Choral Evensong: Christmas every day?

2nd February 2020. Luke 2: 22-40

The Song of Simeon is something I grew up with, and it’s now something we can all experience every 3rd Sunday of the month at our Benefice Sung Evensong in Thorp Arch, too. When I was a chorister as a lad growing up in Halifax, choral evensong was a regular part of my Sunday routine, and the Nunc Dimittis was always sung: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”. There’s something rather endearing about hearing the words of Simeon, an old man, sung by young choristers. Simeon had been awaiting the promise of the ages – the coming of the Messiah – to be fulfilled in his own lifetime. Hearing what we know as the Nunc Dimittis, a song from the end of a life of faithfulness, sung by the voices of those who have all the potential of youthfulness is poignant and reminds us that the Nunc Dimittis should ring true for all of us, whatever our age, because it is the song which ends the story of Christmas.

It is no accident that the Anglican service of Choral Evensong uses the Song of Mary – the Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord” and the Song of Simeon – the Nunc Dimittis. These songs are the bookends of Christmas: the Magnificat is Mary’s response to the annunciation, hearing the news that she is to bear God’s Son; the Nunc Dimittis is Simeon’s response to the birth of the Messiah as the fulfilment of God’s promises. In the Church of England, at choral evensong it truly is Christmas every day.

So cast your mind back to the Nativity. The Word made flesh to dwell among us… Emmanuel, God with us… This was something long-awaited by the faithful, women like Anna, men like Simeon, who were awaiting not only the Messiah, but for salvation to be revealed to the whole world – the Gentiles as well as the Jewish people. Handel’s oratorio Messiah is all about Christ – his birth, passion, death and resurrection – but only uses words from the Old Testament to tell the tale. The Hebrew Scriptures are brought to life in a new way as, in Christ, God’s promises revealed through the prophets, are kept. The Acts of the Apostles – Luke’s sequel to his retelling of the Gospel – focuses on the story of how the good news of God’s Kingdom was spread to the Gentile world. The Acts of the Apostles ends with Paul telling a Jewish audience, “Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will also listen.” It’s the punchline to the whole book: God’s salvation is revealed to the whole world, is for everyone, but has been revealed out of the story of the faithfulness of the Jewish people. Faithful people like Mary and Simeon in whose songs – the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis – both refer to themselves as servants of God.

Luke ends the Christmas story with the Holy Family keeping Jewish customs and laws. Jesus has been brought to be circumcised, with temple sacrifices offered as he is dedicated to God as all firstborn sons in a family should be. And Jesus is recognized by those who had been faithful in worship: we are told that Anna, a widow, was always in the temple, and that Simeon was righteous and devout. Yes, Jesus will indeed be a light to the whole world, but he is recognized first by faithful Jews who have been waiting for him.

We need to be faithful and expectant. Yes, Christmas is over for another year, but our job is, like Choral Evensong, to make sure that it is Christmas every day. By that, I mean that we need to remember that part of our job is to reveal Christ in the world, daily. Like the Magnificat, our souls should strive to magnify the Lord: we should give thanks to God every day, and like Mary, be ready to go along with God’s plans for us, wherever they might take us. Like Simeon in the Nunc Dimittis, we should thank God for what we have seen of his glory – for the fact that we are saved through the power of Jesus, and having recognized God’s glory revealed in Jesus, get on with sharing that glorious light with others.

We are a Christmas people – the authors of Evening Prayer got it right. This is a daily thing, not just for a few days after Midnight Mass every year. And we are an Easter people. This is the moment in the Church year when we turn from the crib to the cross. We recall that the light of the world who came to us at Christmas is also the Resurrection Light.

We live in a time of uncertainty and change. The climate crisis hangs over us with no international consensus as to what to do about it. A year of uncertainty over what Brexit might begin to look like once an initial deal is actually negotiated lies ahead of the UK and the EU as meanwhile we live in a state of transition, subject to rules we no longer have a say in devising. Our job as Christians remains the same, though: to love God and neighbour, and to share the light of God’s salvation revealed in Jesus with the world by living as children of God, walking in the light of God’s love, and proclaiming the Good News of God’s Kingdom in word and in action.

So every day we should take the opening words of Evensong to heart as our prayer: O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall shew forth thy praise… because we are Christmas people and we are Easter people, and have an eternally-relevant song to sing and life in Christ to live. Let us all year round be ready to be the means by which the light of Jesus is revealed in the world, and the Gospel of salvation is shared with others. Amen.

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