The Oddest Christmas Carol

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Seems like one question screams out to be answered this week: after all the candlelight and joy and presents and everything else that went along with our Christmas celebrations last week, what in the world are we doing talking about death. After all, Luke’s account of Simeon’s troubling song is simply haunted by the specter of death. Along side the other Christmas carols we’ll likely sing this Sunday, this one sounds odd, even dissonant. So, let me ask it once again: what’s all this talk about death doing in the middle of our celebration of life?

…But maybe we should back up a bit.

In St. Luke’s account, it is now forty days after Jesus’ birth. After eight days, Jesus had been circumcised and named in accordance with Jewish law. Now, thirty-two days later, his parents are again performing their duty as pious Jews by returning to the Temple, this time in order to offer a sacrifice and to consecrate their child to the Lord.

They must have been in a solemn mood that day, full of reverence and expectancy, the way many young parents in our congregations when their first child is to be baptized. It’s not hard to imagine, therefore, the quiet procession they must have made to the great Temple, their awe at entering its holy courts, their nervousness as they prepared to sacrifice according to the law.

Nor is it difficult to imagine their reaction as an old man comes forward out of the shadows to scoop up their child into his arms and prophesy about him. Startled at first, perhaps, even a bit frightened by the old man’s ecstatic face, Mary and Joseph yield to him because they sense the Lord’s Spirit upon him. Hearing Simeon’s prophecy, they are reminded of the events of the previous weeks and months when angels and shepherds had intruded into their lives to foretell the greatness of their Son.

How puzzled they must have been, though, at what we now call Simeon’s “song”: Lord now let your servant go in peace.” The words, I’m fairly sure, are familiar to many of our people. Some may even know them better as the Nunc Dimittis, Latin for “now send away,” the hymn sometimes sung after Holy Communion. Simeon’s words also conclude the service of Compline, the order for prayers at the close of the day, and they are regularly said or sung at the end of a funeral. Expressing Simeon’s pious thanksgiving to God for the Christ child and his earnest plea for peace, his song has become one of the most familiar and beautiful hymns of the liturgy.

And yet each time I hear these words, I — as I imagine Mary and Joseph did — grow strangely uncomfortable. Listen to them again. “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled. 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 the glory of your people Israel.” Beautiful words, to be sure, but also troubling, for let’s not kid ourselves, when Simeon asks that he be allowed to go, he’s asking to die.
And so I wonder, why does Luke record this strange scene and song. Why would he move from the beauty and light and joy of the nativity straight to Simeon’s morbid request for death? And why must we focus on that request, and therefore on death, just a week after our own celebrations of Christmas.

And so do you see what I mean?  What’s all this talk about death doing right in the midst of all the light and life of Christmas?  Shouldn’t Luke — and we — leave death outside our doors, just this once, to deal with it later, like just another of our holiday shopping bills? Shouldn’t we, or at least can’t we, ignore it or deny it, at least while the family’s still here.

But there it is, you see. Death doesn’t take a holiday, does it? And my word, but this is never more apparent than during the holidays, a time when our hopes are regularly joined to our fears, our expectations so often tinged by our regrets, and our reunions sometimes overshadowed by unspoken disappointments or hurts.

Some of our people, we know, have lost a loved one in the past year and that makes this Christmas especially difficult. And most of us are reminded of those we have loved and lost by a stanza from a hymn, a favorite ornament on the tree, or some fleeting but vivid memory of Christmas past. Well, Simeon is no different. He’s an old man, and has been around the block more than a few times, and so we can imagine that he has tasted love and loss, joy and despair, hope and fear, just like you and me. And so he sings of death simply because he can’t help it; because he, like us, lives with it everyday.

But here take note. This is more than merely stark realism. For St. Luke is clear that Simeon is able to speak of death so honestly only in the light of the coming of the promised messiah, only, that is, by the confidence that in this helpless child God has come to redeem Israel and save all the world.

“Lord,” Simeon, sings, “now you can let your servant go in peace; for your word has been fulfilled.” Simeon perceives, you see, that in the Christ-child God has kept God’s promises; that in this babe, set for the rising and fall of many, God has acted once and for all to address the question and specter of death with the promise of life.

And so I was mistaken earlier — Simeon does not ask for death; rather, he accepts it courageously and confidently in the light of God’s promised salvation. And he does so, again, only upon seeing and holding God’s promise in his hands, only after touching and feeling the promise of life which God granted to him through Christ… and which God grants also to us.

This, then, is why we sing Simeon’s song after receiving Holy Communion. For at this table, in this meal, we too, like Simeon, not only hear, but also see, touch, and feel the promise of life God makes to us. And after receiving this promise from God in the bread and wine, we too are propelled to confident and courageous lives even in a world so marked by death and loss. This explains, too, why we sing Simeon’s Song in the evening and at funerals, for as darkness overtakes the world, be it the darkness of evening or death, we commend ourselves, all of our lives, and our loved ones to the God made known through the manger and cross, the God who has promised us life eternal in Holy Baptism. nchored by this promise we can go to our night’s rest in confidence and entrust even our beloved to the God we know in Jesus.

And so we continue singing Simeon’s song, all these many years after the events St. Luke records, simply because it tells of God’s great love for us, a love that even death cannot destroy. For, like Simeon, we also need to hear and see and touch and feel God’s promise, the promise that God will be with us and for us forever, the promise announced in the birth of that innocent babe.

For this reason, Working Preacher, what I wish for you and your people on this day and in the days to come isn’t simply a “merry” Christmas, but also a “blessed” one; a Christmas, that is, so infused by God’s promise of presence and peace that you can leave worship to go out into the world with confidence, neither denying the harsh realities of this life nor being deterred by them, but rather facing whatever comes your way in the coming week and year with courage. For you are God’s beloved child, and it was for your sake that Christ was born!

So why do we sing about death just a week after our Christmas celebration of life? So that by naming death it may no long terrify or diminish us, as with the coming of Emmanuel, God with us, we need no longer fear…anything. For in the birth of the Christ-child so long ago, and now again as we gather around word and meal, we too have seen and heard, tasted and felt, God’s steadfast and tenacious commitment to be both with us and for us…forever!

And suddenly, this side of Christmas, Simeon’s odd and courageous carol is also now our own: “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled”…for Christ the savior is born! Blessed Christmas, Working Preacher!