Text: Luke 2:22-40
The opening chapters of Luke read a bit like a Broadway musical to me. Many of you acknowledged having enjoyed ‘Come From Away’, playing in Toronto these days. This week I watched a documentary from Gander Newfoundland, which doubled in size for a couple of weeks after 9-11, with grounded planes.
You can transform any story with great musical poetry, strung together with bridges of less plausible narratives. Each time a new character is presented and sketched broadly, you know they are about to break into poetry and song. Corny? Somehow, it keeps getting reinvented in each generation.
The angels speak to Zechariah and to Mary. Mary sings ‘Magnificat’ in response and Zechariah chants ‘Benedictus’. The angels sing ‘Gloria’ to the shepherds. Simeon recognizes Jesus and sings ‘Nunc Dimittis’. All the Latin labels reflect the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition, in canticles set to music in churches.
(Some scholars suggest that these opening chapters originate in the Jerusalem church, which ended when the Romans levelled the temple and expelled Jews in 70CE. The community in Syria who produced ‘Luke’ preserved this much of a vibrant liturgical tradition, ready to translate and set to new tunes.)
My version is absorbed from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, through its use in the 1930 Hymnary of the UCC, and stuck in my brain like this:
now let your servant depart in peace
according to your word.
For my own eyes
have seen the salvation
which you have prepared
in the sight of every people:
A light to reveal you to the nations
And a glory to your people Israel!
If you haven’t become tired of my echo of Nunc Dimittis, be grateful that Katherine Edmonstone does almost all of the pastoral care at Trinity. Ben and Tim Oliver heard enough repetition from me a year ago, as their grandmother Ann died in hospice and I was entrusted with her funeral.
Even if I don’t do ‘pastoral care’ much, with our aging demographic, we are always aware that we are ‘cramming for our finals’. Simeon and Anna are far more suitable role models for us than baby Jesus. These are the old guy and the old girl who recognize Jesus in temple in Luke.
We live in a culture worshiping youth, and privileging novelty and progress over tradition and conservation, and we are – face it – old. Dying well, after all is one of the jobs we elders are learning. (And you thought it was hard to learn how to be a spouse and a parent!) What’s our job, as elders, worshipers, witnesses?
Are we simply an antiquarian society, a glee club without glee, or a service club without service? Perhaps we also carry wisdom, and recognize patterns, from a lifetime of experience. That’s what shape it took before and will take again - look – there it is! That’s worth seeing: light to the nations, glory to this people!
We may not be the stars, the central characters of this chapter of our lives, individually, as a congregation, or as a denomination. We may not be the hero or heroine, but we find a niche as ‘character actors’ This gospel foreshadows that baby Jesus is the same one who will be crucified:
This child is destined
for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be opposed
so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed –
and a sword will pierce your own soul too
A sword will pierce your own soul too. To love is to weep. Children will cause tears. Commitments cost us. Elders know that, having learned it the hard way. The image of old Simeon and old Anna in the temple implies all of that. What do they say about us, the remnant attending ‘low Sunday’ worship?
What if we could hear people into voice, or see them into visibility? What if we could participate in a ministry of encouragement, evoking and inviting gifts borne by people dismissed by our world for being too young or too old, or too something else. They say you can’t be too rich, tall, thin, and blonde. Can you?
Insomniac, I reread a couple of biographies from the Makers of Canada series of 1909 this week, Lord Sydenham and Egerton Ryerson. After the rebellions of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada, and Lord Durham’s report on the crisis, a new Liberal government in England appointed Charles Poulett Thomson as their Governor General to deal with English / French and religious tensions.
The Family Compact and Anglican Bishop Strachan, with imperial Tory rule, tried to establish a church with Clergy Reserves and endowment of a colonial aristocracy including bishops, as in the British House of Lords. A Roman Catholic majority in Lower Canada objected. In Upper Canada, our non-Anglican ‘dissenting’ majority was largely Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, or Catholic settlers gave no one group a plurality, but all were acutely aware of the new revolutionary republic to the south. Civil order here was tenuous.
Most of us recall Egerton Ryerson the Methodist advocate for public education delivered through a non-denominational system. Fewer of us recall Poulett Thomson, in the colony barely two years, who built the compromises and a new capital in Kingston for a Union government, then died there, newly created the first Baron of Sydenham as a reward for his success.
Sydenham’s own Nunc Dimittis is taken from a private letter to a friend, celebrating the compromise on Clergy Reserves and public education. He was optimistic for the future of this new colonial nation, as long as the imperial parliament and House of Lords didn’t misconstrue the local context and reject it.
On the eve of regional reorganization of our UCC, and entering the ‘lame duck’ phase of my own less-than-two-years appointment here as Trinity implements its own more modest governance model, I quoted Sydenham:
In fact, as the matter stands now, the Province is in a state of peace and harmony which, three months ago, I thought was utterly hopeless. How long it will last is another rmatter. But if you will settle the Union Bill as I have sent it home, and the Lords do not reject the Clergy Reserves Bill, I am confident I shall be able to keep the peace, make a strong Government, and get on well. It has cost me a great deal of trouble, and I have had to work night and day at tit. Bit I was resolved on doing the things….
The great mistake made here, hitherto, was that every Governor threw himself into the hands of one party or the other, and became their slave. I have let them know and feel that I will yield to neither of them – that I will take the moderate from both sides – reject the extremes – and govern as I think right, and not as they fancy. I am satisfied that the mass of the people are sound – moderate in their demands, and attached to British institutions; but they have been oppressed by a miser able little oligarchy on the one hand, and excited by a few factious demagogues on the other. I can make a middle reforming party, I feel sure, which will put down both….
One of the greatest advantages of the Union will be, that it will be possible to introduce a new system of legislating, and, above all, a restriction upon the initiation of money-votes. Without the last I would not give a farthing for my bill: and the change will be decidedly popular; for the members all complain that, under the present system, they cannot refuse to move a job for any constituent who desires it….
I finished this reflection with one more bit of poetry, on this quieter Sunday, and append it here. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a radical of the Beat generation, from New York to San Francisco, charged with obscenity as the publisher for Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1956. I relieved you of W.H. Auden, with a closing recitation of “Christ Climbed Down”, without attempting his accent:
Christ climbed down
From His bare Tree
And ran away to where
There were no rootless Christmas trees
Hung with candy canes and breakable stars.
Christ climbed down
From His bare Tree
And ran away to where
There were no gilded Christmas trees
And no tinsel Christmas trees
And no tinfoil Christmas trees
And no pink plastic Christmas trees
And no gold Christmas trees
And no black Christmas trees
And no powder blue Christmas trees
Hung with electric candles
And encircled by tine electric trains
And clear cornball relatives
Christ climbed down
From his bare Tree
And softly sole away into
Some anonymous Mary’s womb again
Where in the darkest night
Of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
The very craziest of Second Comings