Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 3 February 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Nunc Dimittis. Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.
Like all the best things in life, we take the Nunc Dimittis for granted. It’s always there. The Nunc Dimittis is said or sung every day at Evening Prayer. It is the canticle which has its place in the great narrative of the Presentation in the Temple, described by St Luke and celebrated by us over the last day or two as Candlemas. It is one of three great canticles from the infancy of Christ, the Magnificat, the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis. It is said, as you know, by the elderly Simeon when he meets Joseph and Mary who are bringing the child Jesus to the temple “for their purification according to the Law of Moses”, and I do find it remarkable, and a great tribute to the stability of Western Christendom that we’re still singing these canticles now, their truths being explored in so many musical settings. T.S. Eliot had a shot at this with his poem, A Song for Simeon. For Eliot the Nunc Dimittis was about conversion, the old man Simeon holding the answer to his prayers in the form of a child in his hands, while being aware that he, Simeon, is never going to see and understand the full meaning of this child’s life, the Infant is “the still unspeaking and unspoken Word”, but nevertheless mine eyes have seen thy salvation, there is this physical connection, which is enough for him:
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
Eliot’s poems don’t always speak to me, but I think he would have understood us better than others. He wrote that he considered himself a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion: a toxic trio of loyalties now guaranteed to have you everywhere instantly no-platformed.
All that led me to wonder what is the particular appeal of this short canticle. It doesn’t say much, but it does look both backwards and forwards in time, just as we might, in a meditative moment, wonder what our past and our future add up to. For example, “mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the face of all people” is a pretty direct quotation from Isaiah, “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” [Is.52.10] Simeon looks back to a promise made before his birth, and to a revelation of glory which will happen after his impending death. All that, while for a few moments he holds the child in his arms. In other words, we take our place in the history of the world, we see God’s revelation of Himself, and we are content with that. That is why, I think, the Nunc Dimittis is such a safe choice for funerals and why mourners noticeably relax at that point, allowing the coffin to leave the church. “… depart in peace.” This is not some complicated divine peace which only Christians can get to know, it is just a formal, traditional farewell: go in peace. Simeon is satisfied that God’s salvation has appeared on earth, even at the point of death, which for those of his time meant oblivion. So there grew up an early Christian tradition that Simeon went as a herald into the underworld to announce that the promised Messiah was on his way.
The Nunc Dimittis settles into our minds so easily, because Simeon is an archetype, that is to say that the figure of an elderly wise person holding a divine child is an image which enters some deep place in the soul, which is always receptive to such symbolism. Just think grandparents, it’s all there. It’s the poignant meeting of opposites, childhood and old age. But the writer of the Gospel expects us to take this a little further, to be more creative, more imaginative. So the younger one, the little child, is the older, because his origin is the eternal God whose kingdom knows no end; and the old man is the younger because his life with Christ, taking the child in his arms, has just begun. That’s how we are to think, and there’s more. The Nunc Dimittis is a beautiful haunting song, a quiet moment in the Temple, what Jesus was to call His Father’s house, yet across the scene falls the shadow of the Cross. Another pair of opposites, the beauty of a baby boy and the disfigurement of the body on the Cross, for Simeon warns Mary that her son is to be a sign of contradiction, a sign spoken against, (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.
So maybe there’s another reason why we like to come here week after week to hear the Nunc Dimittis. It is a moment of calm in the storm of life which is out there. But I leave you with one thought about that. Simeon held Jesus in his arms and saw him with his own eyes. The light to lighten the Gentiles is actually a person who is held and loved. And there is the glory which Simeon foretells, the glory we see for ourselves when those whom we meet reveal to us the direct presence of Christ on earth.