Wednesday, 2 February 2011


Tonight it was great to meet with Ripon cathedral ambassadors and music custodians - many people from parishes all over the archdeaconry and diocese who support and take an interest in the life of Ripon cathedral. In preparation for the Candlemas eucharist (Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple at Jerusalem), we meditated on the meaning of Simeon's song - the words spoken over the baby Jesus on the occasion of his presentation. 
Below is the text of the meditation. If you don't like wordy meditations but you'd like to hear Gustav Holst's wonderful 8 part setting of Simeon's Song (the Nunc Dimittis), listen  to it here
If you  prefer poetry to a meditation, go to the amazing poem of the Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky, with its movement from the physical to the metaphysical realm and its striking image of the power of Christ over death at the end.

'The temple enclosed them in forests of stone'
from Joseph Brodsky's Nunc Dimittis
24th December 2008
(web site above)


How many times in your life have you heard those haunting words,
'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.'
Luke 2.29-32

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.

What a wonderful text. You couldn't find a richer one, could you? It's three central themes
  • 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.
Almost too rich a gift for the musical imagination, yet what wonderful things composers have done with it down the ages! So where did these ancient words come from? The Nunc Dimittis is one of a set of three canticles or songs embedded in the narratives of Jesus' birth in Luke's gospel. Three early Christian hymns based closely on Old Testament texts yet pointing forward to the future
  • the song of Mary - the Magnificat
  • the song of Zechariah (John the Baptist's father) - the Benedictus
  • the song of Simeon.
Luke's narrative tells us specifically that Zechariah and Simeon were filled with the Holy Spirit and, of course, Mary had just received the angel's news that her life was to be 'overshadowed' by the Holy Spirit, God's Spirit. These wonderful songs and the characters who sing them represent the turning point between the ancient traditions of the Jewish people and the coming of Christ, leading to the birth of the Christian tradition. They form a link between aspects of the old faith of the Hebrew people (notice the reference to Abraham in the Magnificat and Benedictus - the father and symbol of faith) and the expectations and hopes that surround the comng of the Christ or Messiah - the One who would show the people what God is like. The texts of the three songs together in fact sum up most of the Gospel - the good news that Jesus preached and embodied.

Today is Candlemas 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 very often explicitly mentioned in the gospels.) This baby's birth is the work of the Holy Spirit and it is the Spirit who propels Simeon into the Temple this particular day; after a life of payer, he is finally inspired by the Spirit to grasp the moment and to do what his whole life has been leading to, to recognise and proclaim 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 in the Temple 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 and now 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 candles all around the cathedral tonight will remind us of God's presence and glory.

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? 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 and 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 this at a fmily baptism today - Mary, stunned, stored up these words  in her heart and, harsh as they were, no doubt they helped her to make sense of her strange and unique child's life and to support Him through it.  

This text looks backwards to antiquity; it is based on even more ancient texts behind the Greek text that Luke gives us. It connects us to 5,000years 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 international futures and it whispers the hope of eternal life. It has been wonderfully set to music down the ages. As I said at the beginning, one of my favourite versions of the Nunc Dimittis is Gustav Holst's setting, written for Easter day 1915 for the choir of Westminster Cathedral. Listen to it here

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