Simeon’s song is sung at night, during compline. When I first arrived as chaplain to Kenyon College, the students were saying compline together in the chapel every evening. I was in my early thirties, only eight years older than the seniors, still young and trying to negotiate the questions that our culture imposes on youth: who will I love, what is my vocation, where will I call home? I was married and a priest. The first question had been answered with great assurance, but the the second still felt electric, as I was unsure of my vocation even as I tried to live it out. And the third question was very present. After a hard day, deep in the evening, I would often say to myself “I want to go home.” Sometimes I would say it while I was sitting in my house. And my daughter, as she grew and began to speak, would say it, too, especially when she’d been injured or was upset. What was this home that we longed for, and why was I still so restless? These questions caused me to take great comfort in the Song of Simeon, there in the semi-darkness of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit. As I and the students spoke Simeon’s words together, it felt like we were part of a community of longing. We all wanted the freedom and peace that God had given to Simeon in his old age.
Both Simeon and Anna are full of the Holy Spirit. Anna is a kind of God obsessive, never leaving the temple, praying and fasting constantly. In a later age, she would have been an anchorite, living in the walls of a church and peeking out through a tiny window at the services. Her and Simeon’s lives have been guided by the spirit, and in Luke’s Gospel it’s the spirit that takes preeminence in these early chapters. But what is the Holy Spirit? Is it a mood, a feeling, a noticing, an inspiration? The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer describes the Holy Spirit as God at work in the world and the church, and tells us that we’ll recognize it when we “are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.” Such harmony seems ambitious and hard to attain. But it is attainable. I’ve experienced moments of it, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. And when I’ve experienced it, I’ve had a deep sense that I am home, that this spiritual place within the embrace of the spirit represents rest from my fear and longing.
Yet Simeon’s message to Mary and Joseph is not restful in the least. He tells them that many in Israel will rise and fall because of Jesus’ life and ministry, and that these people’s opposition to him will reveal their inner natures. And he tells them that a sword will pierce their souls. Because the Holy Spirit is only one part of the Trinity, and that deep sense of rest and home that it can bring us, that deep harmony with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and all of creation, is not enough. Our hope is not to only have individual spiritual moments, although we need those to sustain us. Our hope is to see the repair of the world, the coming of the Kingdom of God, the moment when everyone and everything gets to experience the peace that Simeon sings about.
This is the message at the heart of Christian spirituality. If we put all of our energy into working for justice, and ignore our need for spiritual rest, we will become controlling, embittered people who are constantly separating ourselves from God. If we spend all of our moments pursuing beauty, looking at stones and flowers, trying to connect with the Kingdom of Heaven that’s all around us, we will become self-isolated, passive people who are implicit in the continuing corruption of the political and material world. Somehow we must do both. We must work for justice in truth and love, and we must engage with the power and principalities of the world and strive to convert them. Grace helps us. The moments of harmony that we have with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and all creation prepare us for mission. And when our hearts are pierced by the difficulties of the work and our disgust at corruption and cruelty, moments of harmony will renew us. We need the Holy Spirit to help us in our imitation of Jesus.
If I could, I would like to replace those three questions that our culture makes so important in our youth. Who will I love? It’s a good question, but we might add to it and ask, who will I love and serve? What is my vocation? We might change that to, what will my service look like, what shape will it take? Where will I call home? Perhaps we can simply expand this question’s meaning, to how will I seek harmony with God, myself, my neighbor, and all of creation? We are restless beings, and there’s a blessing in our restlessness. It leads us to seek the repair of the world, to ensure that everyone has those moments of peace and prayer that allow them to seek and find the Kingdom of Heaven. The peace that we have been promised will come. We’ll have moments of it when we open our eyes to see the salvation that already exists and is being proffered to us in our day to day lives. And at the end of those lives, our hope is that we’ll see the Kingdom all of the time, that we’ll be reborn into the pure beauty of divinity, allowed to sit in God’s eye and see everything with God’s sight.