Harrowing Of Hell
November 7, 2021

COVID and the Nunc Dimittis

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

“Lord you have now set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised.
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
a light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

This is the Canticle said in the pattern of Evening Prayer, and sung so beautifully on Thursday and Sunday at Evensong here at Epiphany. 500 years ago it was canonized into our Daily Office by Thomas Cranmer as a way of regularly preparing us to see the face of God.

This Canticle known is as the Song of Simeon, and finds its words in the second chapter of Luke verses 29-32. Simeon is an old priest living at the temple in Jerusalem during the days of Roman occupation and the rule of King Herod. Eight days after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph take him the four miles from Bethlehem to the temple in Jerusalem to be dedicated to God. It is there that Simeon meets the infant Jesus and sees in him the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa 9:2).

Tonight is about seeing. Simeon sees Jesus and knows at first glance that God abides with him. Simeon gazes upon the child, seeing God see him. Reciting the Song of Simeon is a practice that daily reminds us that Jesus is the light of God abiding with us, and that is an important reminder in the darkness of these devastating days, riddled by the plague of COVID-19.

This theme of seeing is also found in our reading from the book of Wisdom. Here we find a cascading pattern of seeing that starts with how we are seen by others; then moves to how we see our souls; and finally, ends with how we are seen by God.

It begins with the sight of the foolish. When imagining who the fool in our world may be, a lot of things jumped to mind, but here is what I am imagining: The fool is the person who sees life as a fleeting dash toward death; inevitable, and inexplicable. And so, their best course of action is to invest in those things that they like and add goodness to their life as they define it. To live any other way, in their estimation, is foolishness indeed.

And yet, as they dash toward death, accumulating whatever they can, they look sideways at us, sitting in the bleachers (pews), if you will, living a different way; we are an odd sort of people that trust in pattern of life they do not perceive.

And while they understand that we, like them, suffer. We, like them, experience heartbreak. We, like them, encounter death, we rest in it, rather than run from it.  And they see that we waste our time on what they might call fools’ errands, like bending knees to God, like celebrating a mass for the dead, like saying prayers each day, even repeating words that call to our mind to our radiant mortality, like the Nunc Dimittis; which is the Latin name for the Song of Simeon, incidentally. This title is incipit, which means derived from the first few words of the Canticle itself,  Nunc Dimittis, meaning, “Now let us depart.”

To some, daily acknowledgement of our mortality may seem foolish, but to us, it is a way of going deep inside to encounter the bright eternity of our souls. This is the next level of seeing that we experience in the book of Wisdom tonight: how we see our souls.

“In the eyes of others, we are punished, but our hope is full of immortality even in punishing times” the text reminds us. Our hope is in the shining presence of God, and paradoxically, it is often in times of pain and suffering that we are most ready to respond to the invitation to go deep into our souls, to rest in that liminal place where the bright lights of our souls are absorbed into the radiance of God.

Often the map that takes us there is drawn with the thick pencil of pain and suffering.  And yet, we go because we know that it is there, we experience most vibrantly the love of God. And we share this pulsating love when we worship together.  In worship we see our very souls being formed together, in union with God… and not just our souls, but all souls, mortal and immortal alike, for “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.”

And while this soul-perspective doesn’t make us immune to the uncertainties of life, it does free us from the anxieties that tempt us, it does lift us from ambiguity to equanimity assuring us that we abide in the love of God.

God sees us. One of the reasons we are encouraged to pray, day in and day out, is to experience God seeing us. I know in prayer we ask God for things, at least I do. And I know in prayer that I seek to hear God speak to me. But the reality is that when we show up to pray, as I hope we do day by day, the greatest blessing is to know that we are being seen by God.

Yes, I know we are seen by God at all times and in all places, but to set aside time to acknowledge and experience being seen is one of the greatest blessings upon our soul. And there is a funny secondary effect of setting aside time to be seen by God, it is the development of the unruly habit of seeing others as God is seeing them. What happens when this happens is that we abide with them, as God abides with us.

Like a grapevine with many branches and deep roots in the ground. Jesus uses this metaphor saying: “Abide in me as I abide in you. I am the vine you are the branches” (Jn 15:4-5).  He goes on to say: “As the Father loves me so I love you, abide in my love.” Finally, he brings us to the reward, saying, “I’ve said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:9-11, para).

Joy is the nightlight plugged into our souls that perpetually illuminates the love of God no matter what… even in times of pandemic. These have been a hard 18 months or so 4,948,000 people worldwide have died from COVID-19, which include 614,658 Americans.

That is sad, and because of the way it happened, it is particularly tragic. Many of the souls that moved from this place into God’s eternal space, may not have needed to go as precipitously had it not been for terrible leadership early in the pandemic. And furthermore, the spreading of rumors about the pandemic represented incompetent, if not cynical and even criminal leadership. Tragic and shameful to the greatest degree possible. Silly and foolish leaders not willing to abide in the reality of God’s love; not experienced in seeing the other as God sees them; seeking only things of power as they dash from birth to their death, trapped in a hell of their own making. Darkness all around them.

And even still, we, the Christians, the followers of Jesus, abide in the love of God, as we experience and seek a joy that is complete.  And part of what makes this joy so refreshing to our souls is that it includes every single soul capable of abiding in God’s love.  Which souls are these? Who has this love abiding capacity? Anyone. it turns out, upon whom your gaze falls. For we know that as we are gazed upon by God, so too are they. Even if they are sad souls who accuse others of being the fool, the love of God remains available to them.

And, what’s more, because of what Jesus has done, by blessing all creation, all things seen and unseen, we pray, in sure confidence, day by day: “Now, let us depart in peace…For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Epiphany.”

I say Epiphany because we are seen, we are enlightened and illuminated, called to perpetually radiate the love of God, even in dark times.