Rest for the Wicked: A Song for Simeon and Me

This is basically just a riff off of what Sam wrote yesterday with a new poem attached, so if you haven’t read his post go there first. Anyway, I had never heard of W.H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio until Sam told me about it recently (he’s since lent me the book, which I’m very excited about). Sam’s post about Auden and Simeon got me thinking about other Christmas poems. I was flipping through a book today and ran across one by T.S. Eliot that I’d forgotten about –  it also is about Simeon. Here it is:

A Song for Simeon

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and

The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;

The stubborn season has made stand.

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,

Like a feather on the back of my hand.

Dust in sunlight and memory in corners

Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

 

Grant us thy peace.

I have walked many years in this city,

Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,

Have taken and given honour and ease.

There went never any rejected from my door.

Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children

When the time of sorrow is come ?

They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,

Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

 

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation

Grant us thy peace.

Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,

Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,

Now at this birth season of decease,

Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,

Grant Israel’s consolation

To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

 

According to thy word,

They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation

With glory and derision,

Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.

Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,

Not for me the ultimate vision.

Grant me thy peace.

(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,

Thine also).

I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,

I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.

Let thy servant depart,

Having seen thy salvation.

This is a much more tired Simeon than the one seen in W.H. Auden’s poem; it’s a powerful poem but one that’s kind of exhausting to read. I’m not entirely sure what prompted Eliot to portray him this way – maybe he’s putting his own feelings into Simeon’s mouth, maybe it’s the result of the more indirect and mediated theology to which Eliot was inclined. Who knows? He certainly captures something about the exhaustion that plagued his world and that has only increased in our own day. But there is that glimmer of peace, a glimpse of rest at the end – found in the salvation provided by the One to whom Simeon (Eliot?) prays.

Whenever I read a poem like this I often find myself drawn into the melancholy, folding myself into it like a smothering blanket. So much so that I’d rather ignore the hope to which the poem gestures in the final lines because, even though it’s rather absurd, there’s something that feels grandly tragic about the whole thing. And it’s not just poetry – I tend to do the same with Advent as well. Some part of me gets a perverse delight in pointing out that everyone is too happy at Christmas: Advent shouldn’t be treated like a clear and unambiguous victory march! The early Church observed Advent as a penitential season like Lent! And the fact that we’re here celebrating Christ’s first coming at all means we’re still waiting for him to show up again – so look a little gloomier for God’s sake!

All of these things, in their own separate ways, are needed reminders. Church history is a long litany of lessons proving that as humans we always are far too ready to jump onto glory road, opting for the canned happiness of a DIY feel-good religiosity rather than the cruciform beauty of true Christian discipleship. This is indeed something that needs to be heard in our day and age. But I also know that lurking in the depths of my corrections and clarifications is a cynicism that is just as faithless as the bootstrapping Christian bookstore schmaltz that I delight in condemning. It’s a burned out, guarded exercise of half-faith where nothing much is ventured and nothing much is gained – but at least I didn’t get my hopes up so I can’t be disappointed. And finding myself miserable (though of course refusing to admit it), I’d rather pull all the rest of the universe’s joy down into my own despondency than be miserable all by myself. Or – God forbid – relinquish my wounded pride and come in out of the snow I’m standing in.

I don’t know where on the spectrum you find yourself this December, but whether you are more tempted by the saccharine optimism of Christmas commercialism or the noncommittal cool of the jaded holiday critic (like me), my prayer for you is the same as the one I pray for myself: May you know that you will find what you search for neither in cheap optimism nor cheap cynicism but only in the gospel of Grace. In Jesus Christ, God himself has come to bear your guilt, your exhaustion, your failures and your sorrows; God himself has come to give you his love, his life, his rest.

Grant us thy peace indeed, Lord – and may we depart having at last seen thy salvation.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30

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