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Nunc Dimittis

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Dec 27

Text: Luke 2: 22-40

So we just heard and read that today is the 3rd day of Christmas. Makes sense, right, if you count Christmas as the first day. But if you’re an Anglican or a Lutheran, the “12 Days of Christmas” or Christmastide begins the day after December 25th so today can also be considered the second day of Christmas. No matter how you count, our text for today explains at least 1/12th of the mystery of the well known carol! Did you notice the reference in our reading from Luke? As they were bringing Jesus to the temple for dedication, Mary and Joseph brought a pair of turtle doves for a sacrifice! Let’s sing it. On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. Whether this scripture really has anything to do with the song is anyone’s guess. Believe me I spent way too much time searching about it on Google and found nothing remotely conclusive. The carol has been around for centuries, is sung in many cultures and has multiple versions, including one that has 12 bells a ringing, 11 bulls a beatin’ and 10 asses racing! The fact remains though, that at least according to some Christians, today is the second day of Christmas. Today is a day when we have two turtle doves in our reading. And, perhaps most serendipitously, today is when the Amirana family have brought their own child of God to church for a blessing. Friends, we couldn’t have planned all this even if we tried!

Now, I wonder how many of you are familiar with the passage I just read. In mainline churches, it’s typically read only once every three years on the Sunday after Christmas, which is not known for breaking any attendance records. That said, one line from this text may be more familiar. It’s often called the Canticle or the Song of Simeon. In Latin, it’s known the Nunc Dimittis. Nunc, meaning, now. Dimittis, meaning dismiss, or “go in peace” from verse 29:

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
Your word has been fulfilled.
My eyes have seen the salvation
You have prepared in the sight of every people,
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.

If you grew up Anglican or Catholic, you may know it like the back of your hand. Since the 4th century, this New Testament hymn has been a staple of church liturgies, particularly for services at day’s end -at vespers, compline, or evensong. It’s inspired poems by TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. It’s given rise to soaring musical settings by Bach, Rachmaninoff, Gustav Holtz or Thomas Tallis, whose version we hear our choir sing each year at our January 6 Epiphany service. If church and classical music isn’t your thing, there’s also this story told by Os Guiness, in his book, The Call, about the great jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane:

After one utterly extraordinary rendition of “A Love Supreme,” Coltrane stepped off the stage, put down his saxophone, and said simply “Nunc dimittis.” … Coltrane felt he could never play the piece more perfectly. If his whole life had been lived for that passionate thirty-two minute jazz prayer, it would have been worth it. He was ready to go.

Can you imagine this feeling? Have you ever experienced it? If we haven't had the pleasure of living it already, (Peter, I’m looking at you!), the feeling comes at that moment when our greatest expectations, our highest hopes, our most audacious dreams and indeed our God given purpose have been completely and utterly fulfilled! And yet for Simeon, it wasn’t about an individual masterpiece nor even about some sublime, albeit divinely inspired human accomplishment. It was about something far more profound, even cosmic. It was about God’s working within human history to achieve salvation and redemption for all humanity! Simeon, and the Prophetess Anna too, could see what God was doing, the masterpiece that God and Mary had birthed in Christ Jesus. Simeon knew. Somehow he knew the good news that Jesus would bring to a broken world that would yet be led and guided by his light. Simeon’s joy is palpable, and so is his faith and trust, both in the reality of God’s presence held cradled in his arms, and the promise of God’s future!

Now he has been dismissed to go and die in peace. You see, old Simeon had been waiting his whole life to catch a glimpse of the Messiah. By the Spirit, he knew he would see the bright light of his salvation. A devout Jew, he may well have been reminded of the words we read from Isaiah – that salvation is like a burning torch! Now, his chance had come to hold it, to hold the child, a radiant and burning light, the revelation of God, for all to see. The Messiah, his Savior, had come! It didn’t matter that he wouldn’t live to watch him grow and share his light with all peoples. He even seems aware that Mary and Jesus would suffer and fall before they would rise. But there was something about this moment, this encounter with that days old baby, that led him to sing out - ‘Lord, now you let your servant go in peace…for my eyes have seen the salvation of the world!’
One glimpse, and he knew everything he needed to know! One touch, and he knew he and the rest of world would be ok, that all would be well! Can we even begin to imagine having that kind of assurance? In such a time this, can we even begin to imagine such hope! Friends, Christmas offers us just that beginning. We too have been handed a burning torch, in the Christ child. With the eyes of faith, we too can not only imagine but know that our salvation has come and that there is yet soaring hope for our world as we seek to follow his ways of mercy, justice and peace.
I had come to this point in my sermon prep when I came across a poem that I found deeply moving. It’s an exquisite retelling of our passage that was written in 1972 by the Nobel Prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky. It’s called Nunc Dimittis and it offers a far better exegesis and interpretation than I could ever hope to give. I hope you’ll agree that it bears reading in full. I’ve left a few copies at the doors for you take after the service. As you listen now, notice where you are sitting, in this sanctuary of vaulted ceilings. Remember what we just witnessed in the baptism and dedication of Julia Amirana, the hopeful joy of that moment. See if you too might catch a glimpse of what Simeon saw, and see if you too might hold that light, and that peace, and that confidence in what the future holds for us, if not at the end of a long and full life, then at least at the end of a very long and very full year.

‘Nunc Dimittis’ by Joseph Brodsky

When Mary first came to present the Christ Child
to God in His temple, she found—of those few
who fasted and prayed there, departing not from it—
devout Simeon and the prophetess Anna.

The holy man took the Babe up in his arms.
The three of them, lost in the grayness of dawn,
now stood like a small shifting frame that surrounded
the Child in the palpable dark of the temple.

The temple enclosed them in forests of stone.
Its lofty vaults stooped as though trying to cloak
the prophetess Anna, and Simeon, and Mary—
to hide them from men and to hide them from Heaven.

And only a chance ray of light struck the hair
of that sleeping Infant, who stirred but as yet
was conscious of nothing and blew drowsy bubbles;
old Simeon's arms held him like a stout cradle.

It had been revealed to this upright old man
that he would not die until his eyes had seen
the Son of the Lord. And it thus came to pass. And
he said: ‘Now, O Lord, lettest thou thy poor servant,

according to thy holy word, leave in peace,
for mine eyes have witnessed thine offspring: he is
thy continuation and also the source of
thy Light for idolatrous tribes, and the glory

of Israel as well.' The old Simeon paused.
The silence, regaining the temple's clear space
oozed from all its corners and almost engulfed them,
and only his echoing words grazed the rafters,

to spin for a moment, with faint rustling sounds,
high over their heads in the tall temple's vaults,
akin to a bird that can soar, yet that cannot
return to the earth, even if it should want to.

A strangeness engulfed them. The silence now seemed
as strange as the words of old Simeon's speech.
And Mary, confused and bewildered, said nothing—
so strange had his words been. He added, while turning

directly to Mary: ‘Behold, in this Child,
now close to thy breast, is concealed the great fall
of many, the great elevation of others,
a subject of strife and a source of dissension,

and that very steel which will torture his flesh
shall pierce through thine own soul as well. And that wound
will show to thee, Mary, as in a new vision
what lies hidden, deep in the hearts of all people.’

He ended and moved toward the temple's great door.
Old Anna, bent down with the weight of her years,
and Mary, now stooping gazed after him, silent.
He moved and grew smaller, in size and in meaning,

to these two frail women who stood in the gloom.
As though driven on by the force of their looks,
he strode through the cold empty space of the temple
and moved toward the whitening blur of the doorway.

The stride of his old legs was steady and firm.
When Anna's voice sounded behind him, he slowed
his step for a moment. But she was not calling
to him; she had started to bless God and praise Him.

The door came still closer. The wind stirred his robe
and fanned at his forehead; the roar of the street,
exploding in life by the door of the temple,
beat stubbornly into old Simeon's hearing.

He went forth to die. It was not the loud din
of streets that he faced when he flung the door wide,
but rather the deaf-and-dumb fields of death's kingdom.
He strode through a space that was no longer solid.
 
The rustle of time ebbed away in his ears.
And Simeon's soul held the form of the Child—
its feathery crown now enveloped in glory—
aloft, like a torch, pressing back the black shadows,

to light up the path that leads into death's realm,
where never before until this present hour
had any man managed to lighten his pathway.
The old man's torch glowed and the pathway grew wider.

Beloved in Christ, may the deep faith and abiding hope of Simeon and Anna be ours in these twelve days of Christmas and into the new year. May the torch that is now ours to carry glow ever brighter and may the pathway through the shadows ahead grow ever wider! Thanks be to God, for unto us is born a Savior, and our eyes too have seen his salvation, God’s glory in our midst, God’s joy to the world! Amen.

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