The Masai Mara. The Grand Canyon. The Great Barrier Reef. These are, according to a TV show a few years ago, three things you must see before you die. Actually, they’re just three out of 50. Not only was the BBC show 50 Places to See Before You Die popular, but books with that title have been on bestseller lists ever since.
In fact, the show seems to have spawned an entire new genre. As well as things to see before death, there’s a host of other things to add to the list: “100 Things to Do Before You Die,” which includes getting a tattoo and milking a cow; “100 Things to Eat Before You Die,” such as a hot dog (fairly easy to get hold of) and crocodile (perhaps harder). The idea has become a growth industry. Dozens of books and websites urge you to complete their lists, offering albums to listen to, movies to watch, sensations to experience. And the lists go on.
Feeding Our Fear
That this genre has all been so successful reveals something significant about ourselves. It flags what has become a great concern for many. We want to experience the best of what’s out there before it’s too late. It’s a first-world problem: for those of us who don’t worry about putting a roof over our heads or food on the table, our greatest fear seems to be getting to the end of life and feeling we’ve not gotten our money’s worth.
According to an article in The New York Times, one of the main culprits is “Instagram Envy.” The nature of a site primarily for sharing pictures is that it tends to be the really nice pictures people share—that particularly attractive meal, holiday scene, or cute moment with the kids. The cumulative effect of all these images is that our own normal lives look pretty drab by comparison. We’re left with the impression that everyone else’s life is more glamorous and pleasurable than our own.
And it’s all feeding into the ever-growing pathology, Fear of Missing Out (#FOMO to those who know about such things)—an anxiety prevalent enough to be the subject of study by a group of Oxford psychologists.
We’re increasingly desperate not to miss the best of what’s out there, and plagued by the fear that we might be.
Seeing Who Simeon Saw
Into this context steps the intriguing figure of Simeon, not one of the better known supporting cast from the Christmas narratives in Scripture. But we mustn’t overlook Simeon. He’s a man ready to die. Not because he’s unhappy, or feels he’s been dealt a bad hand, but precisely the opposite: he’s satisfied. Simeon has seen everything he needed to. He’s ready to go. He’s completed his list.
And, amazingly, his list had only one thing on it.
The success of 50 Places to See Before You Die quickly led to the bestselling book 1,000 Things to See Before You Die (people live longer these days, I guess). But for Simeon there is just One Thing to See Before You Die: “Lord, you are now letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29–30).
There was one thing for Simeon to see before he died. Just one. Salvation.
Simeon, we’re told, was a devout Jew (Luke 2:25). He knew the world isn’t right, not the way it was meant to be—the way we intuitively sense it should be. He could account for this because he knew the Old Testament. He knew humanity wasn’t right with God, and he knew God had promised to fix that, to put the world—and us—to rights. God had promised salvation. And now Simeon had seen that salvation. It had come.
But it had come as a baby.
It’s not unusual for us to say ridiculous things about babies and infants. A baby gurgles something unintelligible and throws a spoon on the floor and an overenthusiastic parent declares it’s evidence of genius. But Simeon isn’t an over-the-top parent. The child isn’t even his. Before this moment they hadn’t met.
But while holding a baby, Simeon can say he has seen God’s salvation. We must not misunderstand. Simeon isn’t claiming babies are where human hope is to be found. It’s not what this child is, but who this child is that’s significant. Not his infancy, but his identity. This baby, this person, is God’s salvation.
To the child’s mother, Simeon adds these ominous words: “And a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35).
There’s huge sorrow ahead for Mary, the deepest sorrow for any mother: seeing her son die. The greatness that lies ahead for her child, the rescue God will accomplish through him—all of this will come about through his death.
This may not be the Christmas present we’d expect. But it’s the present we most need. And it all begins with the arrival of this baby.
It turns out there’s just one thing you need to see before you die.