A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne
on the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple—Candlemas—2 February 2014:
Simeon’s song, which stands at the heart of this morning’s Gospel reading (St Luke 2.22-40), is one of the focal pointsof our prayer life here at St Paul’s. Almost every evening, at the close of the business day, our Cathedral choir sings the words Simeon first sang when holding the infant Jesus in his arms in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. For me his Song, often known by its Latin title, Nunc dimittis (Now you are dismissing your servant) has become inextricably linked with the timeless cadences of the Book of Common Prayer:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace:
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation:
which thou has prepared before the face of all people.
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles:
and to be the glory of thy people, Israel.
Whether we hear these words sung set to music by some of the most inspired composers in our Cathedral as the Moorhouse Tower windows reflect the evening light, or whether we pray them alone in our homes at the close of the day, these words have shaped the prayer life of generations. They say almost all there is to say about what it means to know Jesus.
Simeon, we hear in this morning’s Gospel reading, was a ‘righteous and devout man’, who had spent most of his life waiting for the coming of the One who was to set Israel free from sin (St Luke 2.25). He was a man who lived his life in the power of the Holy Spirit, we hear; a prophet who had waited expectantly for the new age to dawn. The poet T.S. Eliot, in his Faber Christmas series of poems that also included the famous poem The Journey of the Magi, lent an imagined voice to the Jerusalem prophet in his A Song for Simeon: ‘My life is light, waiting for the death wind,/ Like a feather on the back of my hand’, Eliot imagines Simeon proclaim. People who wait in prayer sometimes do develop that lightness as of a feather as if they are waiting for the wind to carry them over to another, more permanent, eternal place. People sometimes do develop an other-worldliness that makes it seem as if they almost retreat into themselves; adopt a ‘stature of waiting’.
I experienced something of that otherworldly holiness when I met Mother Teresa of Calcutta towards the end of her life. Then, Mother Teresa was a bent-over woman, who looked extremely frail and weak. It was a miracle, I thought, that she was able to walk at all, so frail did she look. Yet she radiated a powerful spirituality that could not go unnoticed. When she was asked what kept her going in her ministry among the poorest of the poor of Calcutta, she fumbled in the folds of her habit and pulled out her rosary. She didn’t even have to say ‘this—my prayer life—keeps me going’. In fact she said nothing. But everyone present understood. Mother Teresa had retreated into a world of prayer, a world of the Holy Spirit; the world in which Simeon had lived most of his adult life.
From the time he entered fully into the Temple’s life of prayer, Simeon knew that his life would be one of expectant waiting. He understood that ‘he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah’, we read in our Gospel reading (St Luke 2.26). We don’t know how old Simeon was but, because he had been called to spend his life waiting for the Messiah, many assume that was an old man by the time his time of waiting had come to an end. What, I wonder, would it have been like at that moment in his life? Simeon had been waiting for this moment for much of his life. During his time of expectant waiting he may have increasingly retreated into his inner self. Certainly he would have developed a strong inner centre of prayerfulness: a stature of expectant prayer that can sustain someone who waits for a long time. A stature of prayer that in itsekf is sustained by the Holy Spirit, which ‘rested on’—and in—‘him’, as our gospel reading tells us (St Luke 2.25).
The kind of waiting Simeon practiced was not one of killing time; as for instance in a queue in a shop, or at a bus stop. Nor was it the waiting of annoyance that we experience, say when a train runs late or when we are held up in a traffic jam. Rather, over the years Simeon had developed a ‘stature of waiting’. A stature that was his calling: his waiting was his life’s mission; waiting for the Messiah fulfilled his life. Simeon did not wait fearing that he might miss out on other important things, but rather he waited with expectation. His deep desire that he would behold the coming Messiah would have sharpened this prayerful waiting. Simeon lived life in a constant state of expectation, and looked out for the signs of the Messiah even in the most unprepossessing circumstances and the most humble people.
And then, some time around the turn of the millennium, a young couple brought their new-born son to the Temple, to have him dedicated to God, as the Jewish law prescribes. And Simeon knew that the purpose of his life—his stature of lifelong waiting—had come to an end. He made his way into the Temple sanctuary and there, holding the child Jesus at the place of sacrifice, he sang the song that has become the church’s song of prayerful waiting fulfilled. And Mary and Joseph saw the dedication of their son, heard Simeon’s prophetic song and were ‘amazed at what was being said about their child’, we read (St Luke 2.33).
Simeon knew that his life would probably end with the coming of the promised child: the Holy Spirit had ‘revealed to him that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah’ (St Luke 2.26). Now his lifelong wait was over; God’s moment had come. Simeon had beheld the child. And held him in his arms. Now he was ready to depart; ready to be carried away, like a light feather by the wind, to his eternal home: ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace’, he sang, praising the God who sustains our expectant waiting (St Luke 2.29).
People whose prayer life is so attuned to the voice of God the Holy Spirit sometimes can become like Simeon. They may begin to live their lives like he did, in a stature of waiting; drawing strength from the spiritual centre that lies deep within them. Over time, they have become very familiar with their inner being—their stature of waiting has given them an opportunity to wait on themselves, too; has given them the strength to befriend, to nuture their inner world. And so their inner selves have become for them an inner spiritual resource; a source from which they draw the strength to carry on their life’s mission—waiting on God; waiting for the moment of God in their own lives; expectantly looking out for the signs of God in their own lives.
Like Mother Teresa, that buckled up little woman whose ministry to the slum-dwellers of Calcutta has become as legendary as her powerful spirituality, so Simeon may not have had to wait long for his death. Like Simeon, Mother Teresa died in harness. Like Simeon, it seemed as if she simply slipped away; was as if she just retreated into that inner self that she had explored in her expectant waiting on Jesus. And, when the time had come for her to go, it seemed as if she simply closed the door to the world around her. Simeon, likewise, may have just slipped away; we certainly don’t hear of him again in Luke’s Gospel. Holding the Christ-child in his arms, he stands on the threshold of that door into the depths of the spirit-filled world that sustained him through his life, and he is ready to shut the door behind himself.
Like Simeon, we all are called to adopt this stature of expectant waiting; the ability to draw on the strength of our soul-life. We may not ever hold the Christ-child in our arms. But like Simeon we can behold him, can listen to him in the words of Scripture and through the unspoken words of the Holy Spirit. Like Simeon we, too, can befriend the spaces in our deep inner selves, and shape there for us a re-treat; nurture within us the source of holiness and grace that the Holy Spirit wants to give all who serve God through prayer and waiting. Like Simeon, and countless other people of prayer like him, we are invited to nurture within us a living space for God; a space into which we can retreat at the last—when our own calling in life has been accomplished and when it is time for us to let go; when it is time to tread lightly, become as light as feather on the back of a hand waiting for the breeze to carry us over to a new, an eternal, world.
At the crossroads of this year, as we prepare for our long journey to Easter, I pray that the coming weeks will be a time to discover, befried and nurture your inner selves. In the midst of your busy lives you may not find it easy at first to adopt the stature of expectant waiting that shaped the lives of Simeon or Mother Teresa at the end of their lives. But even in a busy life, you may have time to make your own Simeon’s song of expectant waiting for God. This season, I invite you to pray his prayer as pledge of your openness to God’s will for you. Pray his prayer also as a sign of hope for all of us: that the God who sent Jesus into the world would continue and conclude his work of transformation among us.
As we turn from Christ’s birth, I pray that you and I may enter deeply into the mystery of his Passion: the mystery that God sent his only Son, the light to lighten the Gentiles, the glory of God’s chosen people, Israel. As our gaze shifts from the miracle in the manger, to the triumph of the cross; I pray that we will be sustained on our journey by the firm promise that God seeks to share his eternal light with each one of us. And as we prepare ourselves to celebrate the new life of Easter, I pray that each one of us will come to behold his salvation. Amen.