Departing in Peace

Dear Friends,

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.”

The Song of Simeon in St. Luke’s account of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which we will hear on Sunday, is familiar to many from its place in the services of Evensong and Compline. When Archbishop Cranmer simplified the seven services of the daily office into two for the Prayer Book, he took the Magnificat from the evening service of Vespers and the Nunc Dimittis from the final service of the day, Compline.

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Compline sees sleep as rest but also as a preparation for death, so the other place where the Nunc Dimittis is heard in our worship is in our ministry to the dying and at funeral services. Like many priests, I have said these words many times at the bedsides of those whose lives were drawing to a close. When I had only been a priest for a few weeks, the Rector was on holiday and I was on my own in the parish. An elderly lady who lived in a care home near the church, became ill suddenly. In the last couple of weeks of her life I would visit to take her the Sacrament or in the evening to say Compline with her. Lena was a retired nursing sister and knew perfectly well that she was dying. As her life drew to a close, she made Simeon’s words her own. Steeped for a lifetime in the Scottish Prayer Book, she would have prayed often in one of its litanies for “a holy and happy death, for rest in paradise, and for the perfect vision of the glory of God.” When I celebrated her funeral eucharist, her friends and I recited the Nunc Dimittis for her again as she was carried from the church which had been her spiritual home, the temple where she had met Jesus Sunday by Sunday. I have recited them, or a choir has sung them, for many others since then.

Not everyone I have ministered to as they were dying has had Lena’s calm faith and acceptance in the face of what St. Paul calls the “last enemy”, but I have often seen it when ministering to faithful Christians. Trusting that they were going to be with the Lord, not for them Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” They had no need to rage against the dying of the light, because they had found the one who says: “I am the light of the world.”

Our culture fights shy of acknowledging the reality of death. To think or speak of dying is thought morbid. People avoid the word ‘death’ by using phrases like “she passed.” Funerals have become “celebrations of life.” TV adverts, aimed at the elderly, offer to arrange “non-funerals,” so that families need not be present. Yet, at the same time, one of the great sadnesses of the Covid pandemic has been people dying without their loved ones around them, and severe restrictions of numbers at their funerals. Who can forget those pictures of the Queen sitting alone at Prince Philip’s funeral?  Perhaps we are beginning to learn anew that, as John Donne said, “No man is an island.” The death of a member of our family, a friend, a neighbour, a colleague, touches us all, and that needs to be marked publicly. To bury the dead is one of the traditional Christian “corporal works of mercy.”  It is an acknowledgement of the dignity of every human being, however humble or flawed, as a child of God. To prepare people for death and to accompany them in their dying is part of the ministry of a priest.

In a Christian funeral we do give thanks for the life of one who has died, but their death is set in a wider context. The reality of death is faced: “In the midst of life we are in death, of whom can we seek for succour but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased.”  We acknowledge the sense of loss, of separation from one “we love but see no longer,” so we pray for those who mourn and for ourselves.  We give thanks for one who has died, but we do not pretend that they were perfect. We pray for them as fellow-sinners, as we trust others will one day pray for us.  All this is a long way from Frank Sinatra’s anthem of individualism, “I did it my way.”

All that we do in ministry to the dying, and at a funeral, and in our remembrance of the dead, is in the context of the resurrection hope. The Funeral Sentences begin with Jesus’ words at the tomb of Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life says the Lord. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and every one who lives and believes in me will never die.”

So we pray at funerals – but surely not just then:  ‘Heavenly Father, in your Son Jesus Christ, you have given us a true faith and a sure hope. Strengthen this faith and hope in us all our days, that we may live as those who believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection to eternal life.’

When I think of the deaths of people like Lena, I am reminded of a purple passage in Dom Gregory Dix’s classic book ‘The Shape of the Liturgy.’ He wrote of a ‘little ill-spelled, ill-carved epitaph for the fourth century from Asia Minor: “Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem, for she prayed much.” Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of Christian Anatolia, But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure that one must have found Jerusalem!’  How lovely if people were able to say of us: “They found Jerusalem for they prayed much.”

Yours in Christ,

Fr. Alan