Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.

Fr Alec
Sunday, February 5, 2017 - 9:30am

Familiarity with Scripture is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it is a precious thing to have the wisdom of God at our fingertips; to have words and phrases that spring to mind unexpectedly and help to set our lives in context – help us to see our experiences through God’s eyes. On the other, we can become over-familiar with Scripture. It can wash over us so that we cease to hear it for what it is, or allow it to change us as it should.


Such I think was the case for me with the Song of Simeon, which we hear today Luke’s gospel. ‘Lord now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace…’ The canticle Nunc Dimittis, which we recognise from Choral Evensong, or perhaps from the many funerals at which it is read. I was so accustomed to it in a particular context that I had stopped thinking about what it really meant. So coming back to it this week, and particularly turning back to the original Greek text of Luke’s gospel has opened up for me something new, and rather more radical.


I think I had read it before as a kind of song of fulfilment. Simeon has at last done his work, and now he can go peacefully to his grave knowing that the work to which he was called on earth has been accomplished. Jesus’ parents have brought Jesus to the temple to redeem their first-born son from the Lord by the appointed sacrifice like the pious Jews that they were, and Simeon recognises him as the Christ, the anointed successor of David, for whom he had been looking so long – ‘for mine eyes have seen thy salvation…’ Now he can be at rest.


But here is the remarkable thing. As I worked through the original text, I found first of all that the word ‘Lord’ was not, as I had been expecting kyrios, which was the title commonly used for God (as in Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy), and also a term of general respect, like ‘Sir’ for a teacher or the head of a household. No, Simeon instead calls God despota, (from which we get the word ‘despot’) with all its connotations of absolute authority and power. It implies an altogether different relationship, especially when we find that Simeon is not strictly speaking his ‘servant’ (diakonos) at all, but his doulos, his ‘slave’. Overall, an alternative translation might be:


‘Now you are releasing your slave, Sovereign Master, as you promised, in peace.’


And this makes me think that Simeon’s words are about more than just the satisfaction of a job well done, or a life well lived.


People often take St Paul to task because he shows what often seems to be a very casual acceptance of the institution of slavery. But this is a sign of the times. The Roman world, of which Judea was undoubtedly a part, was utterly dependent on slavery, and a slave was an accepted part of the household. Slaves would cook and clean, they would perform complex clerical work, and they would die for entertainment in the gladiatorial arena. But they were not citizens, they did not enjoy protection under the law, they were disposable possessions.

But there was nevertheless the possibility of relationship between master and slave. Bonds of affection were not uncommon, nor was it especially rare for a loyal slave to be freed, and to continue in service as a freedman – a paid employee.


You see, God is not just ‘letting him depart’ like a boss seeing his employee leave on a Friday afternoon, he is giving him his freedom. He is manumitting a slave, setting him at liberty. Certainly, the prophet Simeon has fulfilled his calling, but in doing so he has become aware of a fuller and deeper Liberation with significance both for himself, and far far beyond himself. In this child the possibilities in the relationship between God and the world are changing.


In John’s gospel, at the Last Supper, as Jesus bids a long farewell to his disciples, he says: “I no longer call you slaves, because the slave does not know what the master is doing. Instead, I have called you friends…’ The bonds that bind them to him are not bonds of obligation or obedience, they are bonds of love, given and reciprocated. This is a relationship that they are called upon to extend far and wide. In Simeon’s words, we hear the beginning of God’s invitation to approach Him in a new way in Christ, and the ultimate sign of this will be the self-emptying sacrifice of God on the Cross.


The Presentation at the Temple is one of those moments in the gospels, like the Transfiguration, or Jesus’ baptism, where the veil is lifted, and Jesus is not just seen, but revealed. Where the clock seems to stop, and his eternal significance is made clear, and the onlooker sees him as the merciful redeemer and Judge that he is destined to be. Here, even as his family celebrates the arrival of this new child they receive a foretaste of what his life will bring with it. We glimpse the shadow of the cross. The sword that will pierce his mother’s soul, the sign that will force us to choose where our lives are directed.


It is no coincidence that Candlemas is carefully poised between Christmas and Holy Week, for here Christ is both the Light coming into the world and the one whose sacrifice will redeem the world. ‘The light of revelation to the nations and the glory of God’s people Israel’ is like the pillar of fire that led the Hebrews through the darkness as they picked their way through the wilderness out of slavery in Egypt and towards the Promised Land. Here, God is acting decisively in the lives of His people ushering in a new and startling freedom that is ours either to accept or to reject.