Dec27SunA sermon for the first Sunday of Christmas December 27, 2020
A little story to begin.
A grandfather had become very old and shaky,
so that while eating his soup,
he would spill some on the table cloth.
Sometimes even his soup would dribble out of his mouth.
His son and his son’s wife were disgusted at that.
Finally they sat him behind the stove in the corner.
There he would sit all sad and alone.
Once even the plate he was eating on dropped out of his hand,
and it broke on the floor.
The young woman scolded him.
She bought him a wooden bowl for him to eat out of.
One day the four-year-old grandson came into the living room
carrying four small wooden boards.
“What are you doing there?” his father asked? “
I’m making a little pot” the child replied,
“for mother and father to eat out of when they get old”.
And the father and the mother looked at each other.
At once they took grandfather out of the corner back to the table.
And they didn’t say anything anymore,
even if he did spill his soup.
In this poignant story,
we are reminded of that social agreement between the generations,
best summed up in the fourth commandment:
thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother,
that you may live long upon the land that the Lord thy God gives you.
What we often forget is that this commandment is not primarily geared towards getting young children to behave nicely,
as in “Santa knows if you’re naughty or nice,
so be nice and obey and don’t whine otherwise …
you won’t get any Christmas presents.”
No, this fourth commandment is actually designed to prevent precisely what happened in this story: a mild description of elder abuse.
We all know it goes on, whether in facilities or in private homes by relatives.
We all hope it would never happen to us, or our loved ones,
but what can we do?
Perhaps only the Golden Rule can apply:
do unto others as they would do unto you…
Treat your elders as you hope the younger folk
will treat you when the time comes…
In today’s Gospel reading,
we also have an interaction between three generations:
the aged prophet Simeon
who greets Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus
in the Jerusalem temple.
This is one of just a few stories of the young Jesus in the Bible.
The holy family is there to dedicate Jesus to the Lord,
and to perform the purification sacrifice for Mary,
according to the Law of Moses.
Simeon greets Jesus’ family with those famous words:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…
this poem or hymn is known as the Nunc Dimittis,
one of the two gospel canticles (or hymns) of the Evening Prayer service (alongside the Magnificat, the Song of Mary
(which was preached on by Pastor Carey last Sunday).
[Nunc Dimittis is Latin for “Now you are dismissing”]
Growing up as a choirboy in the Anglican: Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal, our men and boy’s choir often sang the choral evensong,
and thus sang many versions of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis,
mainly by British composers,
such as Hubert Parry, Sumsion, Charles Wood,
and even by Canadian composers
like Healey Willan, and KW local Barrie Cabena.
But perhaps my favourite composer of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis was Sir Charles Villiers Stanford,
the Irish composer (lived 1852-1929)
organist at Trinity College, Cambridge,
perhaps best known as the teacher of Gustav Holst
and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
One of his most famous settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis was set in the key of G major.
The Magnificat (the Song of Mary) has a phenomenal boy soprano solo (because Mary was a woman, with a high- pitched voice),
which was then in my choir sung by the lead boy soloist at the final Evensong of the choral season.
Needless to say, after about 6 years in the choir,
I finally too, got to sing this wonderful solo,
mere months before my voice changed
and I was sent into vocal purgatory, croaking and yodelling.
So this piece, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G by Stanford
has a special place in my heart.
The Nunc Dimittis also has a big solo,
this time for baritone—which is quite fitting,
because it is the Song of Simeon,
who is a man, thus, requiring a deeper voice.
I would like you now to hear this Nunc Dimittis in G by Charles Stanford (the choir is the New College Choir, Oxford, directed by Edward Higgenbottom).
In it you’ll hear a prominent part played by the organ to set the mood…almost evoking the Jerusalem temple location
as backdrop to this hymn that Simeon is singing.
You’ll also hear the choir echoing the baritone’s words,
almost like there is a heavenly choir accompanying Simeon on his last words, before he is to die….
happy that he has now seen the Saviour
and his life’s goal is accomplished.
You can imagine the old saint stooping down
and picking up Jesus in his arms and singing this as a lullaby.
The Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis in G, by Charles Stanford.
Here we have the aging saint
righteous and devout,
looking forward to the consolation of Israel,
that is looking forward to the Messiah who was to come and save God’s people.
The Holy Spirit was with him (like with Mary),
and guided him to the place in the Temple
where he would meet Jesus and his parents.
Simeon has been promised that he will not die before he sees the Messiah,
and this promise is fulfilled,
and he is probably overcome with emotion.
He can hardly believe his eyes, at this wondrous sight.
Simeon rejoices that he can now die in peace.
-Because this child is like no other
-Because this is the child long foretold by the prophets
-Because this child will change the world…for the better
-Because Simeon’s life goal is now complete
Simeon is courageous enough to speak from the heart,
he is honest, bringing good news:
that Jesus is the longed-for Saviour of the World,
that Israel’s glory, this Jewish Jesus,
is to be a light for the Gentiles
he is so special that he will unite both Jews and non-Jews
to come to God as one,
as long foretold by the prophet Isaiah.
Simeon also, however, brings some bad news:
that Jesus’ presence will be divisive,
destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel
and that Mary’s soul shall be pierced with a sword…
that Mary shall experience much sorrow on account of her son.
Every parent needs someone to prepare them
for the difficulties which lie ahead,
We don’t hear in this passage of any relatives who are helping Mary and Joseph…
here it seems that Simeon (and also Hanna, later-on)
provide that function.
“At the birth of any child there is a wider company of persons
who have hopes and fears for the future.”
And the Temple represents the community of support that is required.
As the saying goes “it takes a village to raise a child”.
These days, church and synagogue perform this function.
Even for non-regular church-goers,
these rituals of life passage, like baptisms, weddings, in a faith community are important,
to receive God’s blessing,
to acknowledge the passing of time.
I believe that church still can play a valuable role in the building up of relationships between the generations.
No other place in community
(except perhaps around a family holiday dinner table)
can we see 3 or 4 generations join in a single activity.
—except for at church.
We need the wisdom of multiple generations to survive as a society, esp. during a global pandemic.
And even on a personal note,
if we look back,
we probably see that in our personal lives.
More people than we know had a role in our growing up.
Grandparents, great-aunts, and others, helped our parents raise us
Church members, pastors, doctors, and teachers, assisted in some way as well to guide our formative years…
all probably were in some way or another,
like a Simeon to us,
taking us in their arms,
cooing and singing to us and encouraging our parents.
And providing them with good advice and words of warning.
My homework for you this week is this:
Think of one or two people who helped your parents raise you.
Think about them, how they assisted your parents when you were young, and give God a prayer of thanks and gratitude for them this week.
That’s truly, I believe,
a fitting response to our wonderful story of Simeon and Jesus’ family today. Amen.