02 February 2018
‘The dayspring from on high has broken upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness’
Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas, the climax of the Christmas and Epiphany season. It is a feast rich in meaning, with several related themes running through it – presentation, purification, meeting, and light for the world.
The various names by which it has been known in the history of the Church serve to illustrate just how much this feast has to teach and to celebrate.
But the true meaning of Candlemas is found in its ‘bitter-sweet’ nature. It is a feast day, and the revelation of the Christ Child in the Temple, greeted by Simeon and Anna, calls for rejoicing.
Nevertheless, the prophetic words of Simeon, which speak of the falling and rising of many and the sword that will pierce the Virgin Mary’s heart, lead on to the passion and to Easter. Coming at the very end of the Christmas celebration, with Lent close at hand, Candlemas is a real pivot in the Christian year.
The traditional Bidding Prayer for Candlemas says:
Dear friends, forty days ago we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we recall the day on which he was presented in the Temple, when he was offered to the Father and shown to his people.
As a sign of his coming among us, his mother was purified according to the custom of the time, and we now come to him for cleansing. In their old age Simeon and Anna recognised him as their Lord, as we today sing of his glory.
In this Eucharist, we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion.
So let us pray that we may know and share the light of Christ.
Three years ago, at a celebration of Candlemas in the Chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, instead of a sermon, I read TS Eliot’s poem, A Song for Simeon, based on the canticle Nunc Dimittis, and one of two poems written at the time of his conversion over 90 years ago, in 1927.
Eliot titles his poem A Song for Simeon rather than A Song of Simeon, the English sub-title of the canticle in The Book of Common Prayer, and it is one of four poems he published between 1927 and 1930 known as the Ariel Poems.
In Journey of The Magi and A Song for Simeon, Eliot shows how he persisted on his spiritual pilgrimage. He was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England on 29 June 1927. Journey of the Magi was published two months later, and a few months later Faber published A Song for Simeon in August 1927.
Both Journey of The Magi and A Song for Simeon draw on the journeys of Biblical characters concerned with the arrival of the Christ-child. Both poems deal with the past, with a significant epiphany event, with the future – as seen from the time of that event, and with a time beyond time – death.
The narrator in Journey of the Magi is an old man, and in that poem, Eliot draws on a sermon from Christmas 1622 preached by the Caroline Divine, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626). A Song for Simeon is also put in the mouth of an old man, the prophet Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem. Here too, Eliot draws on a Christmas sermon by Andrewes.
In both poems, Eliot uses significant images to explore the Christian faith, images that are also prophetic, telling of things to happen to the Christ Child in the future. In both of these poems, he focuses on an event that brings about the end of an old order and the beginning of a new one.
A Song for Simeon (TS Eliot)
Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.
Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.
Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.
According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.
Almighty and everliving God,
clothed in majesty,
whose beloved Son was this day presented in the temple
in the substance of our mortal nature:
May we be presented to you with pure and clean hearts,
by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the tender mercy of our God
the dayspring from on high has broken upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The peace of the Lord be always with you
And also with you.
And now we give you thanks
because, by appearing in the Temple,
he comes near to us in judgement;
the Word made flesh searches the hearts of all your people,
to bring to light the brightness of your splendour.
God, for whom we wait,
you fulfilled the hopes of Simeon and Anna,
who lived to welcome the Messiah.
Complete in us your perfect will,
that in Christ we may see your salvation,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.
Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace to trust his promises and obey his will;
and the blessing …
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