FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS Luke 2. 22 – 40
27 December 2020 St Dunstan’s Camberwell
THE PRESENTATION IN THE TEMPLE
Our gospel reading this morning from Saint Luke chapter 2 tells the story of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem when he was 40 days old. So, still a very little baby, less than six weeks old. They go so that Mary can receive formal purification after childbirth as was the custom, and so that Jesus could be ritually redeemed as a firstborn son under the law of Moses. In the Temple they meet two people, Simeon and Anna, advanced in years, who each in their own way recognise Jesus for who he is—not just a baby, but the Saviour of all humankind.
Let’s focus here on Simeon. Saint Luke tells us that he was a righteous and devout man. He must have been either living in Jerusalem or at least was in the city at the same time as Joseph and Mary because he comes into the Temple when they do. Simeon, we learn, has been hoping for many years with all his heart that the people of Israel will be freed by God. They will be released from their oppression under the Romans and given comfort and solace in their suffering. In the story, Simeon takes the baby Jesus in his arms. He has hoped, he has believed that Israel will be saved and now his hope, in the shape of a baby, is here, full of life and promise and he is holding it in his arms. The messianic hope for Israel has arrived.
Simeon then prays the great prayer known in the Christian Church as the Nunc Dimittis.
29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
We can see the words of this prayer which we heard in the gospel reading up on the screen. The prayer is called the Nunc Dimittis because that is the Latin translation for the first two words, ‘now you are dismissing’
THE NUNC DIMITTIS
If we look at Simeon’s prayer it has a very simple structure.
First, Simeon addresses God as Master. Then there is what we call an imperative verb. That is, a verb which is an instruction. Our Bible translates this as more like a present continuous verb ‘now you are dismissing your servant in peace’ but literally in the Greek it is an imperative, more like ‘now release your servant’. In fact, the traditional translation which we were familiar with in choir anthems and the like is probably more accurate: ‘lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. Let me now go, Lord, Simeon says.
Then Simeon gives a reason for this departing: ‘for my eyes have seen your salvation’,
And then the prayer tells us what the salvation is like:
- It has been prepared in the presence of all peoples.
- It is a light for revelation to the Gentiles. In other words, it reveals the truth to all peoples,
- And it is indeed brings glory to the people of Israel’.
Simeon sees the baby Jesus and he can speak of salvation. The Messiah has come. It is Jesus and he will reveal the truth about God to all people, and bring glory to the people of Israel.
In the eyes of the other people standing nearby in the Temple, Simeon’s experience probably meant nothing. They would have seen nothing out of the ordinary. Just a poor family bringing their firstborn son there —the same as thousands of other families had done. But we know from what Saint Luke writes that Simeon has been enabled to see by faith and the Holy Spirit. He can now ‘see salvation’ as the words say. Simeon was granted that grace which in the Scriptures is called ‘the opening of the eyes’ or the ‘opening of the heart’. He was able to read in the simple event of Jesus being brought to the Temple, that the time God’s salvation is now. Simeon’s waiting has ended in peace. The light of the Gentiles has not yet been made visible to all the nations, the glory of Israel is not yet present, but it will be. In the baby Jesus. Simeon is seeing salvation.
So Simeon says, I think, ‘Lord, it is enough! I have seen all that I have desired and my heart is over-flowing: all my desires have been fulfilled!’
The Nunc Dimittis is one of the most loved and cherished prayers of the Christian Church. It is often said as the last prayer of the night before going to sleep and it is said at the time of death.
NEWNESS OF LIFE
We might ask ourselves how we could model our own prayer on the example which Simeon has given us.
Notice how Simeon waited with faith and confidence and great patience praying for salvation to come to him and his people. Do we pray with faith and confidence for our own salvation and for the salvation of all people?
Salvation is a word which as Christians we use very broadly. Sometimes we use it to mean where we will spend eternity, what will happen to us at death. At other times we mean something more like our salvation right now – our life and other people’s lives being given meaning and wholeness and completeness— in body, mind and spirit— in this life, now. So, salvation has a meaning that relates both to the future and to the present.
Are we praying regularly for Jesus to come to us, and to others, to make us whole? Do we take our own need for salvation seriously? Do we pray for our own salvation and for the salvation of all people?
I think that Simeon’s prayer also encourages us to pray that our eyes may be opened to that we can catch glimpses of the glory of Jesus Christ in our midst, of Christ’s salvation at work in the here and now.
Where might we see these signs of Christ’s glory? I think we need to pray that we are enabled to see them in our own life—in the ordinary and the extraordinary things that happen in all our lives. And we need to pray that we can see Christ’s salvation at work in our experience of the Church—that is not to say that the Church won’t quite often disappoint us, but it also at times shows forth Christ’s glory. We can catch glimpses of Christ’s glory, of salvation at work in our fellow Christians, in the experience of the Eucharist, in the beauty of creation. I think we should pray that in all these things we may learn to see the sign of God’s glory and the working of God’s salvation.
We need to pray that our eyes are not resolutely closed but remain open. We need to pray like Simeon.
May your Christmas season continue to be a time of joyful prayer.
The Lord be with you.
Bishop Alison Taylor