157 30.1.11 Simeon and Anna Cliburn Candlemas
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
'Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.'
We sing the Nunc Dimittis at every Evensong. As with so many things that we say regularly, there's a danger of saying it thoughtlessly. Equally, there's always the possibility that a word or phrase from it will suddenly strike us in a new way. That's why I got you to sing the metrical version of it as a Gradual hymn. A new version can bring a new insight, often quite unexpectedly.
The use of this passage of Scripture in regular worship goes back at
least as far as the 4th century. In Evensong, we have the Magnificat,
the Song of Mary, between the OT lesson and the NT lesson. This, of course,
neatly links those two readings, Mary, if you like, being the 'bridge'
between the OT and the NT. And after the NT lesson we have the Nunc Dimittis.
As we read the words of the NT we can give thanks for the Incarnation
and for God's revelation of Himself to us in Jesus. And whilst we may
not be expecting to meet our Maker imminently, as Simeon and Anna perhaps
thought they were, we can say with them: 'Lord, now lettest thou thy servant
depart in peace.'
But what I really want to focus on today is the first line of that metrical version we sang: 'Faithful vigil ended'.
We don't like talking about death. We avoid using the word wherever possible. Nowadays, most of us expect to live a long and busy life and we don't want to think about what happens at the end of it. We find grief very hard to bear, whether it is a child's grief for a much-loved pet, or an older person's grief for the death of a long-time spouse or friend. All that the rest of us can do is to be there, perhaps hold their hand, perhaps listen, but mostly just be there if we are wanted .
And interestingly, if we go back to a time when death could come suddenly
and at any age, when the loss of children was common (as it still is in
many parts of the world) the grief is still just as great.
We know of many instances where people have lived long and fulfilled lives, where perhaps they have got to the stage of feeling that they've had enough and are ready to move on, where their passing is still mourned. We know of people who die 'in the saddle'. A French conductor died a few days ago during an orchestral rehearsal of Beethoven's 'Eroica' symphony. They had completed the first movement and were about to embark on the second, the Funeral March, when he collapsed. And another Frenchman, Louis Vierne, collapsed and died at the organ console at Notre Dame in Paris just as he had finished an organ recital, with the pedal note his foot fell on reverberating around the building.
Reason says 'why be sad: these men died after a long and successful life,
doing what they wanted to do and doing it well.' But reason doesn't come
into it. The shock and sadness will have been great. They will have been
What, then, of Simeon and Anna? Simeon, we have just been reminded, was 'righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel'. This phrase is a term that was used among Jews to refer to the expected Messiah. The Greek word used here, 'paraklesis' is effectively the same as that translated elsewhere as 'comforter' - 'parakletos'.
And it had been revealed to Simeon that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. 'Guided by the Spirit', we are told, he came into the Temple just when Jesus was brought there. Simeon recognised Jesus and spoke these famous words, the 'Nunc Dimittis'. Mary and Joseph were amazed. After all that had happened to them, you'd have thought that there was no more scope for amazement, but apparently there was.
And Simeon went on to say that many in Israel would fall and rise, and that Jesus would face opposition, and that Mary herself would suffer grievously. And what about those crucial words in the Nunc Dimittis: 'a light for revelation to the Gentiles.' That was a battle which was going to be fought in the early church long after the first Easter, but here was old Simeon saying it. Did anybody notice?
We are told that the prophet Anna was there as well. She was enormously
old for that time. She had been a widow for a very long time and she had
spent her widowhood in the Temple worshipping, fasting and praying. She
also recognised the child for who He was and spoke about Him 'to all who
were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem', or perhaps more simply,
to anyone who would listen!
To both of these people, it had apparently been revealed that they would indeed see the Messiah. Both had maintained their vigil over many years. Neither of them could have had any idea of how long they would have to wait. Open-ended waiting can be very difficult. Even on the most trivial level, before the days of mobile phones, you might be expecting a visitor and you'd be concerned that they had not arrived at the time you expected. Once they arrived and explained about the little delay on the way, it would all seem to be of no consequence, but before that you'd have been worrying and able to think of nothing else.
Simeon and Anna had waited, worshipped, fasted and prayed for year after
year. Surely they must have had their doubts at times. Surely they must
have wondered whether it was all a mistake. But when it happened, there
was absolutely no doubt.
What about us? What about you and me? Are we waiting as they did? Are we worshipping, fasting and praying? Do we have doubts? Do we wonder whether it is all a mistake?
If anybody puts to me the direct question, 'Are you a Christian?', my
answer has to be that I try to be. I try to do as I have been taught.
I try to live by the principles on which I was brought up. I know perfectly
well that it doesn't always work. But there is always that something inside
that encourages me to go on trying. We all have our difficulties. They
are all different. But I suspect that we all know that 'still, small voice'
that sometimes seems so still that it's not there at all, but then it
What do we do then? One thing we might do is turn to our Bibles. It has been said that you should never simply 'read the Bible': you should either study it or leave it alone. An interesting thought. There are times when the passage listed in the Lectionary seems to make little sense in isolation, and there are other passages, which tend not to appear listed for Principal Services, which make no sense, or indeed fly in the face of what we see as common sense and certainly don't correspond with our time and place.
It's easy to make fun of some passages. It's easy for the opposition to use them to 'prove' (to their satisfaction) that we are all living under a misapprehension, all wasting our time.
But then, if we care to take the trouble, we can look into the time and place at which they were written; we can look into the social conventions of the time; we can try to work out what the writer was really trying to tell us. And then it so often drops into place and we realise that it tells us something useful in our time and place and culture.
All this is meant to help us through our personal 'vigil'. None of us knows when we will meet our Maker. Simeon was privileged to know that he would see the Messiah before he died. That is not on offer (as far as I know) to us here. God shows Himself to us in various ways and at various times, but in the sense of meeting Him and facing His judgement, we know not.
Our vigil is necessarily open-ended. We must wait, and we must try to be ready, as Simeon and Anna were. A Social Trends survey, reported in the paper on Friday, tells us that 72% of the population of England and Wales calls itself Christian. 32% of these, that is about 23% of all respondents say that they 'actively practice' their religion.
In round numbers, ¾ of the population calls itself Christian, but only ¼ does anything about it. We must hasten to avoid being judgemental, but equally we must be sure that we do indeed do as Simeon and Anna did.
Since we are in the season of weaving Jesus' parables into our sermons, there's no better one than that of the Wise and Foolish Virgins or indeed the Wise and Foolish builders. The bridesmaids who did not keep sufficient oil for their lamps found themselves shut out when the bridegroom at last arrived. They were insufficiently prepared for the long wait.
And the foolish builders, who built their houses on sand, found that, when the storm came and the floods, their houses were washed away, while those on proper foundations stood the test.
So we must continually ask ourselves, 'Are we prepared for the long haul?' 'Is our faith built on firm foundations of prayer and meditation and study?'
Or (parable no.3) are we like the seed which is scattered on the shallow soil, so that it springs up enthusiastically at first and then dies at the first blast of heat or the first storm and flood?
And those storms and floods might come at any time: personal disaster,
loss of job, accident, bullying at school when it gets known that we go
to church (and even sing in a church choir), bereavement, distractions
like having to pay the mortgage............... I could go on. We all know
how easy it is to put on one side something that can wait, something that
hasn't got a deadline. 'I'm too tired now: I can read my Bible tomorrow.'
'I must get the tea ready. If there's time later on I'll look up the Bishop's
notes on the Diocesan website and do some preparation for the Lent Group.
(That's assuming the babysitter arrives so that I can go to the Lent Group.)'
I don't think we need any more examples or any more parables. The message is clear. Simeon and Anna maintained their vigil, not just sitting and waiting, but worshipping, fasting and praying.
Are we doing that?
And now to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, dominion and and power henceforth and for ever. Amen.