Preached by Rev’d Emma Pennington at St Giles’, Horspath on 2nd February 2014.
A line from our gospel reading today:
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace according to your word.’
So begins the song of Simeon, an old man who sees in the child Jesus that sense of purpose and fulfilment which enables him to die in peace. I guess it is a state in which we would all like to end our days and yet for many, peace can be sadly elusive.
It was this yearning to find peace which came across so vividly in a programme I was listening to the other day all about peace. Bettany Hughes interviewed a number of people about in her series about ideas which have made us. One of them was a doctor, who lamented the fact that she was unable to bottle peace and give it to her patients who were suffering from mental health problems. So many were there who sought peace but could not find it. And yet Bettany Hughes ended her programme with the tantalising suggestion that she had in fact found someone who could answer her question of how to achieve peace. Davor Seselj had lived a full and adventurous life and was now facing his imminent death with the sense of calm and inner stillness which seemed to elude so many opthers. Of course she wanted to know what was the key. How could one find peace? He said a number of things, quite simple really: to accept the fact that this body was tired and ending its life, to live with no regrets and know that you have done something useful with your life. To enjoy life but not at another’s expense and then you will no longer have an inner knot of nervousness but live with a sense of calm and inner peace. The interview ended by Bettany Hughes acknowledging that he was an atheist but still wanting to say to him ‘Peace be with you’ and his reply was ‘It will be’. He died last Monday.
I wonder what you think about those words of advice, are they helpful, have you from them found the secret to peace? Do you now know how to die well? For me they are his words, however commendable, and only that. All of us have been given words of advice, some we have had an eye to and some ignored but always advice from others are just that, words. We must find our own truth which is borne from our own experience and discernment. More convincing for me were the words of another interviewee on this programme who worked in a Hospice and described the different manner of ways in which people faced the ending of their lives. For some it was with a sense of calm and peace but others experienced the very opposite. I would not want to put a value judgement on any of the ways in which these people faced their final end. However one thing which this person said that I believe rings true, is those who were least afraid or troubled were not those who had the least regrets, neither had they lived relatively fulfilling lives but were in fact the very opposite, it was the children. It was they above all others, she said, who were more concerned about how their parents faced their death than they were. Who were the calmest when learning that their lives would be so brief. When asked why this might be so, she thought that the children were possibly less influenced by the negative attitudes of death so prevalent in our society and had a greater sense of story which placed their lives and experiences within a larger, universal narrative than just their own.
It is this faith in the divine narrative which is larger than his own history that I believe is the key to Simeon’s sense of peace. Indeed, just like Davor, he has lived a good life. We are told that he was not just a good man but that he was one of the righteous, in the Jewish senses of the word. He had upheld the law of Moses, he was devout is following its duties and commandments. In every sense it could be said that his good life ensured that he would die well, a perfect peaceful ending with a clean conscience. But this in fact is not why Simeon sings his words of praise. He looks on the child Jesus and in this ordinary little baby sees more than anyone else can see, more than even his father and mother. He sees the divine narrative of God unfolding before his eyes. Words which were spoken in hope have been fulfilled in the living Word. It is at this sight of God incarnate that Simeon bursts into praise for all things are now complete. Peace is not his reward for diligence and righteousness but is the consequence of realising the narrative of God in which all our histories are held and fulfilled.
In the famous Hitch hikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Zaphod Beeblebrox is condemned for his disasterous rule as Galactic President by being placed in the Total Perspective vortex. This instrument of punishment came out of a basic bit of nagging by a wife to a scientist called Trintragula. As a consequence of constantly being told to get a sense of perspective, he discovers from a piece of fairy cake no less that there was one thing you could not have to exist in a universe of this immensity and that was a sense of perspective. When he plugged her into the machine, in one brief instant she saw the whole of the universe and herself in it. The shock annihilated her brain. In contrast when Zaphod was given the same overwhelming sense of his own infinitesimal place within the universe his reply was “It told me what I knew all along, I am a really great guy, I am Zaphod Beeblebrox”. Simeon’s moment of realisation can be likened to entering the total Perspective Vortex as he sees in Christ the whole of the universe. But his response to this sight is “You are God, the glory of your people Israel”. This sense of perspective has not diminished him or inflated his ego but from it comes peace.
It was this sense of peace that Jesus sought to give his disciples on the night before he was handed over to the authorities and would walk the dark road to death. The peace that came as a consequence of knowing and believing in the divine narrative of God that, even in the midst of a situation in which where there was no hope of inner calm or serenity, that there was a wider perspective in which they could trust: ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; I do not give as the world gives; do not let your hearts be troubled”. These words by Christ are not idle, or a hollow word of reassurance but ones which echo of the Word of eternity. So it is this same peace that we will share with each other this morning as we remind each other that we are the body of Christ, we are larger than ourselves, dead to the world through our baptism and living in the peace of the eternal perspective. We may not always feel it but that does not mean it is no true.
In my experience it is very rare for a parish priest to be called to the bed of a dying person. Invariably it seems relatives are reluctant to intimate to someone that they are on the point of death and there’s nothing like a priest to upset or trouble the soul at his most desperate hour. But I only hope and pray that when I come to face my ending there will be someone there who will be the human voice of Christ for me and remind me that I do not need to be afraid but ‘Peace will be with me’. Amen.