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.
This is one of the lasting legacies of the story of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimitis. Countless Christians over the centuries have felt a great deal of comfort when the Nunc Dimitis has been said or sung. It forms the central canticle of Vespers or Compline and is an integral part of Evensong.
The ‘Feast of the Presentation of Christ at the Temple’, or ‘Candlemas’, falls on 2 February, at the very beginning of this month. It celebrates a very early time in the life of Jesus – when his parents brought him to the temple in line with their customs to present Jesus to God as their first born.
John Pridmore, who used to write regularly for the Church Times suggested in an article some years ago that the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimitis, is almost the equivalent of a mug of Ovaltine. A nightcap guaranteeing a good night’s sleep. So he said, “When it is sung at Evensong or said at Compline – its familiar cadences are like gentle lullabies, easing us into dreamless slumber!”
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” Simeon is satisfied that all he has longed for is fulfilled in the child that he takes into his arms. And the Nunc Dimitis over the centuries has signalled the end of the day, the fulfilment of our activity; the time for rest and sleep.
As wonderful as this is, we miss something absolutely crucial, if this story only provides us with the equivalent of a beautiful lullaby.
For Simeon, this is a time of change, everything he longs for is being fulfilled. Something new is happening. Simeon no longer needs to look back at God’s promises, for the Messiah is now in his arms. The future begins at this point and Simeon looks forward, perhaps to his imminent death, but crucially to the fulfilment of God’s promises.
Candlemas is a time of change for us too. Up to now, as we have been reading from the Gospels each week we have been looking back towards Christmas. Epiphany is the time in which we hold onto the story of Chris’s birth, savour the truth of it, grasp once again that this is the Messiah not just for the Jews but for the whole of creation. Candlemas is the moment when we turn our gaze away from Christ’s birth and begin to contemplate what is ahead. The fulfilment of all that Christ’s birth means, happens in the coming weeks of our Christian year.
At Candlemas, we are at a turning point. Christ’s ultimate destiny intrudes now on our celebration of Christmas and Epiphany and we are called to turn our backs on Christ’s birth and begin the long journey to the cross.
How does Mary feel hearing the words of Simeon that follow the Nunc Dimitis spoken directly to her: “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 you own soul too.”
What does it feel like for Mary to hear her Son’s death sentence? How hard is it to live with that knowledge for 30 years or more? How much harder is it to stand watching as it is carried out? How did she feel? Was her faith sorely tested? How did she cope? At times, we face pain that is beyond consolation. Nothing can deaden the overwhelming pain. C.S. Lewis is his book ‘A Grief Observed’. Tries to convey his own grief at the death of his wife and in the midst of his grief he writes:
“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolation of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”
The pain of the Cross for Mary could well be like this. Pain and grief can overwhelm everything – and pain and grief do overwhelm us.
Candlemas, calls us to turn our eyes away from Christ’s birth and to begin a long walk towards the Cross. In the next few weeks we will begin to prepare for Lent. The story of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple reminds us of the pain of the cross and asks us take the first steps down a road that leads through Lent to Holy Week and Easter.
I guess that the Nunc Dimitis in its context in Luke’s Gospel is a lot more than a gentle night time canticle, for it hides within it the truth of the Cross, the place of our salvation. It calls on us to prepare for the coming of Easter.