Reflection for Religious: “He took him in his arms”

Reflection for Diocesan Religious on the Feast of the Presentation.

Lockdown, especially for those living alone, has been a great, if demanding, teacher. It reminds us just how physical and social we are. We want to see each other – not just via a screen, but face to face – and touch each other and hug each other – sometimes anyway! I have heard grandparents saying how they miss seeing and cuddling their grandchildren. At the heart of the Gospel today, there’s an unexpected moment of physical contact: “Simeon took him into his arms” (Lk 2:28), “him” being, of course, the Child Jesus.  It’s a moment often caught in art. I’d like to reflect a little on it. 

Firstly, this gesture is not necessary to the story. We have been told that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon “that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (2:26). We would therefore expect the text to read: “and when Simeon saw him, he blessed God and said.” This would also lead nicely into the Nunc Dimittis, “for my eyes have seen your salvation”. Instead, at the moment of encounter, there is no mention of “seeing”. Rather, Simeon takes the Child in his arms. It’s an outbreak of physical contact and emotional warmth. To me, it suggests the Eucharist.  

The Greek may be better rendered he “took him up” (RSV, ESV) or even “received” him “into his arms.” The Greek verb is dechomai and in the Latin translations accipere. When people are its object, dechomai can mean “to receive kindly, hospitably; to entertain.” A beautiful title subsequently given Simeon is theodochos, the one who receives God. This can suggest a further thought: if he “took up” or “received” the Child, it was because he was offered, handed over, passed to him. It is natural to think that this was the doing of Mary. And as Simeon’s holding of the Child is worth pondering, so is Mary’s gift of him. Perhaps not every mother would have relinquished her son in such circumstances. Mary, however, shows her courage, trust and generosity. She knows that her Son is not her private property. He is, as Simeon will shortly declare, light and glory for Gentile and Jew, destined for the falling and rising of many. Mary therefore does not cling to him. She does not recoil, she is not frightened. She hands him over to this perhaps frail, flushed old man. She is “apostolic”. Every parent, surely, lives through these moments of letting go: to let their child take its first steps alone, leave it at the school gate, allow for the mistakes of adolescence and all the rest. “He must increase and I must decrease”. The candle transmits light by being burned up. It is actually, for parents, the often painful path to a fuller parenthood, for only if the child is allowed to leave father and mother and cleave in time to a spouse will the parents see “their children’s children.” Mary here is anticipating her final letting go under the Cross, which will be the moment and means of her motherhood expanding to embrace all her son’s brothers and sisters. At the Presentation, Jesus is the “first-born” (cf. Lk 2:23). St Paul will later clarify that he is the first born of many brothers and sisters (cf. Rom 8:29), who are by implication Mary’s children. Twice, in what he goes on to say, Simeon too will speak of “the many”. We may think of “the many” for whom Christ will shed his blood (cf. Mt 26:28). It has been said that Simeon’s words to Mary are a “second annunciation”: that is, of the Paschal mystery, of her part in it, and of its universal scope. All that is embodied in that simple, presumed action of Mary entrusting her child to Simeon. Mary here is Israel handing over the Messiah, not keeping him simply for herself. Mary is the Church, not self-referential, but missionary, handing on her Jesus in proclamation and celebration. 

To return now to Simeon. He receives the child “into his arms”. There is something suggestive in the word used for “arm”, both in Greek (ankale) and in Latin (ulna). Ankale lies behind our “angle” and “ankle”, and ulna behind our “elbow”, as well as the measurement “ell”. This is not the arm as raised or waved, but as bent, crooked, as receiving, carrying – in order to welcome and hold. Ankale can also mean “bundle” and ulna the amount someone can carry in their arms. There is a suggestion of capacity here, of the wise adage that “whatever is received is received according to the measure of the recipient.” In this Child, Simeon received in his arms the measure of Jesus allotted him by the Spirit of prophecy.

The Marian apostle, therefore, as she (or he) hands over the treasure she has received must also have discretion. The treasure must be measured out according to the capacity of the one who receives. “My hands are too small”, a man once said to me when I asked him why he did not believe. (Later, he came to). We must choose wisely the forms by which we evangelise, the Holy Spirit must rule our language, we must not impose burdens beyond the necessary. We offer milk where it is appropriate and meat where there is the stomach for it. The proof we have the right measure will be as it was with Simeon: “he blessed God.”

Lastly, may we be Simeons too. He came to the Temple to “see”, but when he saw Joseph, Mary and the Child something more than his eyes lit up. He must have thrown out his arms in delight. He did not just believe. He felt a rush of love. Mary saw this and responded. And what might have been just faith became communion, eucharist, blessing: a heart unlocked and consoled.


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122