The promise revealed to Simeon “that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” could just as easily have been fulfilled during his youth as in his old age. He would have seen the Lord’s Christ before death either way. It is telling, however, that artistic depictions of Simeon nearly always feature him as an old man. The force of the fulfillment would likely have been blunted were he not at a moment of great need for his own consolation: a moment shortly before his death. His peace had to wait for his departure, and when the peace finally arrived, departure was the only thing left to do.
I resonate with the Nunc dimittis at Evening Prayer, but I suspect that it has less to do with the answer to his prayer than when his prayer was answered. My church, like Simeon on the morning of the Presentation, can also seem to be in its latter days. I can imagine myself and my parish joining him in his patient expectation for the fulfillment of the promise. And so the resonance has a way of inducing resignation even as it inspires my endurance. I can be left with a rather dissatisfying hope. Could my church at least decline in peace? I begin to wonder if the peace of God is waiting for the moment of my church’s departure too. If peace is not something that will be found until the end.
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
-- Antonio Gramsci
Pastoral care for the dead and the dying draws much of its compassion from the birth of the new that asserts itself against mortality. We find hope in the audacity of birth, hope that death itself could be a birth of its own. The temporality of death is not marked by the last tick of the heart on the hospital monitor. It is marked by the charity that endures after the neon peaks of life have flattened out into the monotone hum. If time was its own measure, it would be eternity. And so our knowledge that death is but a momentary affliction is only reassuring because of the hope that it is the prologue to glory.
Most of life is an act of forbearance in the meantime. It’s one thing to set the birth of one next to the death of another and compensate between them. But that only works from the perspective of the observer who is neither the born nor the dead. We look to the lives of others in order to discover the meaning of birth and death because those are the two events we are not permitted to experience for ourselves. But it is only when we sense that death is near, however distant it may yet be in time, that we are compelled to search the lives of others. Death has to be in some way present for hope to be something more than sentimentality and denial.
Yet it is precisely when death has in fact come near that sentimentality and denial are often most pronounced. These are the morbid symptoms. For the observer who has ignored the lives of others, the prospect of death induces in them an acquisitive urgency to claim for themselves the new that belongs to another. The observer becomes a thief. And having snatched the newborns from whatever cradle they can find, they can forestall their death by disavowing the possibility of birth. They have no use for the new. Instead, they seek to enthrone themselves as the measure of the possible -- a pretense of eternity -- and the fact that this shrinks the window of possibility for the rest of us is the source of their tyranny. The old is dying, yes, but it’s not so much that the new cannot be born as that the new cannot be acknowledged. The new must be declared a bastard. So the morbid symptoms can appear only when death has bound birth to itself. They arise when the old that is dying refuses to recognize anything but itself in the face of the new.
“To practise one’s peculiar civic virtue was not
So impossible after all; to cut our losses
And bury our dead was really quite easy….”
-- W.H. Auden, For the Time Being
If Simeon could only depart in peace after he had seen his salvation, then his presence could only have been maintained by perseverance. Whatever peace was afforded to him in the meantime came only in the form of hope – and hope rejects any proximate peace that may present itself before the proper time. Hope is therefore the preparation for a good death, because when the time of departure finally arrives, the only consolation worth having is the only one that is available. We need hope because it is definitely not easy to bury our dead; and yet our own death is easiest when we’ve refused to be deceived by the perverse consolation that it is.
Therein lies the secret of church decline, though. It is not a matter of death and dying that we are faced with today, but of denial. And denial longs for no peace beyond that which can be had without the inconvenience of hope. It resists all attempts at inspiration, for it can only see the birth of the new as a threat to its complacency. No need for the new when it is easy to bury our dead. And it resists even the offer of pastoral care, lest it gracefully forfeit its claim. Our predicament is a spiritual one. Despite the advanced age of our congregations, we are not to be found at the side of old Simeon on those temple steps. Where we are, in fact, to be found is hard to tell, but until departure is so foreboding that life demands the peace that surpasses it, our churches will remain content to bury our dead with ease.
Ponca City, Oklahoma