Soon after the birth of Jesus Luke tells us about two old people: Simeon and Anna.
Let me tell the relatively younger ones among you that there is no greater thing that the Transport for London Freedom Pass. At first it’s a shock to realise that you’re eligible, and when you go into the Post Office to register you wish that the person behind the counter would look at you and say “Surely not”! But there it is – from now on you can go where you want, and pay nothing at all.
Some people look forward to old age. Others dread it. In the years since the Second World War we made massive strides in ensuring that it would no longer be a time of poverty – sadly that may now be unravelling. Those in paid ministry are generally looked after better than some others. And we have another advantage as well: if we wish, and if our health holds, the exercise of our ministry needn’t stop. In some places – like Swindon, where we had just three retired priests in the whole town – such ministry can be indispensable.
In society as a whole the increasing number of elderly people, and the lengthening of the average lifespan, brings many challenges:
– What is the right age to retire? And who should decides that ?
– What should we then do, in what could be as much as a third of our life?
– When frailty sets in, how do we provide appropriate services, from home support to hospice care?
– How do we respond to the increasing demand for assisted suicide?
– What do we mean by “a good death”?
Perhaps it’s an indication that I’m 65 this year that I sense the church isn’t adequately facing up to such issues, as regards its own members and ministers, and more generally.
But back to the Gospel of Luke
Here, in the setting for this third song, the Nunc Dimittis, we find both the end of life, and its beginning. Mary and Joseph – yes, despite their rocky start they’re still together! – bring their baby son to the Temple. They come because it’s what you have to do – “to do for him according to the custom” – you have to get the baby done. But also they come because they know that they, and this baby, have a special place in the purposes of God.
I know that these days the practice of indiscriminate baptism is frowned upon by many. But still, when faced with a young couple, or a single mum, bringing a new baby to church, how do we respond? Our practices will differ, but it seems to me that the test is whether or not they go away having glimpsed, even having been touched by, the indiscriminate love of God. Remember again those people Luke tells us about: the woman with the flask of ointment, the man with demons exiled to live amongst the tombs, the woman who just needed to touch the hem of his cloak, and, yes, the dodgy tax collector Zachaeus. Deserving nothing. Expecting little. Remember the father waiting on the housetop. The beginning of life, and the end.
There is Simeon, waiting faithfully and patiently all these years, not giving up, believing that God will keep his promise. There is Anna, a widow, now 84 years old, still maintaining the life of prayer.
I recall the old women of the Russian Orthodox Church who kept the faith alive through the Soviet years, quietly passing on the story to their grand children. I remember meeting a woman priest just outside Pretoria in South Africa, well past retirement age, but still running an orphanage for children who had lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, knowing that many of the children would likely die of it too. Later in this Gospel there will be the widow from Nain, bringing her only son for burial, believing that life was over for him and for herself – but finding instead the joy of restoration that foreshadows resurrection.
And there is joy in this story as well. I see the Nunc Dimittis as Simeon’s “Freedom Pass”. What has he found? It’s a simple word, but in the end it’s what we seek above all: Peace. It’s what Luke sees as Jesus bringing here for Simeon (and Anna) at the end, and at the last possible minute, for that dying thief on the Cross (another story which only Luke tells) peace in our hearts and – because Salvation is always deeply personal, and frighteningly political – peace, “shalom”, for all the world.
And of course, it is for everyone. Just as Mary rejoiced that what God was doing included those who had previously been left out, such as the poor and the powerless, so Simeon rejoices that it includes the Gentiles as well as the Jews. How this works out is what Luke will now go on to tell, both here in the Gospel but even more in his second volume on the first years of the Christian Church.
For what is an ending for Simeon and Anna is also a new beginning. Full of hope and promise. But still a struggle. What kind of surprise was it for the new parents to be told that there was trouble ahead? Was it a shock for Mary to be told “A sword will pierce through your own soul also”?
There is nothing simplistic or naive in the story that Luke goes on to tell. He records what happened in the wilderness, on the lonely road to Jerusalem, and in Gethsemane. Always the temptation to take the easier route, the search for success, and ignore those whose needs get in the way of progress. And for those who do not have the eyes to see, there will be the climactic failure of the Cross.
So too for us. The call to be faithful, amidst all the other pressures – to grow the congregation, to pay the Quota, to “get on” in the Church. And so the need, in this Advent season, to focus again on the salvation which Simeon and Ann saw in Jesus, which Luke will unfold for us as we read his Gospel through this coming year. The saving love of God for you, for you just as you are. And for a world which in economic crisis and ecological meltdown cries out for that which alone can set it free.
Let me depart in peace, for I have seen your salvation.