I’m going to try something outrageous this morning. I’m going to talk about getting old, and I’m not sure I know the first thing about it.
Although as my husband and I were packing to go to Scotland last weekend, we realized that we were more worried about forgetting our tablets than our tickets. When travelling, the young seem to worry most about forgetting their electronic tablets, the middle aged about their tickets: and those getting on a bit about their prescription tablets. And we’ve moved into the last category.
And it’s a whole new world we’re dipping our toes into…. A world where we know, of course, how lucky we are to have those toes. A world where the landscape is signposted primarily by losses, and where the challenge seems to be how to navigate a stage of life where things, people and talents which have been painstakingly accumulated, are now taken away.
And I do not know what it feels like to be deep in that territory – as many of you do. But I do know that our reading this morning invites us to bring the whole of our lives, the beginning and the end of our lives, into the light of God. This Candlemas story, which we can read as a children’s story about the infant Jesus, is more accurately read, I think, as a story about the difference Christ makes to older people. We don’t in the Bible have many older role models. There are those preternaturally ancient people listed in the beginning of the Old Testament, like Methusaleh… but they all live to be something like 652 years old, and don’t really speak to the realities of being 65 or 85. Then there are a few older Biblical heroes who supernaturally bear children… but again this is not the way most of us will stay youthful. There is lucky old King David, who feels cold in his old age, which perhaps we can relate to. But the remedy for him is a young virgin in his bed to keep him warm of a night.
Of course people in Biblical times, didn’t generally live on into old age, so it’s not surprising that there are few role models. But in the 21st Century, I’d suggest, the major spiritual challenge is how to spend our decades of aging well. And so, despite my relative youth, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to look closely at Anna and Simeon, two of the only realistic OAPs we find in Scripture.
And the first thing I notice about Simeon and Anna is they are each on their own. In stark contrast to the holy family, who’ve come to the Temple to complete rituals associated with childbirth and family life, Simeon and Anna, are no longer defined by familial roles. They are not someone’s daughter, brother, father, wife… in their old age, they’ve become primarily just… themselves. This is unusual in their middle eastern culture, where people expected to reside in the bosoms of their family all their days. They seem, in their loneliness, more akin to us today.
For Simeon, and especially for Anna, the Temple is the space which provides continuity and community. Remember that the Temple of first century Jerusalem was one of the wonders of the ancient world – a huge complex which various religious and commercial events going on involving thousands of people each day. Simeon and Anna, have become, it seems, respected figures within this vast and bustling community space. They have no family to speak of, but there is a space in society where biological family, and physical, economic strength ceases to matter so much…. And that is the religious space. Although she must be very frail at 84 in first century Palestine, Anna continues to do a job: she fasts and prays. She is a prophet: she speaks to people of God. Simeon too has a job: he responds to the Holy Spirit, obeying its prompts so that he is just in the right place to recognize Jesus. In Orthodox paintings of Simeon, the ends of his robes billow up, to symbolize that the Holy Spirit has actually picked him up and flown him into the temple. He is completely responsive to God. He models that as a vocational opportunity for the elderly.
These two, Simeon and Anna, hold out to us the vision of lives which continue to have a purpose and a place, long after the body has become frail, and family ties have loosened. They are themselves, alone, but they are ever and ever closer to God. They are exploring that vast hinterland of the spiritual life, which practices like prayer and fasting and listening open up for us. TS Eliot famously said, ‘Old men should be explorers’. When knees and hips and backs pack up, even when eyes and ears begin to fail, there are still vast areas of life to explore: these are the interior spaces within ourselves, and the spiritual places of the entire universe. Simeon and Anna have explored these and more. They are obviously great scholars of the Scriptures, both knowing the Old Testament promises of a Messiah. My grandmother who died age 97, would in her latter years, read her Bible in new languages. She knew it so well in English, that it wasn’t too hard for her to translate. Other languages, she said, gave her new angles on the old familiar words. At the end of her life she was reading through the Bible in French. The night before she died, my husband read her some Psalms in French, and she said she was looking forward to getting to heaven to perfect her French accent. I wondered aloud how many French people she would actually find in heaven…. But she probably didn’t hear me; she was busy contemplating a new territory with new experiences which she was about to enter.
Old men, old women, should be explorers. The problem with secular life, is that the spaces to explore run out as we run down. It is only the spiritual life, the spiritual quest, which keeps the spaces opening up, new territory, new things to behold, even beyond the grave.
And this kind of getting old enables Anna and Simeon, and many more contemporary saints, to relate in a very different way to the young. The key part Anna and Simeon play in Luke’s gospel story is that they are really the first to recognize the full potential of the baby Jesus. And I have noticed that older people likewise are often able to best spot potential in the young. They see through and beyond whatever irritating trait is presenting and they are able to imagine that child years down the line. Many of you will know from your grandparenting what I’m talking about. You have a unique insight to offer young people and their parents – an ability to see with clearer, less biased vision.
Simeon and Anna offer this vision to the infant Christ and his parents. They bless the child. They bless the parents. Blessing is not about saying hocus pocus words…. It is about paying attention. And we can well imagine Mary and Joseph, this humble poor couple from the sticks, basking in this unexpected attention in the centre of cosmopolitan Jerusalem. In their great age, Simeon and Anna are able to connect deeply to the young. The Christian life and church offers to all of us as we age, ways of keeping in touch with younger generations. There are ways of being a blessing, and of giving blessing no matter how old we become. Imagine a church where children are greeted warmly by older people who take them seriously. Where the elderly are not seen as threats by overprotective parents, and where children are not seen as a nuisance. The Church is one of the very few institutions, apart from the extended family, where old and young can communicate with each other. And we’re trying to make the most of that fact in our new all age third Sunday services.
Anna and Simeon offer not only a vision of living deeply and usefully in extreme old age, they also offer the prospect of ‘departing in peace’. Simeon’s famous nunc dimitus ‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation’… has resonated with countless Christians in their final days. The intimacy with God, the sense of having fulfilled one’s purpose in life, the sense of having seen a bit of God’s movement in the world…. These are the blessings available to the lifelong servant of God as they approach death. I have not had huge experience of death and dying yet, but I have seen non believers approach death in rage, fear and denial…. And I have seen believers approach death in peace, with spiritual eyes wide open. And I cannot imagine another time in one’s life, when the depth of one’s faith in Christ makes such a difference.
The reading from Hebrews asserts that through his death and resurrection, Christ destroyed the power of death, and freed us from the slavery of having a fear of death hanging over our lives. If we can place our little lives within Christ’s story we can be released from the power of death in countless ways. The temptation as we age, however, is to shrink into our own bodies, and to shut down into our own little worlds as we nurse our losses. Christ offers us a constantly expanding story to live within, the community of the church with all its peculiarities, the challenge of paying attention to the next generations, the territory of close reliance on the Holy Spirit to explore. At every step of the way we have a choice about whether to join our stories to God’s, or to withdraw. Simeon and Anna give us a vision for the last stage of life: when it came time for them to depart, they could in all honesty depart in peace. They had lived their lives in the eye of God, and their stories eventually were told in connection to God’s, within the pages of Scripture itself.
Here’s another story about placing our stories within the greater story of God’s salvation. In 1873 an American lawyer, Horatio Spafford, waved goodbye to his wife and 4 young daughters, who were sailing to England for a holiday following the death or their baby son, and the loss of a vast amount of their real estate in the Great Fire of Chicago. Halfway across the Atlantic, a iron sided vessel collided with their steamship and all four daughters were drowned. Spafford’s wife, who was rescued, sent him a short sad telegram from London: saved alone. He hopped on the next ship to England and as he went past the place where the previous ship had sunk, he retired to his cabin and penned the words to the hymn we are about to sing.
Spafford’s hymn is particularly famous in America, although I suspect you may have come across it. The tune which accompanies it was given the name of his daughters’ doomed ship Ville du Havre. We’re going to sing it now in place of the Creed. And this is to emphasise the role of the Creed in our service. Contrary to what many people think, the Creed is not just a tick box of improbable things which we believe in. Rather it’s the story of God’s interaction with the world. As we recite it together week by week, our little stories at every stage of our lives, are placed into the context of this greater one. It is this spiritual perspective, the knowledge and hope of a greater horizon, which enables us to say, with Simeon in his joy, with Horatio Spafford in his grief, ‘It is well with my soul’.
It Is Well With My Soul
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
But Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.