Monday, 29 December 2008

The Presentation of Jesus - Rembrandt, Levertov and John Coltrane

This morning I read Luke 2. 22-35, the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. I find this a most moving episode, with Simeon's Nunc Dimittis, followed immediately by the warning to Mary. 

Rembrandt captures something special in his picture of a seriously old Simeon, who has the appearance of failing eyesight, and yet sees with eyes of another kind.

Denise Levertov does something similar in the brevity of her poem, Candlemas:

With certitude
Simeon opened
ancient arms
to infant light.
Decades
before the cross, the tomb
and the new life,
he knew
new life.
What depth
of faith he drew on,
turning illumined
towards deep night.

And then Maggi Dawn, in her book Beginnings and Endings, captures something else in her wonderful John Coltrane story. She recounts the words of Simeon:
'"Now, Lord," he said, "I can die happy. Now I've seen the thing I've been waiting for all my life. I've done what I came here for. I am fulfilled. Nunc dimittis: now you can let me go."

John Coltrane, the jazz saxophonist, is famous all over the world for his beautiful music. The interesting thing about jazz is that, more than any other kind of music, every performance is unique. One night, Coltrane performed "A Love Supreme", one of his most famous pieces, and as he played, every last ounce of his skill and musicianship seemed to come together in an absolutely magical performance. Just that one time, he was even better than the best. Everything about that performance was sublime, and when he'd finished, as he walked offstage, his drummer heard him breathe two words: "Nunc dimittis". It was a unique moment of glory and Coltrane himself recognised that there was something beyond accolades going on. Somehow he had touched heaven and he knew that he had done what he came for. The glory of God is revealed in those magic moments when we are touched by something beyond human achievement, when we see the presence of God break into the ordinary and there is a sense that life has been fulfilled. Heaven and earth collide.'

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