2nd February 2020

Malachi 3.1-4 Psalm 24.7-end Hebrews 2.14-end Luke 2.22-40

BISHOP DOMINIC was fond of illustrating his sermons with stories. The only one I can remember was of a little boy who asked his grandfather how old he was. “I’m 83” the old man answered. The little boy thought, and then said, “wouldn’t want to be 83″‘ To which his grandfather gravely replied, “You would, if you were 82.” You will understand why this is the one that sticks in my mind!

Today’s gospel gives us a picture of two people seemingly nearing the end of their life, Simeon and Anna. We are told Anna’s age: she was 84. So, being in my 84th year, though neither woman, widow, nor prophet, like her, I can identify with her. We also think of Simeon as old. ‘Old Simeon’, our offertory hymn calls him; and the hymn after Communion describes him as ‘his aged voice upraising’. TS Eliot wrote a poem, A Song for Simeon, in which he calls him ‘one who has eighty years and no tomorrow’. But, unlike Anna, we are actually told nothing about Simeon’s age.

What we are told about Simeon is that he was ‘righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him’. And, inspired by the Spirit, he came into the temple just when when Mary and Joseph were bringing Jesus there. This links Simeon with Anna, who also came ‘at that very hour’. The gospel emphasises her devotion: ‘she did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day’. Both Simeon and Anna recognise the six-week-old baby as the unlikely fulfilment of all their longings, and the longings of their people. ‘My eyes have seen your salvation,’ Simeon rejoices; and Anna, giving thanks to God, speaks of the child ‘to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem’.

What Anna actually said, we are not told. But Simeon’s words are recorded, and have become well-known and well-loved as the shortest — and perhaps the most touching — of the gospel canticles which are used in the Church’s daily worship. The Nunc dimittis, we call it, from its opening two words in Latin, ‘or the Song of Simeon’, the old (1662) Prayer Book helpfully adds. We use it at Evening Prayer, after the reading from the New Testament, in which, by God’s grace, we, too, are led to recognise the fulfilment of God’s promises and our human yearnings in the person of Jesus Christ.

‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace … ‘. People often misunderstand this. During Advent and Christmastide (which ends today), I have been following a book for that season by Rachel Mann, a priest and poet. Her version of the Nunc Dimittis opens: ‘Lord, now let your servant depart in peace …’. TS Eliot, a devout Anglican (a Churchwarden, in fact), ends his poem (which he puts entirely in the mouth of Simeon) with: ‘Let thy servant depart, having seen thy salvation.’ But Simeon’s prayer is not a request. It is not a supplication, asking to be allowed to die in peace. It is a prayer of thanksgiving, rejoicing that that is what God has done. ‘It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ’. ‘Now,’ exults Simeon, I have seen your salvation Nunc dimittis means, ‘Now you are setting free …”Now welcome, sweet release, as our hymn paraphrases it. The coming of Christ releases Simeon from his lifelong search. He can die in peace, because he has recognised in Christ the light of the world — for his own people, God’s ancient people, and for those of all nations.

Including us. We shall be able to die in peace, if we have found in Christ the mercy, the healing, the joy our hearts long for. That does not stop us, as long as life is sweet, hoping to reach another birthday. But it means that we need not fear if we don’t. Even so, we probably do not relish the prospect as gladly as Simeon did. To help us towards that, we need, like him, to make God more consciously a reality in our life. We cannot, as Anna is said to have done, spend all our time in church, but we can refer all that we do to God, in reliance on his strength, and as the offering of our service.

We should not put off making a will, settling our material affairs, to our last years. (We do not know hen they will be.) Nor should we neglect spiritual matters until old age. Then we may hope to meet it, and what lies beyond, at peace with God. And Nunc Dimittis may appropriately be sung at our funeral.