Art, music and poetry inspired by an old man
We haven’t seen many SOS’s yet – Signs of Spring – but there is one undeniable sign to be found in the lengthening days. The morning light appears a little earlier, the afternoon sun stays just a bit longer, and some primal instinct tells us the earth is awakening. During this season of Epiphany themes of light run throughout, beginning with the Magi following the light of a star, and ending with Jesus’ Transfiguration (celebrated on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday), when the “Light of the world”, gave his followers a glimpse of his divine nature, becoming a radiant, light-filled sign of God’s presence while conversing with Moses and Elijah on a mountain.
Today, February 2 is a day that commemorates an equally beautiful moment in our faith story, the Feast of the Presentation. Mary and Joseph had taken Jesus to the Temple, where an old man named Simeon recognized this baby as the redeemer of the world promised by the prophets. Simeon himself had been promised that he would not die before seeing his Savior, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer has him uttering these words:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
The ability to capture light, as seen in this 18th century depiction by Aert de Gelder of Simeon with Mary and Jesus, is often the mark of a great painter.
It is more difficult to capture light in sound. Composers can rely on shimmering string sounds, or the clarity of straight-toned high voices to convey a sense of light, but more often a text has to do that work. The final line of Simeon’s prayer is the text used by 17th century Mexican (!) composer Francisco López Capillas in his Lumen ad revelationem.
And finally, Simeon’s story takes poetic flight in T. S. Eliot’s A Song for Simeon:
We can find beauty in all of these artistic expressions of Simeon’s grateful cry, a light to lighten the Gentiles, but ultimately the greatest beauty is found in our own ability to be light-filled and a radiant expression of God’s love in the world.
Beautiful. I didn’t realize (or have forgotten) that the “unc dimittus,” which I sang as a junior choir boy at the Cathedral every day for several years, was the Song of Simeon.
I meant “nunc dimittus”.
I love Geoffrey Burgon’s setting of this text, used as the credits ran for the classic PBS performance of “Tinker Tailor” by Alec Guiness.