Christmas brings with it a wide range of emotions and these emotions are not always positive. Grief can be more prevalent as we miss loved ones we’ve lost and wish were with us. It also is not uncommon to lose loved ones during the holiday season. On this week’s All In podcast, BYU religion professor Eric Huntsman shared the grief he felt with the passing of his grandfather years ago on Christmas and how the story of Simeon in the book of Luke brought him great comfort.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Jones: Another person that you talk about is Simeon, and you share that it was the story of Simeon that brought you a lot of comfort when your grandfather passed away at Christmastime. Can you tell listeners what you love about Simeon and why that story brought comfort?
Eric Huntsman: One of the great things about Luke as a whole, but particularly in infancy narratives, the first two chapters, is that he gives kind of equal treatment to men and women. He's kind of our gospel feminist, if you will, so he has more female characters than any other gospel. And he puts them in gender pairs, particularly in the opening chapters.
So it's Mary and Joseph, right? And then it—well, it actually starts out Zacharias and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and then Simeon and Anna. So we're going to talk about Simeon, but I want you to keep in mind this other figure, Anna, who is described as a prophetess by the way.
Towards the end of Luke chapter 2, we have these two prophetic figures, Simeon and Anna, who are both what we would call temple workers. They're people who spend all their time in the temple serving through prayers and fasting and worship, and they are waiting [for] the Lord's Christ. And so they both have been prepared through inspiration and prophecy [and] the testimony of Jesus that the Savior is going to be born.
So Simeon is this figure, and some of you may remember this, that when Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the temple as part of a purification, he meets them and takes the baby in his arms and gives a prophecy. And in traditional liturgy of your Episcopalian, or Lutheran, or Roman Catholic, [there is what] we call canticle songs. So you have Zacharias, the blessing of his son, John the Baptist, you have Mary, what's called Magnificat, "My soul doth magnify the Lord," you have the angels, "The glory and excelsis, glory in the highest.” And the last of these four canticles is what's called the Nunc dimittis in Latin, which means "now you are sending”. Because it starts out, "Now you are sending away your servant in peace."
Simeon had received this revelation or this promise from the Lord that he would not die—even though he's an old man, he would not die until he had seen the Savior. And now that he's holding Jesus in his arms, he says, "I can go in peace." It's a beautiful story. And actually, in a lot of traditional Christian practices, people will pray or read or listen to a musical setting of the Nunc dimittis at evening prayer because the idea is—I don't know if you remember the old prayer we used to say when we were little—"Now I lay me down to sleep, if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." [But] the idea is we never know when this day is going to be our last day. So at the end of the day, you want to be right with the Lord.
Well, this is used a lot in traditional Christian churches because we should all be in the place of Simeon at the end of the each day and at the end of our life. We should say, "I have seen the Lord," or "I know Jesus." Okay, so that's just kind of the background of it.
I was putting this book together, writing it at the end of 2010. It was going to come out in 2011. And my grandfather, my paternal grandfather, Grandpa Huntsman, died just a few days before Christmas. So it would take me another couple months before this book was finished, but it was in process at the time.
Well, ... funerals are always hard when someone dies at Christmastime, right? It’s supposed to be the happiest time in the world, but now you're the saddest, etc. So we ... held the funeral off till the 27th, and my family's from Southern Utah. My grandfather's from a ranch in New Harmony, which is south of Cedar.
So we drove down to Cedar City on the 26th and stayed in a hotel, a Hampton Inn, so we'd be ready for the funeral on the 27th the next morning. And I was the eldest of my grandfather's namesake grandsons, if you will, who bore the Huntsman name. And so for whatever reason, they asked me to give the funeral talk.
And it's one of those things you know, you try and try to put the talk together, [and] it just doesn't come together. It's usually you're getting a stupor of thought because you're not thinking the right things.
So here it is, the night before the funeral, and I still haven't read my funeral sermon. Well, we have lots of traditions in my family as I've already alluded to—we get together every night in December leading up to Christmas for [a] Christmas devotional with a story and a scripture and a carol. And we continue it for the few days after Christmas. I hate it when Christmas is over. Traditionally, Christmas is the season, the 12 days of Christmas are not the 12 days leading up to Christmas, it's Christmas day through January 5. So, we keep this tradition going after Christmas. And one of the first stories that we read after Christmas is the story of what's called the Presentation of [Jesus at] the Temple, the story of Simeon. So, I'm reading this account in Luke 2 to my kids. And suddenly I realize grandpa is Simeon. Grandpa was this older man, he was a temple worker, he had been a bishop, he was faithful. And I thought, just like Simeon served in the temple, and I thought maybe Grandpa never actually saw Jesus, maybe he never actually had that kind of vision, but I know he knew the Lord.
And when the moment came for him to actually die, ... I have this confidence that it was sweet for him. [Doctrine and Covenants,] section 42, promises us that death will be sweet to those who know the Lord. And that he was able to say like Simeon, “Now I can go in peace, because I have seen the Lord's Christ.” And so I actually used that story as the basis of my talk the next day. A way of honoring Grandpa, remembering Simeon, but also kind of holding up the bar, the standard, to the rest of us, that we should be like that. We should really be seeking to know the Savior so that when our time comes, we can go in peace.
Morgan Jones: I think that's profound. I just heard this week about a woman that I know from my hometown who was a really strong Christian and she passed away suddenly and unexpectedly and my heart has just been aching for her daughters. And just thinking about the comfort that can be found in knowing that somebody has lived a Christlike life and to have that hope at Christmastime in particular, I think, is really, really beautiful.
Eric Huntsman: Well ... in the book at another point when I talk about the slaughter of the innocents, you know, when the babies of Bethlehem are killed. I have a little sidebar there called "Sadness at Christmastime." And you know, there's a haunting carol called, "Lullay My Little Child," it's the Coventry Carol, and it's about the mothers of Bethlehem, you know, weeping for their babies, which sounds kind of dark and macabre at Christmastime.
The reality is, Christmas can be hard for a lot of people. If you're alone, if you've lost someone, if life's difficult, when it's so joyful for everyone around you, it makes your sadness or your disappointment, your heartache, seem almost all the worse by contrast, right?
So sometimes it's really nice to find some comfort in saying, yeah, things have been hard historically, for lots of people. And you know, it was really sad when Grandpa died that year. But as time has passed, we now look back at that experience, and we can take comfort because of the comparison with Simeon. I do think it's really important while we are happy, and as we're celebrating, that we be very aware of those who are alone, or those who are sad, or those who've lost somebody [and] are suffering, and not kind of run over them in our joy, if that makes any sense.