The beginning of February always brings the end of the Christmas and the Epiphany seasons with the Feast of Candlemass, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It has always been one of the highlights of the year for me with the wonderful ceremony of the blessing of the candles and the procession around the church. But I also really appreciate that sense of the fulcrum that it represents in the church’s year as we turn from the crib to the cross, from Christmas to Lent, Holy Week and Easter.
The poignant moment for me is the singing of the Nunc Dimittis. It’s the shortest of the canticles but in many ways the most beautiful. The old man, Simeon, standing in the Temple with the child Jesus in his arms, knows that everything he has been waiting for has been fulfilled.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
The Prayer Book text is so familiar from countless Evensongs but on this feast it takes on real significance. T S Eliot captures the bitter-sweet nature of this event in his poem ‘Song for Simeon’. These lines are some of the most painful to read.
Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.
It is the phrase ‘Now at this birth season of decease’ that links me to the fulcrum moment, the turning from birth to death, from incarnation to passion to resuurection. As Eliot says in another of his poems, ‘The Journey of the Magi’
were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
It was this hard reality of the human existence lived alongside the divine, of the Living God living with us and dying with us, that we encountered at the beginning of the new term of the Living God process. Over fifty people gathered in the Cathedral on Saturday, to think about prayer and scripture. There was the opportunity to explore this in different ways – in attentiveness on God, through the inspiration of scripture, through the prayers of Jesus. I led a session on Praying the Psalms. It was great to be able to think about the psalms together. I began by inviting the group to read with me Psalm 139. That, like so many psalms, like Psalm 22 which we also read together, has this bitter-sweet quality, bringing together both comfort and challenge.
There were a few words though in Psalm 139 that suddenly stood out for me, words I had never noticed before. Isn’t it strange how this can happen, as though we had never read them before and yet we know we have. We were using Coverdale’s translation which is in the Book of Common Prayer. It was verse 23 that was highlighted for us in the conversation
Try me, O God, and seek the ground of my heart : prove me, and examine my thoughts.
The phrase ‘ground of my heart’ made me think about my relationship with God. I have used ‘the ground of my being’ as a phrase to describe the nature of God. The ‘ground of my heart’ is different though. If my heart describes my nature, what am I established on, what is there beneath me? The Living God must be the ground of my heart – or at least that is what my deepest hope is. God is the ground out of which I spring; God is the ground on which my being rests. But in this psalm it is God who is the seeker, burrowing into the depths of being, seeking out where I am resting.
Simeon’s heart longed to see the one whom God promised – and the light entered the Temple and all was fulfilled – God sought him and found him. I look forward to our deeper journeys into God and into our heart as this term of Living God progresses and as God seeks me as I seek God.
the ground on which I stand,
the rock on which I’m built,
establish and strengthen me,
seek me and find me,
fulfil in me my desire for you.