Senex Púerum portábat: Puer autem senem regébat.
For many people in North America, today is Super Bowl Sunday, or Groundhog Day, or perhaps both. The feast celebrated today by the Church commemorates an event greater than any football game, and certainly much greater than a Pennsylvania rodent's awakening from hibernation. This feast goes by many names – the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, the Presentation of the Lord, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Candlemas – and the very multiplicity of names reminds us that there is a lot going on here. In obedience to the Law of Moses, a firstborn male is consecrated to the Lord and his mother marks the ritual purification that follows childbirth; while the Holy Family is at the Temple in Jerusalem, they encounter two devout elders who recognize the newborn child as the long-awaited messiah, the "light of revelation to the Gentiles" whom we recognize in a special way today with the blessing and carrying of candles.
There is much that can be said about today's feast, but I would like to focus upon one element: the Lord's encounter with Simeon. All we know of Simeon comes from a brief mention in Luke’s Gospel, where we learn that he was a devout man who "awaited the consolation of Israel" (Lk 2:25) and had received a special revelation from the Holy Spirit informing him that he would not die until he had encountered the Christ (Lk 2:26). Luke offers no details that would give us a sense of Simeon’s life or background, in marked contrast with his brief yet vivid description of the 84-year-old prophetess Anna, whose family lineage, life history, and daily activities are neatly sketched in just two lines (Lk 2:36-37). In spite of this, one might say that we know all that we really need to know about Simeon on account of his profession of faith of the newborn Christ, which comes down to us as the Nunc dimittis (Lk 2:29-32). In a very real sense, the encounter with the infant in the Temple is the moment which sums up and gives meaning to Simeon's whole life, an event which so completely fulfills his hopes and expectations that he can contentedly say, "Lord, now you let your servant go in peace..." (Lk 2:29).
In the older form of the Roman liturgy, one finds a striking reference to Simeon's meeting with Christ in a verse sung as part of the Alleluia at today's Mass: Senex Púerum portábat: Puer autem senem regébat. This may be translated, "The old man carried the child: but the child ruled the old man." Borrowed from a sermon of St. Augustine, this verse pithily sums up Simeon's place in the history of salvation. It may seem strange to think of a tiny infant "ruling" over anyone, yet it was the expectation of the Messiah's coming that served to order and govern Simeon's life. We all have our own hopes for the future, and we may find that our lives are governed by expectation. What is the consolation that we await, and what do we hope to see or encounter before we make our own Nunc dimittis?
To complete this post, here is a musical setting of the verse Senex Púerum portábat by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd, heard in a performance by the Hereford Cathedral Choir (a group that knows something about youthful rulers). My prayers are with all who are celebrating this bright feast. AMDG.