Nunc dimittis

When Christmas lands on a Friday, there is a kind of jumble of action for a working preacher. The worship service for the 1st Sunday after Christmas has to be planned before Christmas. The worship bulletin will need to be printed and folded in addition to the bulletins for the Christmas Eve services early in the week. Then the preacher has to make the shift from the big Christmas Eve services to one of the lightest attended services of the year. There will be a few visitors, but the choir is probably going to be taking a week off and the congregation will be small as families engage in what was, for most, a three or four day weekend. All of this is being managed behind the scenes, mostly unnoticed by the congregation. In addition, the preacher needs to balance family and work as the holiday is important to the preacher’s spouse and children. It was a balance that I often missed. I had a tendency to lean a bit too hard on the work side sometimes, often not spending enough time with my family, or being distracted by the mental preparation for work when I was with them.

It is vastly different for preachers this year. Many of them are working in settings where there is no in person worship and quite a few of them prepared the video for today’s worship before Christmas. Christmas is a season in the church, lasting 12 days, and most years there are two Sundays during the season, so the themes of Christmas keep flowing. However, the days after Christmas Eve are moments when the church is running counter to the culture. Retail businesses are moving on from Christmas as quickly as possible. Valentines Day displays go up the day after Christmas. Many people take down their decorations before New Years Day. I’ve been asked on many occasions, “Why are we still singing Christmas Carols?” Sometimes the person asking the question noticed my reluctance to sing too many Christmas Carols during Advent.

It can be a confusing time.

Today’s Gospel text reflects the complexity and confusion of the season. In Luke 2:22-40 the Gospel describes the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. This was a special time for a family with a new baby. The ceremonies included the formal naming of the child and the entrance of the child into the faith and traditions of the ancestors. It was usually the first public viewing of the new baby and there were lots of people who were eager to see the child. In the story of the Gospel, the focus is on two elderly members of the congregation, Simeon and Anna. The reading includes a poem or song that was uttered by Simeon at the event. Since the 4th Century, or shortly after the institution of Christmas as an official holiday of the church, the Song of Simeon has been known as the Nunc dimittis, from the Latin Vulgate translation of the passage, which begins, “Now you dismiss.” The song has been used in many regular services of the church, especially evening prayer services. It is usually read at the very end of the service as the people are preparing to leave: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace according to your word. For my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared before all people to be a light to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.”

It is one of those cases where the scriptures and traditions become jumbled. In the King James Version of the Bible, common and beloved among English speaking Christians, the words of the Song of Simeon in Luke are exactly the same as the words of the Book of Common Prayer. While the tradition is that the Book of Common Prayer took the words directly from the Gospel, it isn’t quite that simple, because that specific wording was in the Book of Common Prayer before the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. It is probably most accurate to say that the worship traditions informed the Bible and the Bible informed the worship traditions.

In our tradition these words are often said just prior to the benediction at a funeral.

Life is like that. Birth and death, youth and age all come face to face and are mixed up in our hearts and minds and memories. People, however, don’t want to hear a funeral sermon on the first Sunday of Christmas.

The thing about all of this is that this year, when I am retired and not responsible for a sermon today, I feel very connected to that particular text. As a grandfather who has been given the luxury of more time with my grandchildren, I am deeply aware of the deep joy that comes from the children. We often think of elders teaching children, and we do assume that role, but there is another dimension that I didn’t understand before I became grandfather. We receive more from the infants and children in our community than we give to them. They give us energy and enthusiasm and joy and peace in ways that are amazing and wonderful. Yesterday when I made arrangements to spend some time with our grandson this afternoon, his excitement couldn’t be contained. He was literally hopping up and down. His mother said, “I love your energy, but be careful. You are shaking the table.” I was able to just enjoy the energy. His mother was capable of protecting the items on the table.

My father lived to meet eleven of his grandchildren face to face. Our son was grandchild number 12. Susan was pregnant when my father died. I had to assume the role of a bridge between generations, showing our children pictures of my father and telling his stories to them. There is no question in my mind, however, that my father did “depart in peace.” His eyes had beheld the glory that enlightens the entire world. Tomorrow would have been his 100th birthday and it will be a day to remember with deep joy.

When my time comes, I know that I, too, will be able to depart in peace. Like Simeon, I’m grateful that I was allowed to live to see the children. They light the path forward for all ages.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!