'Lord, now you let your servant go in peace,
Your word has been fulfilled,
My own eyes have seen your salvation,
Which you have prepared before the face of all people,
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles
And the glory of your people Israel.'
What do these words evoke for you? Memories of school? Your favourite cathedral choir? The scents and light of a summer evening? The dark shadows of a winter night? Or you may think of John le Carre's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the haunting theme tune from the TV adaption. Or T. S. Eliot's rather dark poem A Song for Simeon?
If you're a clergy person then the chances are you've read those words hundreds or thousands of times as you've led the coffin from the church after a funeral. 'For my eyes have seen your salvation..' the hope toward which life is directed.
- peace - personal and between nations
- salvation - the hope that God's purposes will triumph
- glory - the full slendour of God, the shimmering presence (or 'shekinah,' the Hebrew word) of God among the people.
- the song of Mary - the Magnificat
- the song of Zechariah (John the Baptist's father) - the Benedictus
- the song of Simeon.
Candlemas is when Christians all over the world remember the bringing of the infant Jesus into the Temple for his dedication - the occasion on which Simeon utters the words of the Nunc Dimittis. It's a strange story veiled in the mists of time and half-forgotten legend. Who was Simeon? Who was Anna? Where did they come from? Why do they seem to have a special prescience - they know things, they see the future. The text tells us that the Holy Spirit has promised Simeon he will not die until he has seen the Saviour. This strange story is pervaded throughout by the Holy Spirit who is mentioned three times (unusual, in that the Spirit is not often explicitly mentioned in the gospels.) This baby's birth has been the work of the Holy Spirit and it is the Spirit who propels Simeon into the Temple on this particular day. After a life of payer, he's inspired by the Spirit to grasp the moment and to do what his whole life has been leading to, namely to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, the One uniquely sent to show people what God is like. And Anna, the old prophetess is also wise, supernaturally wise beyond all knowing. Notice the gift that accrues to the Christ child from her encounter with him is that he 'grows in all wisdom'. Simeon and Anna are Spirit and Wisdom. This moment is the culmination of their lives, the moment toward which everything they are has been moving. Having seen Jesus and spoken the words of Spirit and Wisdom, they are liberated to 'go in peace'. The Spirit shimmers in the shadows of the Temple; the glory, the shekinah of God is present in the Temple just as our candlemas candles remind us of God's presence and glory in the snowy depths of winter.
And yet...that is not the whole story. The radiance and the peace are shot through with a very real sense of fear and warning. Isn't is true that often our most glorious moments are tinged with an awareness of human frailty and mortality? An anxiety that present joy and assurance will pass? Certainly these emotions are present here. In Simeon's words, there is an awareness of the struggle in this child's life that will lead to the cross. There's an acknowledgment, ahead of time, of the struggle His life will bring to individuals and nations . 'And a sword will pierce your heart,' he says to Mary. 'Many will oppose him' and He will bring division to the world. A moment of painful prescience and luminosity, a fore-knowing and a forth-telling. Just imagine the priest saying something as disturbing as that at a fmily baptism today. Mary, stunned, stored up these words in her heart and, harsh as they were, no doubt they helped her make sense of her strange and unique child's life and to support Him through it to the foot of the cross.
This text looks backwards to antiquity; it's based on even more ancient texts behind the Greek text that Luke gives us. It connects us to 5,000 years of Jewish and Christian history. Yet it looks forward and warns of what is to come in Jesus' time and of what, for us, is still to come yet. But more than that it invites us to live our lives as a part of what will happen within the complexity of God's purposes. In Lutheran churches, this song is sung or read after the congregation have received communion. It forms a dismissal - 'go back out into the world in peace and live as those who expect and are beginning to know God's salvation; show the glory of God in your living, the beauty of souls rescued from the worst excesses of human behaviour and the luminosity of lives given to God.'
No wonder this text speaks so profoundly to our experience, appeals to our hearts and to our intellect. It travels with us from our deepest and most ancient roots to our personal and communal and global futures and it whispers the hope of eternal life.