Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Simeon's song, Eliot's poem and all our laments

I don’t know how I haven’t come across TS Eliot’s Ariel poem “A Song for Simeon” before. He wrote it and several others (including “Journey of the Magi” as ‘Christmas cards’ towards the end of the 1920s. I won’t reproduce it here, because it’s still in copyright, but you can find it online at It’s a reflection on the Nunc Dimittis, portraying Simeon as a tired old man waiting for his own death. It begins innocently enough on a window sill:
Norwich Cathedral

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and 
the winter sun creeps by the snow hill

 but quickly turns to the dominant theme of the poem, death as a fading:

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.

Over the past six months, as Jill’s father has grown progressively weaker (and lighter), we’ve watched on as he too has begun to fade, and have prayed with Eliot’s Simeon:

Grant us thy peace.

Simeon goes on to talk about his faithful discipleship as an observant Jew, lamenting that the memory of his house will fade in the desolations that are to come, the ‘time of sorrow’ when

They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from foreign faces and the foreign swords.

This too has marked 2017 for us, with its endless flow of refugees fleeing war, persecution, economic disaster. For them too, we have prayed:

Inverness Cathedral
Grant us thy peace.

Simeon’s musing turns next to the passion of Christ, the ‘time of cords and scourges and lamentation’, of Mary’s sorrow, and imagines Christmas as ‘this birth season of decease’. Over many years of preaching at Christmas, I’ve only been able to make proper sense when I’ve coupled it with Calvary. This year, I’ve carried a Christmas refrain around in my head:

This day is a day like any other;
Yet unique, the hinge of history.

Those are not Eliot’s words, but mine. The ‘day like any other’ is an allusion to the fact that December 25th doesn’t obliterate or mask pain, suffering and despair, though it often exacerbates it with its superficial air of jollity. And yet, I know somewhere deep down that because of this ‘birth season of decease’, I find hope in Christ’s coming, and pray it with longing for our tragic world:

Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow…

St Aignan's Church, Brinay
As the poem draws to its natural end, Simeon’s ordinariness come to the fore. He is not a giant of the faith, though he experiences both the glory of the coming Christ and the derision accorded by the world to the people of the Word, the children of God. Nor is he a mystic or a martyr like John of the Cross or Teresa of Ávila:

Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought
and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.

He is every person, everyman, you and me, who walk in faith, struggle with faith, often finding little to gladden our hearts:

I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those
after me.

But Simeon, like us, at the end, can pray ‘Let thy servant depart’ because he has truly ‘seen thy salvation.’ May you in 2018 find a little faith, a little hope, a little prayer in your heart, and may God grant you too his peace.

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