By Steven Norris
Waiting. It is one of the central themes of Advent — that pregnant pause as Mary and Joseph wait for the arrival of their child. It is the intervening time between the articulation and the fulfillment of Christ’s promises to us all. Simeon’s song is a song about waiting.
Simeon’s song is known as the Nunc Dimittis, a name taken from the opening line in Latin: “Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine” (“Now you dismiss your servant, O Lord”). According to Luke, Simeon was a “righteous and devout” man to who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” When Mary and Joseph bring their child to dedicate him in the temple, Simeon is there and essentially sings over him a prophecy.
There are a few things that I wonder about Simeon: How long had he been waiting? How much time had passed between the time that the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he would see the coming Messiah and its fulfillment? Was it days? Weeks? Months? Years? Decades?
What was Simeon doing while he was waiting? Did he go about his regular day job relatively unchanged? Or did Simeon show up to the temple each day expectantly, looking for the promised one? Did he pause at every child and every stranger, whispering a breath prayer throughout his day, “Is it this one, Lord? How about that one?”
There is a dramatic difference between active waiting and passive waiting. When most of us hear the word “wait,” it conjures up images of inactivity. Waiting in this sense means ceasing to do work and depending entirely on someone else. This “passive waiting” believes that the world is not as it should be, but one day — when Jesus returns — it will all be fixed for us. Unfortunately, this kind of waiting can also give birth to a deep cynicism about the world and a resignation that leads to bitterness and apathy.
On the other hand, there is an “active waiting” that recognizes that God has chosen to partner with humanity. Active waiting engenders a strong sense that God will act in our world, but that we have a responsibility in this partnership with God. Active waiting takes initiative. It may not know the exact way to go but believes that a ship in motion is much easier to steer than one anchored in the harbor. Active waiting takes responsibility and says, “I’ll act on what I know until I learn more.” Jesus clearly said that the greatest command was to love God and love others. He called his followers to serve others by welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, and being with the prisoner. Certainly, we could start there.
I believe that Simeon was engaged in active waiting for the Messiah. Maybe our Advent waiting should follow this example (attributed to John Wesley): “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Come, Lord Jesus. Come.