There is a great story about the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane. After one utterly extraordinary rendition of “A Love Supreme,” he 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 meet his Maker.
The gospel passage this morning includes what is known as the Song of Simeon, or the Nunc Dimittis. Nunc Dimittis isthe Latin translation of its opening words – now dismiss me, or I now have permission to depart.This canticle, sung at our Morning and Evening Prayer services is like all the canticles – taken directly from scripture. “Lord, you have now 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.”
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior. Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple 40 days after his birth. Like all other observant Jewish parents, they dedicate their first-born son to the Lord, sacrificing – according to Jewish law – “a pair of young turtledoves and two young pigeons.” (Glad we don’t have to do that at baptisms. The clean up would be tough duty for the Altar Guild!) The Law didn’t actually require the child to be present for this sacrificial ritual, but Jesus’ parents decide to bring him anyway.
The 2 elderly people waiting at the Temple are glad they did. Simeon is described as a righteous and devout man who had long been waiting to see the Messiah, whom he calls the “consolation of Israel.” Anna is an 84- year old prophet. She was married for 7 years, then she basically lived at the temple, fasting and praying, for 60 years. When she sees Jesus, she praises God and spreads the word about the redemption of Jerusalem.
I love the fact that the prophets here are octogenarians. We are used to young and fiery prophets like Jeremiah or John the Baptist; here we have senior citizens. Elderly people are sidelined by many, but they still have wisdom and wit to share.
My father is an octogenarian and due to some health issues is in a memory care unit in a small assisted living facility. All the residents eat together. One new resident, a very dignified gentleman whom I’ll call Mr. McMullen, slept late, missed breakfast and woke up right before lunch. He came to the table where everyone was seated, his white hair askew, walked right up to one of the elder women sitting at the table, leaned over and gave her a big kiss on the lips.
The staff and other residents exclaimed, “Mr. McMullen! You can’t do that!” He answered, “Why not? That’s my wife, isn’t it?” The woman was not, in fact, his wife. Then the elderly woman sitting next to the lady who got the juicy smooch on the lips, leaned over and said, “Wow – I bet that’s the best action you’ve had in a long time!”
Pope Francis asked us to consider Anna and Simeon as senior citizen prophets. This older woman and man have just met the new parents Mary and Joseph bringing their baby Jesus to the Temple. He said, “It is a meeting between young people who are full of joy in observing the Law of the Lord, and the elderly who are filled with joy for the action of the Holy Spirit. It is a unique encounter between observance and prophecy, where young people are the observers and the elderly are prophetic!”
So, what do Simeon and Anna prophecy? Or rather, whom do they prophecy? Perhaps that have lived 8 decades on this earth and come to the conclusion of Solomon, another wise elder, who says in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” They were looking for hope, meaning and truth and found it in Jesus, the consolation of Israel.
Simeon and Anna are not alone in finding hope in Jesus Christ. When that child grew up, people thronged to him. They couldn’t get enough of Him. They wanted to be near Him. They wanted to hear him, touch him, and see Him. People still do. There have been somewhere between 3 and 4 billion people since that day in the Temple who have found their consolation in Jesus Christ. Why?
There are a multitude of reasons, but I’ll offer one. There is a description of a character named Oliver Ward in Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, that hints at this reason. “He understood human weakness…. He didn’t blame people.” It is so easy and tempting to expect others to be perfect and to blame them for their shortcomings, isn’t it? But, all that does is drive a wedge of judgment between you and your spouse, child, friend, you name it.
People thronged to Jesus, because He understood human weakness. He didn’t blame people for being…. people. Not only is He the consolation of Israel, He is your consolation too. The reason to come to church is to say for yourself, “these eyes of mine have seen the Savior.” And if you feel you haven’t had a real encounter with the man Himself, there is no time like the present. There is now no need to wait until you are an octogenarian.
I’ll close with the story of another man who did meet the Savior at the end of his life. It’s the story of Francis Gilmer and it comes from Mike Dickens’ excellent Like an Evening Gone, the history of Christ Church at our 200th anniversary. Gilmer was the first professor of Law at UVA and Thomas Jefferson’s protégé. He was an accomplished man of the world. One of the most erudite scholars of his era, Jefferson sent him to Europe to choose the UVA faculty. He was remarkably successful, but returned to Charlottesville in broken health.
In Gilmer’s biography, as well as all his correspondence with Jefferson, there was no evidence of his Christian faith. And yet, Gilmer donated Christ Church’s first communion silver in 1826. We still use it every week. What made him give that gift?
We know the answer from his brother’s account of Francis’ final days. Francis lay dying of tuberculosis at Farmington, his uncle’s estate. Just before he died, he shared his previously hidden faith in Christ with his brother.
“He said he died a Christian, that he believed in Christ and had prayed to Him for the last two years. That he believed in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and that he had read the Bible more than anyone of his age in Richmond and requested us to make it known to his relatives.” Francis Gilmer, man of the world, had seen the world and discovered it to be vanity of vanities. In the end, he found his consolation in Christ. These eyes of mine have seen the Savior.
Mary and Joseph did not have to bring Jesus to the temple that day. All they needed to do was bring the turtledoves and pigeons for sacrifice. That sacrifice was a sign of the sacrifice that was to come. As were Simeon’s cryptic words to Mary “a sword will pierce your own soul.” The sword that would pierce Mary’s soul would be the death on the cross of her son. He would become the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. For not only did Jesus not blame people, on the cross He took the blame for people.
Look then, now and always, to the cross. “Lord, you have now 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.”