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Christmas 1

Sunday, 31 December 2023
John Conway, Provost

To pray the Nunc Dimittis is to recognise for ourselves those moments when ... God simply is; when the wrestling and the waiting and the searching is over, and we know, we know that God is, that God is for us, that God loves us.

Christmas 1

Isaiah 61.10-62.3; Luke 2.22-40)

Our Gospel reading tells of the meeting between the young and the old. Mary and her young child come, with Joseph, to the Temple. There to be met by Simeon and Anna; two elderly people who have prayed and longed and waited in the temple for this moment of revelation, of salvation. And seeing the young Christ child, the old man Simeon takes him into his arms and praises God:
‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
to be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.’

That version of Simeon’s Song is of course the Nunc Dimittis, the prayer sung most evenings in this Cathedral, as in churches across the Anglican Communion, alongside the Magnificat, the Song of Mary. After the hope, the defiance, the energy of the Magnificat and its desire for change, the Nunc Dimittis celebrates the fullness, the completeness of this present moment: ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace … for my eyes have seen your salvation.’ Instead of a sense of the not-yet of God, what God will accomplish, Simeon celebrates the presence of God in the here and now. In this Christ child, lying in his arms, given to us at Christmas, is the fullness of God, always-already present in and for the world. Here is peace for God’s servant. Here is salvation, light, glory, the fulfilment of the ancient promise to Abraham. Not, my eyes have seen my salvation, but your, God’s, salvation. Salvation is not a possession, a trophy to be acquired, a merit to be earned through patient waiting. When it comes, in the flesh and blood of this child, salvation is a gift given to all, recognised by Simeon. He and Anna have waited long years in the temple, but now the waiting is over, and he can let go, depart, secure in the knowledge of God’s salvation: ‘mine eyes have seen’. In this flesh and blood meeting; in the intimacy of an old man cradling a child, the gift is recognised, named and known. To pray the Nunc Dimittis is to recognise for ourselves those moments when the world is lit up by God’s grace, when what is before us pulses with God’s life and light; when we feel the world as God’s creation and gift; when we can say ‘now I know what life is all about’; when God simply is; when the wrestling and the waiting and the searching is over, and we know, we know that God is, that God is for us, that God loves us. After the splendour and joy of our Christmas celebrations, this is a Sunday to rest, and with Simeon to rejoice in what has been given.

Of course, there are challenges to come, as there will be for us and our world as 2024 looms into view. As Simeon goes on to say to Mary: This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ The moment of recognition is not merely consoling or comfortable; but as we stand on the brink of a new year, a year full of unknowns, this is a moment to rest in the knowledge that, as Julian of Norwich asserted, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

That sense of the fullness of the present moment, that it is enough - especially for the old and those not yet so worn down by cynicism that they, we, are still open to the gift – that prayer and possibility is beautifully conveyed in T S Eliot’s poem, A Song for Simeon. It was written shortly after his much better known, Journey of the Magi, but addresses this other Epiphany – this moment of revelation that carries us into the new year.

A Song for Simeon
by T S Eliot

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have taken and given honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

According to thy word,
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.


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