Sermon given at Sung Eucharist for Candlemas 2012
2 February 2012 at 17:00 pm
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
I really thought I had died and gone to heaven. And it wasn’t meeting a celebrity or eating my favourite meal in a restaurant with friends or even the simple pleasure of time with the family.
It was right here in Westminster Abbey on Sunday afternoon, listening to the Choir sing Nunc dimittis from Herbert Howells's Gloucester Service:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.
The soaring treble lines; the crescendos that start, pause, and begin again; the sense of being drawn from the muted ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant’ into the intense evocation of the heavenly in the Gloria.
Written just after the end of the Second World War in 1946, Howells had spent the war years as acting Organist of St John’s College in Cambridge. Though not called for military service, his life was not free of tragedy when his nine-year-old son Michael died from polio. It’s not difficult to hear his music containing that aching mix of pain and exaltation, which has made him one of the great composers of choral music.
And it’s how we approach our end, our departure, our death that I want to reflect on this evening, not out of morbid fascination, nor from any pretence that we can imagine how we may react when the time comes for ourselves or our loved ones, but because this is so strongly evoked by scripture this evening as we celebrate Candlemas, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, when we hear the words of the priest Simeon preparing himself for the fulfilment of his life:
'Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace'.
The Christian experience of this is by no means uniform and we should be cautious of a misty-eyed or romantic vision of death, which for many, if not most, is unwelcome, unwanted, and unsought.
The celebrated Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R S Thomas, whose Service of Thanksgiving was held in this Abbey church, is rightly remembered as one of the great craftsman of the English language in the twentieth century.
In his 1961 collection, entitled 'Tares', is a poem called ‘Here’ which, strangely for a person of faith, has a sense of trapped fatalism, a persistent guilt from which the subject cannot escape:
Why are my hands this way
That they will not do as I say?
Does no God hear when I pray?
There is nowhere to go.
The swift satellites show
The clock of my whole being is slow.
It is too late to depart
For destinations not of the heart.
I must stay here with my hurt.
This melancholic acceptance, this shrug of the shoulders might seem in keeping with our culture, but is this all we can really say? Surely, for the Christian, there is more to life, and indeed more to death, than waiting?
Certainly there is more, much more, if we attend to Scripture and take seriously the model given to us in the character of Simeon, who speaks of expectation, fulfilment, and liberation.
In a recent book, a former palliative care nurse from Australia has written of the Five Regrets of the Dying drawing on her clinical experience. It won’t perhaps surprise you what she found:
• I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
• I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
• I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
• I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends
• I wish I’d let myself be happier.
Like all self-help books, this needs to be taken with a dose of Western-liberal-affluent salt. Many people have no choice in their ending, and we should not seek to glamorise this as yet another form of consumerism.
But Simeon’s sense of expectation was quite different: indeed it was hardly about himself at all. It had been revealed to him that he would not see death before he had encountered the Messiah. So the whole framework of his life, the parameters for his existence were constructed in a different way. No wonder that in expectation he spent his time ‘looking for the consolation of Israel’.
And what, then, of fulfilment? Some of the best moments are those times of serendipity, when things fall into place, God-given opportunities, apparently chance occurrences by which our lives are enriched and others blessed. Like the young couple I met last week, returning to their home country, who came into the Abbey to give thanks for the birth of their child, and found themselves asking for God’s blessing in front of the altar here: a modern-day Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
And what we see supremely in Simeon is the sense of fulfilment that eludes many of us today. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon comes to the temple where he meets Jesus with his parents. In Christ he recognises one who will be not only Messiah, anointed for Israel but also a light to the whole world.
The expectation of his life has been fulfilled, and now he can depart in peace.
This brings Simeon to a place of liberation:
Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.
Not that Christ himself would somehow avoid death or cheat mortality, but that, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, 'through death he might … free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the feat of death'. So, our understanding of dying must be rooted in our belief in a risen, ascended and living Lord, who 'was himself tested by what he suffered (and) is able to help those who are being tested'.
This ‘good death’, the dying prepared, is what many of us pray for and, when we see it in the lives of loved ones, friends and colleagues – as we have done in the Abbey – it is an inspiration to faith and an encouragement for all.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.