Candlemas – John Conway, Provost – 2nd February 2020

Malachi 3.1-5; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40

Our Gospel reading tells of the meeting between the old and the young. Across the generational divide, in the Temple, the young and the old come face to face. The old are represented by Simeon and Anna; two people who have prayed and longed and waited in the temple for a moment of revelation, of hope, of salvation; the young are both Jesus himself, at this point a wee scrap just 40 days old; but also Mary his mother. We’re never told her exact age but you get the sense that she is still quite young, a new mother, still full of the hope and expectation and promise of youth. For me that is never clearer than in the song that bursts forth from the pregnant Mary when she greets her cousin Elizabeth. The song of acclamation, hope, desire, celebration that we know as the Magnificat. Channelling the Jewish prophetic tradition, Mary names in that song the action of God in our world, in history: ‘He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’ Mary’s Song is joyous, celebratory, but surely, if we take it seriously, more than a little uncomfortable. It’s the song of a young person, giving voice to the questioning, insistent voice of faith that demands change, revolution even – when, O God? For the mighty still rule and the poor still wait, but hope springs eternal, change is coming, even if it’s not yet, it shall be. It celebrates a God who will save us from the idols of Mary’s and every age: money, power, status. Mary gives voice to the yearning of the young that things can’t stay like this.

And in the temple, Mary meets Simeon and Anna. And seeing the 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.’

In contrast to the Magnificat, Simeon’s Song, the Nunc Dimittis, is a prayer of the old, or at least that’s one way of seeing it. It is perhaps the genius of Evensong, offered as the prayer of this place night after night, that it brings these two contrasting Songs alongside one another. After the defiance and the energy of the Magnificat, its desire for change, the Nunc Dimittis celebrates the fullness, the completeness of the 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 willaccomplish, here is a celebration of the presence of God in the here and now. In this Christ child, lying in his arms, 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, we should note, my eyes have seen my salvation, but your, God’s, salvation. Salvation, for Simeon is not a possession, a trophy to be acquired, a merit to be earned through his patient waiting. When it comes, in the flesh and blood of this child, salvation is a gift. A gift established in relationship, in flesh and blood meeting flesh and blood; in the intimacy of an old man cradling a child. Simeon has 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’. To pray the Nunc Dimittis is to recognise this moment 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 ‘this is what it 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.

I hope you recognise and have known such moments – cradling a child certainly; during a conversation that touches depths, where there has been a sharing and an opening up that humbles both parties – the presence of God then can become very vivid; up a mountain with the world before you; on a bus suddenly feeling the preciousness and the humanity of all those around; in the rhythm of prayer of this place, God doesn’t always feel close and present, but there are always moments. Moments when the ordinary becomes extraordinary, becomes sacred. Such moments are certainly not the preserve of the old, but there is something about the way Simeon’s Song connects such moments with an ability to let go, that suggests this can be the gift of the old; a seeing, shorn of cynicism, sustained by hopeful waiting, that recognises the presence of God in all its fullness. The Nunc Dimittis invites us to stop, to contemplate and simply know that salvation and love of God beyond words, sustaining and upholding us and all creation. It is Simeon’s gift to Mary: the gift of the old to the young.

One member of the congregation mentioned to me yesterday that she had been reminded of Simeon’s words when she had attended a youth climate strike demonstration – there was fire, demand for change, youthful idealism that named what still needed to be done; and for her, more advanced in years, a profound sense of seeing that future; that it will be alright – not in a patronising sense of wondering what they were getting worked up about; but in knowing the challenge that lies ahead, also knowing that there is the spirit to cope and respond. 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; it allows hard truths to be named and shared, across the age divide.

We need both the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. We need, in our age when the old and young can seem to be at loggerheads, to hold both together. For the church exists for both, to bring young and old face to face; to hear the voice of both. Faith consists in holding both perspectives together: action and contemplation; passion and peace; proclaiming Word and nourishing sacrament; salvation sought for our world and salvation known here and now. We need both the prophet and the mystic. We need both to know the presence of Christ, feel and know it in bread and wine; recognise and name the light of the world, as we shall do in our Candlemas celebrations, and then be sent out to do God’s work in the world that is not yet all that it might and shall be. Amen.

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