The Presentation of our Lord: Malachi 3:1-4; Ps 84:1-6; Hbrw 2:14-18; Lk 2:22-40
A sermon preached at St. John’s Montgomery, AL on February 2, 2014.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Like many children this was the prayer I prayed every night as my mother tucked me into bed. It was followed by a list of those I wanted God to bless”those I loved and those I didn’t like very much. Often the length of that list was determined by how sleepy I was or at least how long I wanted to procrastinate from turning out the lights and actually going to sleep.
As a child, I didn’t understand how death played a role in putting me to sleep each night. Death’s role was not intimidating or scary, but comforting”if I couldn’t be with my parents, then I could be with God.
That childhood prayer was simple in its rhyme, but consistent and became foundational in my learning intercessory prayer. Though juvenile, there are still nights, rare as they may be, when I pray this little prayer and it brings me great comfort.
Simeon’s prayer, the Nunc Dimittis, is the grown up version of my childhood prayer:
Lord, you now have set your servant free
To go in peace as you have promised.
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
Whom you have prepared for all the world to see.
A light to enlighten the nations,
And the glory of your people Israel.
I was first introduced to this prayer as a canticle sung in Compline when I was a little girl at Camp McDowell. I didn’t understand its truth and beauty at the time, nor was I familiar with its origins. But there was something about it that meant something to me. Maybe it was because it was the only canticle sung every night or maybe because its poetry sends us to a deeper place of comfort and reassurance and somehow I had connected with that.
I have no doubt that for Simeon, it was that deep place of comfort and reassurance which sparked such words to come from his mouth. Simeon is righteous and devout”he follows the law and he listens to the prophets. He has spent his life looking for the promised Messiah”the consolation of Israel”and the Holy Spirit has promised him that he will see the Messiah before he dies.
So Simeon practices his religion and trusts in his inspiration and one day, that inspiration guides him to the temple and a child is brought in and that child fills Simeon’s heart with the light of salvation. Simeon sees what others are still blind to, he knows that truth has just entered in, the one desired by all nations, the one who will reveal his justice to the Gentiles.
Simeon understands that the Messiah that he now holds in his arms is sent not just to the Israelites, but to all nations and the words that flow from his mouth open a new era and look to the fulfillment of the future.
What Simeon understands in that moment of promise-fulfillment is not that he will die in peace as he has seen the Savior, but that we all might now die in peace as the Savior has come to release us from the hold that death has had over us. The baby Simeon holds in his arms is our salvation; he is Emmanuel, God with us.
Simeon immediately recognizes what Paul tells us in the letter to the Hebrews; Christ must become incarnate so that he can die just as we die. And it is in Christ’s death that he deals the death-stroke to the devil and his power over us, liberating all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.
All men die and man cannot conquer that death. But Christ, by becoming man and only by becoming man could and does conquer death. And in his conquering of death he is not only the consolation of Israel, but of all the nations. Simeon recognizes this upon seeing the Christ child, holding him in his arms and after praising God for God, he blesses the Holy Family and returns him to his mother; warning her that though she is the Theotokos, the mother of God, it will not be an easy path. He foreshadows the suffering that she will experience through the sufferings of her son”a sword will pierce your own soul too.
Simeon has been granted a revelation and understands the consequences of this fate. He sees the face of salvation and knows deep in his heart the joy and sorrow that has been revealed to him. And in that moment he knows peace: that peace which passes all understanding because it can only be known when we see the face of God. But along with that peace comes a heaviness of heart. As T. S. Eliot puts it in his poem A Song for Simeon:
According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.
Fulfillment, peace, rest. These are the things that we long for. But they come at a cost. A life well lived is not a life without suffering. It is a life full of pain and a life full of hope. It is a life in which pain draws us closer and teaches us that we are not alone, that we need each other, that the sword that will pierce our hearts has pierced the one made incarnate for us.
And that is our hope, knowing that Christ came down from Heaven, was made incarnate by the Virgin Mary, suffered and died as one of us to defeat the power of death, and rose again to give us eternal life. That is our fulfillment, our peace, our rest.
Simeon’s song becomes the prayer of the Church when day is done and night has fallen, when we have seen the face of God in the people we meet, when the Holy Ghost has inspired us and we have known our own consolation.
And Simeon’s song is more than a prayer, it is a lullaby with which the Church sings itself to sleep because it is the quintessential prayer of Christian hope and praise; offering our true desire for refreshment of sleep and rapture in waking, not only in this life but in the one to come as well.
And that is why at the end of Compline, after the Song of Simeon, we pray:
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in peace. Amen.