: God is omnipresent, and Christianity is not offering a new method of reaching God but the good news that God has already come to us. But Auden’s poetic artistry has turned these familiar truths into a breath of fresh air for me.

“We may no longer desire God as if He were lacking.” This is generally how I do my desiring of things, i.e., when they are lacking. There’s a reason the word want, which used to mean lack, now generally means desire: the former is understood to be a logical prerequisite to the latter. The assumption is that we desire things we don’t already possess, things that are absent from us.

But because of his visitation, it is no longer possible to desire God in this way. God is no longer absent. God has become a man, one whom we can see with our eyes, whom we can look upon and touch with our hands. God is not someplace else, sometime else, with someone else. God is not in the past, in those “golden days” of your life when everything was just right and you were never lonely or sick or scared. God is not in the future, when you will have the successful career and the big happy family and the promise of a relaxing retirement. God is here, now, with you as you are, far more present to you than you are present to yourself, the desire of nations whom you already possess more intimately than you possess the most intimate things of your soul. You have spilled those most precious, intimate things of your soul out into the turbulent whirlpool of worldly fantasies, but your Beloved is calling you to return to yourself, where he is waiting for you. He is calling you to depart from your anxiety into his peace, the personal Peace himself whose temple, O Christian soul, you already are.

That’s the obvious sense of the stanza. But there’s a secondary valence to the idea that God is not lacking, the idea, namely, that God is not incomplete. Before his advent among us, it may have been possible to think that God was missing something, that God wasn’t quite full, that God was lacking all the attributes that would make him enough for us. Surely I need land and cattle to sustain my life, and sons and daughters to carry on my name; how could God alone be enough? But now we know better: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22). God’s presence among us is one of abundance, not lack; effusive extravagance, not restrictive scarcity.

I often say my prayers as though I had to work really hard to conjure up God’s presence, as though there’s only a paltry trace of that presence somewhere in the room, and I, by my attention and devotion and focus, am going to squeeze as much out of that paltry trace as I can. But that is precisely to turn my redemption into a “pursuit” rather than a “surrender.” God does not need from me any anxious, feverish supplementation of his power to be present to me. God doesn’t need anything at all: he is the fullness of being and life and bliss whose free and disinterested generosity is what makes me “at every moment” of my existence.

The section after “The Meditation of Simeon” is called “The Massacre of the Innocents,” a monologue from an anxious and bewildered Herod on the news of Christ’s birth. Herod says,

To-day, apparently, judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. “God has been born,” they cried, “we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters.”

Those scholarly three with the ecstatic grins are our models for imitation in this season of Epiphany. The wisdom of the Magi was to see what Simeon would soon after see: the Light of the world has come, so now we can depart in peace.


[1] W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (Vintage International, 1991), p. 390.


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