Meditations On The Life Of The Blessed Virgin For Every Day Of the Month, Suitable for all seasons and especially the month of May.
THE PRESENTATION—NUNC DIMITTIS.
Under the Jewish law it was the custom for a woman who had brought a child into the world to remain in her house for forty days; she was not to appear in public until she had been to the temple, where the high priest blessed her, and offered for her the prayers and sacrifices prescribed by the law. Christian women, in the same spirit, go to seek at the foot of the altar the same blessing for themselves and for their new-born babes; but the Christian, happier than the Jewish mother, offers to God a child purified from original sin by the saying waters of baptism. '
The Jewish law also ordained that the first-born son of each family should be offered to the Lord by a particular consecration. After having laid her treasure at the feet of the priest, the Jewish mother offered to the Lord pure victims in exchange for this son, whom she was then permitted to take back, to bring him up in the love of God, to whom he was consecrated from his birth. "When the days of her purification are expired," said the law, " she shall offer to the Lord a young lamb of a year old, for a holocaust, and two turtle doves or two pigeons." ( Levit xii. 6.)
When the mother was poor, she offered the turtle doves or pigeons alone, in exchange for her son, and in Mary's hands these little birds were to become the ransom of the Son of the Eternal God. Forty days after the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, the Jews who were going in and out of the courts of the Temple, saw some humble travellers draw near. There was an old man, followed by a young mother carrying in her arms a new-born child. They were poorly clad, but her countenance beamed with a beautiful and heavenly majesty, and the Child sleeping on her bosom was more beautiful than all the children of men, more beautiful than the faces of the angels which Christian mothers fancy they see leaning over the cradles of their sons. In the recollected countenance of the old man might be read a reverential tenderness for the two feeble beings confided to his care, and a solemn emotion as he placed his foot on the threshold of the temple; the humble son of David, the poor artizan of Nazareth, was going to offer to God, in His sanctuary, the Son of this true God Himself, and of the most pure Virgin, who had just given Him to the world. She whom the Lord had preserved from her birth from the smallest stain submitted to the law, like the lowest daughter of Eve. Arrayed in the sight of heaven and earth in her divine maternity, she came to purify herself in the temple according to the law of the Jews, as if she were not the lily without spot, whose purity had been celebrated by all the prophets. And the Divine Infant, the Eternal Son of the Father, sent by Him for the salvation of the world, not distinguished from the crowd of the children of men, was about to be offered to His Father, like an ordinary victim, and redeemed by His Mother by the. offering appointed for the poorest among the people. The humble Joseph carried the two white turtle doves to be offered in ransom for the Redeemer of the world. When we feel tempted, in the changes of our lives, to revolt against the position in which Providence has placed us, to imagine that we deserve more than we have, or to look upon ourselves as victims unjustly persecuted by fate, let us think of the Queen of Angels submitting humbly to the law which was not made for her, and of the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world, ransomed at the price of two turtle doves.
"And behold there was a man in Jerusalem," says the Evangelist St. Luke, " named Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was in him. And he had received an answer from the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord." (St. Luke, ii. 25-26.)
Moved by the Holy Ghost, he came into the Temple. There he waited, full of hope, for the light of Israel, which his aged eyes were to see before they closed in death; and now the holy travellers have entered the courts of the Temple, Several mothers, carrying in their arms their new-born babes, come to kneel at the feet of the high priest, who blesses them and receives their offerings. (St. Bonaventure, Meditations.)
Nothing is heard save the accents of prayer, mingled with the feeble voices of the children. At this moment Simeon, warned by the secret inspiration which brought him to meet his Lord, perceived in the midst of the crowd Mary kneeling humbly in the lowest place, a mysterious glory surrounds the head of the Infant, and is reflected on that of His Mother. Simeon's heart beat in his breast. It is the promised Redeemer, the Christ of the Lord, He who was announced by the prophets, whom the just of all times had expected.
Trembling with joy and reverence, he takes the Child from the arms of His Mother, he raises his hoary head towards heaven, and his voice, restored as in youth, intones this beautiful canticle of thanksgiving: " Now Thou dost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy word, in peace. Because mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel." What a subject of meditation is given us in this aged saint! With what emotions must his canticle of joy fill every heart that loves Jesus ! He was approaching the end of a long life, the whole of which had been spent in waiting for the consolation of Israel. He had asked it of the Lord in all his prayers, without impatience or discouragement, for " the Holy Ghost was in him," the Gospel tells us, and the Holy Ghost had told him that he should not die till "he had seen the Christ of the Lord." And we, who know this deliverance, for which Simeon waited without knowing it, ought we not to wait without murmuring a whole life-time, till it may please our divine Saviour to reveal Himself to us, and to give us the true consolation of Israel, the sight of His glory in the eternal kingdom, if through His grace we shall have deserved it?
Besides, are not we more fortunate than Simeon ? Have we not Jesus to help us to wait, or rather, does not Jesus Himself wait for us ? Do we not find Him in His sanctuary every time we enter it, moved by that inspiration of the Holy Ghost, without which we can do no good work, not even, says St. Paul, devoutly pronounce His name ? Alas! the greater number of the faithful go .to pray to Him only at prescribed times, constrained, so to speak, by His merciful law, which obliges us to do that which is for our good. But do we ever think of the constant presence of our Saviour amongst us? At all hours of the day, whilst we are occupied with the cares of earth, or distracted by worldly interests, He is waiting for us in the tabernacle, at all hours of the night, He is watching while we sleep. And if sometimes we have entered an empty church, and have knelt at the foot of the altar before which a lamp was burning, have we not felt in the great silence of the sanctuary an all-powerful peace take possession of our souls ? Whether we went in joy to thank God, in need to ask a grace, or in sorrow to seek consolation, have we not felt that our Master and Friend was there to hear us, to give us His grace, and to comfort us ? As we finish our prayer, could not we also say: " Now, my God, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, because I have found my Saviour, and have understood His presence as truly as if mine eyes had seen Him in His mother's arms." This is not all. If it was given to Simeon to see our Divine Saviour with his eyes, to take Him in his arms, and press Him to his heart, is it not given to us happy children of the Church to receive Him within our lips and into our souls ? If the aged saint asked to die after having seen the Infant God, what would he have said if he had known that this same Saviour, veiling His Divinity no longer under the appearance of a child, but under that of bread, would one day become the food of our souls? would he not have envied us? Whilst he only received in his arms the Infant Jesus, the Christian receives into his soul his Saviour, who has lived, died, and risen again for him, and he possesses the fulness of that of which Simeon had but the beginning. Let us therefore repeat this song of thanksgiving each time that Jesus thus comes down into our souls. Let us join our hands upon our breasts, and bless God, for our Sayiour is in us, as truly as in His tabernacle, as truly as in the arms of His Mother or of holy Simeon, And though we do not see Him, though our faith must supply the weakness of our senses, a day will come in which we shall see Him, if we are worthy, in a happy eternity, in which our eyes will be enlightened, not dazzled, by His glory. Let us accept death beforehand, for it will open heaven to us.
What a hope is this! To leave the earth with Jesus in our hearts, that we may go to see Jesus! May a holy life give us the certainty of such a future, and with what joy could we then repeat, after holy Simeon, "Now, O my God, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace."
Let us, with Joseph and Mary, admire all the great things which have been said of our Saviour. This canticle is the third which we find in the Gospel. The Magnificat, which the Blessed Virgin, in the height of her joy and gratitude, poured forth to God, announces the mercies of God towards His people, and the deliverance of the oppressed. The Benedictus, spoken by Zacharias when God gave him back the power of speech after the birth of his son, shews us the mission of St. John the Baptist, and the rising of the Sun of Justice. And lastly, holy Simeon's canticle, which we may recognize by the first words, Nunc dimittis, while repeating the solemn testimony which the other two bear to the coming and to the Divinity of our Saviour, adds one other feature, by speaking for the first time of that light which was to extend its rays beyond Israel, to enlighten the whole world. We are among those Gentiles, to whom Jesus brought the light. When holy Simeon saw in spirit the light which was to enlighten distant nations, our ancestors were worshipping a branch of mistletoe and sacrificing human victims on those stones which we still sometimes find in the depths of our woods. Let us also sing our deliverance; and when the Church, who so well knows how to appropriate prayer to all hours of the day as well as to each moment of life, ends the last office of the day by the canticle Nunc dimittis, let us reverently stand and sing it, thanking God, who gives us every day the privilege of His presence, and after having consoled His servants by such great graces during their lifetime, makes death easy to them by such hopes.
Holy Mary, Mother of God and our Mother, and thou, St. Joseph, whom the Son of God deigned to call father, with what faith and wonder did you listen to these great things, which were spoken of Him! May we obtain through prayer something of this faith. May this canticle of holy Simeon penetrate our souls, and may we also recognize Jesus, every time we go to kneel in the sanctuaries in which He deigns daily to dwell. And when this Faith shall have increased in our souls, when we, more happy than Simeon, shall have received over and over again, and shall have kept in our hearts, the Word made Mesh, Whom he only received in his arms, and when, strengthened by His adorable Body and Blood, we shall be prepared for the awful journey, pray then to our God that He may let His servants depart in peace, that every veil may be withdrawn, and that we may at last see in all its splendour the Light which has enlightened all nations, the Glory of the elect in the heavenly Jerusalem. St. Joseph, patron of a happy death, remember us then. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Remember, on entering a church, that God is there living and present. Excite in our souls the joy and reverence of holy Simeon.