Christ, Simeon, and the “Sides” of History

“History” has been often invoked in recent years, most notably by the current administration, as a justification for some particular cause. Supporters are “on the right side of history” while stubborn opponents are “on the wrong side.” Rod Dreher deems this a secular version of the cry “God’s on our side.” It’s worth re-considering this effort to divinize history in light of tomorrow’s feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple and, even more broadly, the central crisis of our time: the presence or exclusion of God in our world.

In the Biblical perspective, God is the author of all time. He made the universe subject to his own design, and “disposed all things by measure and number and weight.” (Wisdom 11:20) History is our recounting of time as it has unfolded before us. As such, history is the servant of being, truth, and the laws of nature: it had a specific origin, and it has a determined end, when God will be all in all.

During the Enlightenment, God, truth, being, and the laws of nature were rejected as irrational limits on human desires; they were replaced by a deified Reason subject to the vagaries of the human will. With God ignored and excluded, “History” became untethered, an impersonal force with, as Dreher notes, its own claimed “moral, even metaphysical” authority. This version of History has become nearly synonymous with “Progress,” understood as constant social change in the direction desired by cultural elites.

In recent decades, we even heard History had reached its “end” with the triumph of liberal democracy. And now, History is said to authorize actions preferred by these democracies. Those who question these new orthodoxies are “on the wrong side of history” – road kill left behind by the big wheels of Progress.

If History is nothing more than the capricious self-congratulations of the secular state, then Christians will often find themselves on the “wrong side.” But history, properly understood, only reveals its meaning and direction in the light of eternity – in the light of God. That’s the only real standard by which we can judge how well we have lived.

“Presentation of Christ in the Temple” by Andrea Mantegna (1466)
“Presentation of Christ in the Temple” by Andrea Mantegna (1466)

At various times, History has violently cut short the lives of numbers of men and women whose faith in God put them on “the wrong side.” Today we call these victims martyrs – witnesses to Christ, the Lord of history. In their blood, we see that it was the Roman Empire, Elizabethan England, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, among many others, who were wrong sub specie aeternitatis. In the hindsight of centuries, each of these supposedly accomplished and enlightened regimes seems to belong rather to the dark side of history.

In this context, tomorrow’s feast of the Presentation is the celebration of what truly matters in history: God’s decision to enter the world to save it. Simeon, St. Luke tells us, knew that a life “awaiting the consolation of Israel” was one well spent – the true “right side of history.” Even more, he knew that the child Jesus would be the standard by which history is judged: “This child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel.”

A true sign of contradiction, Christ says that he came “to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19) He did not encourage the pursuit of political power or self-aggrandizement, but faith in his person, storing up treasures in heaven, and charity toward others. We are to give Caesar his due, but to God we give our all. And since the will of Caesar can conflict with the will of God, we may well end up on “the wrong side of history” – the completely secular History that excludes God.

Hence Simeon’s prediction to Mary strikes with particular poignancy: “[A]nd you yourself a sword will pierce,” all for her fidelity to God’s will and God’s Son. Given all the vagaries in history, Simeon and his fellow Temple devotee Anna remind us that there is only one side to be on in life, and that is the side of Christ.

Joseph Ratzinger wrote that “the same Logos, the creative rationality from which the world has sprung, is personally present in this man Jesus. The same power that made the world is itself entering into the world and talking with us.” In the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, Mary and Joseph gave back to the Father this same power as an act of gratitude. Simultaneously, they show this power to us. His is the power of forgiveness, of redemption, of eternity. Being itself has entered into the history that He has created, not to condemn it, but to save it.

“History” cannot have sides, but it does have an Author whose Word is mightier than any sword, and whose Story is more life giving than any other. And while history will have an end, His Story is eternal. At the altar for the Presentation, we should recall that to history go our theories, but to Christ go our very lives.

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.