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Nunc Dimittis

Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, January 29th, 2017

We tend to treat the Nunc Dimittis – Simeon’s song with the infant Jesus in his arms – like a mug of Ovaltine, as a nightcap guaranteeing a good night’s sleep. \it’s what is sung at Evensong when the day’s work’s done and at Compline when it’s time for bed. The familiar4 cadences are like gentle lullabies, easing us onto dreamless slumber.

‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’ Simeon is satisfied that all he has longed for is now fulfilled in the child in his arms. He’s an old man. His life is now as light as a feather on the back of his hand and a puff of wind will blow it away (‘A Song for Simeon’, T.S.Eliot). Now he can contentedly take his leave, in the sure knowledge that his saviour has come.

As we sing his words we catch his mood and our own worries begin to drain away. All’s well. We can curl up and go to sleep.

Simeon, we read, was looking to ‘the consolation of Israel.’ This term was used to describe the Messianic age. It takes up the cry by which an unnamed prophet announced his message of hope to the exiles in Babylon. ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’ (Isaiah 40:1). Simeon had craved that promised comfort. Now salvation is in sight, not only for his own people but for the Gentiles too. Now at last he can go to God with a serene heart.
But if our impression of Simeon himself is of a contented figure with an unequivocally comforting message, then we’ve mistaken our man. We’ve sung his song too often and with too little regard to its setting. ‘The Song of Simeon’ ceases to sound like soothing mood music if we return it to its context and take account of what he actually says about the child he’s holding. His words to Mary paint a darker picture.

People believed that the promised ‘consolation’ would follow the path mapped out by the prophet. Theirs would be the destiny he had foretold. They too would rise to triumph from bitter servitude. For them too the wilderness would rejoice and the desert blossom. They too would exult over their oppressors, who would watch this mighty act of God in abject awe.

Simeon foresaw an altogether different fate for Israel: not a sunlit highway but the valley of the shadow of death. The end may be glorious, but the path will be a via dolorosa. The doom of Israel is presaged in this baby, born to be a crucified King. Simeon speaks of light and glory, but also of the ‘falling’ as well as the ‘rising’ of many in Israel. It will be, as Eliot has it, ‘the time of cords and scourges and lamentations’. Simeon’s words anticipate what this child himself will one day say: ‘The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45).

For Mary herself, there’s little comfort in Simeon’s words. The sword, thrust into her son’s side, will pierce her heart also. Simeon turns out to be a much less reassuring figure than we have made him out to be, and the ‘Presentation in the Temple’ and altogether more disturbing event than we had supposed.

A truer account of Simeon’s meeting with the child and his mother is given by the Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini (c1459-1515). He wrestled with the significance of the story of Jesus as few artists have done, other than Rembrandt himself. His study of the Presentation, now in Venice’s Querini Stampalia Gallery is a great masterpiece. Looking at it, we see this scene as for the first time.

An unsmiling Simeon reaches out to take the infant Christ. We are unused to seeing babies swaddled and to us the bands, which hold him so tightly, seem like cerements. He appears to be already prepared for burial – which in a way he was. Mary seems abstracted, as if continuing to ‘ponder in her heart’ what had been told her concerning her child. Two women standing by are lost in their own thoughts. One of them is turning away. Is she unaware of what unfolds beside her? Or is the burden of it too much. Joseph – it must be Joseph – stares intently, almost angrily, at us from out of the picture. He seems to say, ‘Do not for one moment suppose that you understand what is happening here.’

Simeon sought consolation. But there is pain beyond consoling, as Mary found. Others, such as C.S.Lewis, have found that to be so. In his famous ‘A Grief Observed’ published in 1961, he wrote: ‘Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen, submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolation of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.’

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