I suspect that most of us here have seen, or perhaps, even been to an Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice musical. I have often wondered why they didn’t produce a musical based on the first few chapters of Luke’s gospel. The plot line is brilliant and list of characters diverse and, it seems, that every significant encounter includes some form of anthem or hymn. Luke’s gospel has given to the church the great canticles which we either sing or say at morning and evening prayer: the Magnificat, the Benedictus and, of course, the Nunc Dimitus. Sometimes, I think, we lose the significance and meaning in these canticles amidst the beauty of both their words and the choral music to which they are set. So, it’s good to be able to offer a homily based on the words of one of these canticles; the Nunc Dimitus.
Let’s pause briefly and consider the scene into which Simeon, spontaneously led by the Holy Spirit, offers his song of praise. A young couple, Mary and Joseph, have brought their baby boy to the Temple for the ritual of cleansing; Mary’s cleansing. Mary, not Jesus, is supposed to be the centre of attention. Purification is supposed to be the theme. In the Temple Mary and Joseph, the young couple, encounter Simeon and Anna, who are both old and, at least in Anna’s case, single. It’s all very All-Age. The Temple, like the church, is supposed to be a place that welcomes, affirms and ritually includes all. A place where young and old coalesce, mix and mingle. So far, so good, but then something incredibly strange happens.
Simeon, ‘led by the Holy Spirit,’ deflects the attention away from Mary, who has come for purification, and towards Jesus and in this one moment we are provided with an insight – a gloriously divine insight – into the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is an attention shifter! The Holy Spirit’s work is to make Jesus the absolute centre of attention and to declare that Jesus is the route to salvation. Yes, our rituals – processing the gospel, swinging the thurible, censing the altar, singing hymns, listening to anthems and so forth are important but only to the extent to which they point away from us and towards Jesus. Our rituals, liturgies and worship have no meaning, or currency, in their own right; they are given meaning through the work of the Holy Spirit (if you are at all interested this was the subject of my dissertation) whose role is to direct us towards the Christ, the Messiah, or in Simeon’s terms the ‘light for revelation.’ Simeon, through this story, this narrative, tells us something remarkable. Simeon is the first to say the route to salvation is through Jesus Christ, through faith, and not through the strict observance of religiously prescribed protocol. But Simeon says, or sings, something even more shocking: he dares to proclaim, again led by the Holy Spirit, that salvation isn’t the exclusive preserve of one group of people, or race, its the gift of grace made available to all; Gentile and Jew alike. And, for this we should all be truly pleased. In fact like Simeon and Anna our response should be joy, praise and thanksgiving.
Today’s Gospel reading invites us to ask many questions of ourselves. It asks us to consider the extent to which we are a truly All-Age church, welcoming young and old alike; it asks us to consider the extent to which our worship and rituals are soaked through with the Holy Spirit; it asks us to reflect on the breadth of our hospitality and inclusivity; it asks to be honest in asking whether we might sometimes prefer the safety of protocol to the vitality of change. It asks us to consider the extent to which we are light bearers, always pointing away from ourselves towards Jesus, our Lord and Saviour. We need to answer these questions so that we, like Simeon, may when the time comes ‘depart in peace,’ whilst in the meantime praising God with the infectious and life giving joy of Anna.
Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice really should have produced a musical based on the early chapter of Luke!