[Today the church celebrates the Presentation of our Lord. The readings are here. – Ed.]
At some point in his life, Simeon receives a promise from the Holy Spirit that he will not die until he sees the Messiah. Luke’s gospel tells us that the Holy Spirit rests on him and guides him into Jerusalem’s temple on the very day Mary and Joseph arrive to present Jesus to the Lord. Then it happens. Simeon sees Jesus. The sight of the child, the mere arrival of the promised one, moves the old, devout, righteous man to song. Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and praises God knowing that glory will indeed be brought to his people, providing “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.”
I came to know this song through praying Compline as an eight-year-old at the Diocese of Alabama’s Camp McDowell. The Song of Simeon is the canticle option in the nighttime daily office service found in our Book of Common Prayer and is prayed every single summer night at Camp McDowell. Its Latin name Nunc dimittis comes from the first words of the song “now let depart,” and are surely the first Latin words I ever learned.
Every night of my first camp session, just as homesickness started to seep in, I found comfort and peace sitting on hard wooden pews in an old stone chapel with fans rotating the stifling hot August air. The waters of Clear Creek rolled over the dam below the chapel while a counselor led us through the ancient night prayers of Compline. After a few more summers at camp, these prayers and songs would be written on my heart.
The simple act of chanting a canticle as a child became a spiritual tool for the rest of my life. As someone who was often told by childhood teachers, “oh honey, why don’t you just mouth the words rather than sing them,” I cherish my college summers working at Camp McDowell when I learned to harmonize the Song of Simeon in the stone chapel.
I carried this song with me to Virginia Seminary where I was completely shocked to learn that our Camp setting wasn’t found in any current hymnals of The Episcopal Church, so I taught it to my classmates. As a new priest back in Alabama I sang the Nunc dimittis with dying church members, who like Simeon himself contentedly sought eternal peace. As a new mom, I sang Simeon’s words to my children as we rocked during nighttime feedings and now sing them together after bedtime reading and back scratches. I sang them with my godson when he was just two years old because his mother’s priesthood was also profoundly shaped by Camp McDowell and she’d already taught him.
This simple song is written on my heart and carried with me everywhere.
Simeon doesn’t see any flashy miracles in the temple that day. Water isn’t turned into wine. A dead man bound in cloth doesn’t rise from the grave. He sees baby Jesus, God incarnate, and sings, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace according to your Word, for my eyes have seen your salvation which has been prepared for all people.” He sees the Christ child with his own eyes and finds fulfillment.
Most of parenthood is like this for me. The earth-shaking miracles and wonders are few and far between, but the glimpses of God happen right before my eyes every single day.
When I see my daughter picking up litter without any fanfare or prompting, I see Eve tending the Garden. When my son offers his school snack to the person seeking food outside our car window, I see Jesus feeding one of the five thousand. When my husband sits on our bed playing his guitar while our daughter dances wildly around him, I see Miriam and Moses singing out their praises once the waters swallow Pharaoh’s army. When our family attended Camp McDowell in August and sang the Song of Simeon in the stone chapel with two hundred fellow children of God, I felt like faithful Simeon seeing God with his own eyes.
Our families show us God in everyday life, but I worry we are too busy looking for flashy miracles and mountaintop experiences to notice. Recognizing and naming these everyday moments is critical for our faith and the faith of our children. Equally important is remembering that we are showing God to our families through our seemingly simple actions. It could be a song that you teach them tonight, the conversation driving home from an Ash Wednesday service in two weeks or the prayer note you tuck into lunchboxes each morning before school.
One seemingly simple act in childhood has the potential to become a spiritual tool for the rest of their lives.
Is there a ritual from your childhood that still shapes your faith today?
Sharon Monroe says
I do not know of this camp or anything about your faith, but am involved in a study of Isaiah from my Sunday School book, and in pulling up info on Ahaz I followed the trail to Simeon and it led to this. You have described how I see things…thru the eyes of His Word and His way in my own life. What you wrote was so beautiful I had to comment. It was an encouragement to me that I am not the only person that looks at life in this manner. A lot of times people cannot relate to me, or think me weird, which most of the time it will not bother me, but I do admit it has bothered at times. I FULLY enjoy my walk and my life with my Lord. I see His hand in most everything… and as I wrote those words it comes to me that I am looking for it, and that is why I find it, see it, and live it. It brings me closer to Him. Our experience is so much more in Him and that affords us the opportunities to share what we see and experience so others may enjoy this same closeness with Jesus. There is nothing else that can compare. And one other thing you said that I FULLY agree with…people are looking for the BIG Miracles…when they are all around them every single day. Not only is the birth of a baby a Miracle, but the passing from this life is an even Greater Miracle…for without the sacrifice of Love being poured out we would not have life eternally. The Miracle of Life Eternal is the True Miracle…for we live Forever with the Miracle Worker.
Thank you for the Blessing I received this morning thru the sharing of your own heart. May His Blessings continue to flow your way.
Ann Fraser says
This was lovely! I was formed at Camp Hardtner in Louisiana, and learned many of the prayers that still come to mind with ease. The Nunc dimittis is one my children have learned for our bedtime prayers. Thanks for a great reflection on how these small things become lifelong companions.
Rita Hill says
I would love to know the music of that song!
Elizabeth Rees says
Alison, I love this. Any chance the written music exists somewhere?
Lauren Browder Kuratko has it somewhere — she worked with a church musician to transpose it a few years ago. They just moved to NYC, but once they get settled I’ll get her to share it with you.
Lucy Blackwell says
I attended Camp Mikell (Diocese of Atlanta) from the age of 9 until I was too old to be a camper, then I went as a counselor. This story brought back memories of Compline in the Chapel on the hill and singing the Nunc Dimittis. Camp also shaped who I am today and why I love the Episcopal church so much.