Jesus’s visit to the Temple aged just 40 days old, and celebrated as the culmination of the Christmas Season at Candlemas, is arguably one of the most exquisitely crafted accounts in Luke’s Gospel. The symmetry of it with, on the one side the two parents bringing their child before God, to do what the law required, and on the other, two older people, about whom we gather fragmentary information, receiving Jesus and recognising him instantly is beautiful. With Jesus, a tiny infant, framed by two generations of faithful Jewish witnesses to the mighty works of God, this is the first instalment of a Gospel which catalogues the lifting up of the lowly.
One of Luke’s interests in his first two chapters is to make his narrative emerge from Israel’s rich and ancient history. We have met this already, in the way he presents Zechariah and Elizabeth, in the account of the birth of John the Baptist. There, too, a key moment in that story takes place in the Temple. Who knows whether Simeon and Anna may have been witnesses to Zechariah’s revelation while he offered incense and was struck dumb? It must have buzzed around the Temple courts, and heightened Anna’s excitement, and Simeon’s. It sets the scene for what unfolds as Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple. These characters are not just elderly people with the gifts of insight, they are the summation of the ancient wisdom and prophetic traditions of Jesus’s own people.
Crucially, as older people, they are presented as vigorous and charismatic. Although in the last stages of their lives, they are the opposite, each of them, of retiring has-beens. As Ros, in her sermon this Sunday (Epiphany IV) astutely observed, they are pointing to the future, the best and real task of the those in older age. They have an active role to play in witnessing to Jesus for who He is and what the significance of His life and ministry will be.
There is nothing restrained in their response. Anna most particularly is uncontainable in her determination to make Jesus known.
There is something about endings in this narrative, nevertheless, for all Anna’s zeal and excitement about the future. Simeon had been told ‘that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.’ We are not told how Simeon knew this, but readers of Luke will have gathered already that, when in doubt, it was through the Holy Spirit that this would be the case. Luke emphasises at nearly every turn that what drives the narrative is always the work of the Holy Ghost!
Simeon utters the hymn that daily we say either at Evensong or at Compline – the Nunc Dimittis.
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 the glory of thy people Israel.
Simeon and Anna have spent their lives in the Temple, whose precincts faced East, towards the rising sun, praying for and expecting what the Prophet Malachi foretold.
‘The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.’
Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, means Grace, the daughter of the face of God. Simeon prays in his song-like prayer that the salvation which he has seen has been ‘prepared before the face of all people’, ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’, and ‘the glory of Israel’.” Israel, the name given by God to Jacob, means the one who sees the face of God.
Together, Anna and Simeon see God face to face. This happens in the place of meeting God face to face – the Temple. What Malachi had foreseen – the return of God to His Temple – a longed for culmination, prayed for daily as the nation looked East to the rising sun, they now encounter. Perhaps this entry, this meeting is not as they had previously expected or imagined, but in a way which assures them of the fulfilment of all earlier promises.
The Orthodox call this event the Meeting, not the Presentation as we do.
We know no more of Simeon’s life or death, or of Anna’s. But Simeon knew that he could now depart in peace. God’s word had been fulfilled.
This narrative sets the scene for the rest of the Gospel story as Luke will tell it. It is rich and multi-layered. And there are yet more treasures in this pregnant account, but I would just like to underline certain points which are implied in it, which speak to a contemporary situation.
On 14 September 2021, the British Medical Association, the union of all medical practitioners, adopted a neutral policy in relation to assisted dying. Less than a month later the House of Lords debated a bill on the subject, introduced by Baroness Meacher.
The 1961 Suicide Act decriminalised suicide, but clarified the law to make it an offence to assist it. The wholesale opposition of the medical profession to so-called Euthanasia, throughout its history, for clear professional reasons, has been one of the bulwarks against change to the law on assisted suicide.
The debate in the HoL came at a watershed moment, perhaps. It was the eighth HoL debate on this subject in 20 years, and amongst others the Lord Carey of Clifton, former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke for the motion. It is hard not to view his comments as a latter-day trahison des clercs.
The current Archbishop opposed the motion to decriminalise assisting suicide, arguing strongly and intelligently for retention of the status quo. Amongst other acute remarks he observed:
No amount of regulation can make a relative kinder or a doctor infallible. No amount of reassurance can make a vulnerable or disabled person feel equally safe and equally valued if the law is changed in this way.
This seemed to strike a chord, in the press reporting, and it was a point well-made and well-received.
It was disappointing that of 106 peers who spoke relatively few were grappling with the key moral and legal arguments. Many drew on the alleged statistic that at least 84% of the population approve of assisted dying. To that I would counter, that in matters of life and death, it is vital that the legislature should hold firmly to fundamental principles which have shaped our lives and civilisation, and remain unerring. I hope a rehearsal of some of those might be of interest. In place of a sermon for Candlemas, what follows is something of an essay to make clear my own thoughts, which I hope might inform yours.
The key in this is that human rights do not add up to us choosing when and how we die. It is not by right that we are born. Life and death, their timing and their character are irreducible, special and mysterious. It is faith in God which gives us a due sense of the mystery and marvel of our existence.
The contributions of Lady Campbell of Surbiton, both to this particular debate, and its many precursors in the Lords, are worth close study in Hansard.
As a profoundly disabled woman, she is clear that at other points in her life, with different legislation in place, her life would have been taken from her. She is clear that any change in the current legal framework would lead to grossly insufficient safeguards for the very vulnerable, and she speaks for many people when she says of the proposed amendment to the 1961 Act:
This Bill does not give [terminally ill patients] a real choice; it does not guarantee universal palliative care, offer adequate support to those with progressive conditions, or remove the fear of being a burden. All are essential to support a pain-free and dignified end of life, but we all know that they are in very short supply. Rather, the Bill confirms their disempowered status and lack of choice. No one should feel that they would be better off dead. No one should have to witness a loved one in intolerable distress or pain, as so many of us have experienced—and I count myself among that number. It does not have to be like that…. I am not immune to dark thoughts when my health deteriorates and social care fails, or when I am told that I am at end of life and I am in pain—but my experience has taught me that universal patient-centred care is and has to be the first priority. One disabled woman sums it up very well. She wrote to me last week, ‘I am against this Bill. I have got a terminal illness, but when I am left to spend a painful night in my wheelchair because nobody turned up to put me to bed, I am going to think that assisted suicide might not be so bad after all. Why can’t people support us to live first, so that we wouldn’t get suicidal?’ Is this Bill the best we can offer her?
We must not abandon those who could benefit from high-quality health and social care to the desperate temptation of assisted suicide in the guise of a compassionate choice. This is a popular Bill, there is no doubt about it—but it is not the right Bill, and I will not support it.
Alongside our Christian inheritance and its clear teaching about our creation in the image of God, we need to acknowledge the role of medicine. Its unique contribution to the character of society is that it exists to preserve and promote life.
Qualified doctors swear in the Hippocratic oath:
I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgement, and I will do no harm or injustice to them.
I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; …
In purity and according to divine law will I carry out my life and my art.
Care of the ill and dying is one of the medical specialisations which this country has pioneered. Palliative care begins with the principle of relief of pain, but because pain is more than about something hurting, so pain relief is about the treatment of the whole person. Neuro-scientists, neurologists and other therapists have researched pain at the end of life in a number of very ways. It is clear that pain is felt differently by everyone. Managing pain as part of viewing the whole person and their needs is key to the care of the dying. It is best done when it is loving and intentional. This has been written about extensively by Dame Cecily Saunders and Dr Sheila Cassidy, amongst many other remarkable pioneers of the Hospice movement. I would underline, too, the role of Sister Frances Dominica, in Oxford in her work at Helen House.
The Hospice movement has developed much earlier paradigms of care of the dying and made it an art form. Many people will have observed its miraculous work either in hospices themselves, or increasingly in the well-structured way the care can now be delivered in the community, thanks to the highly skilled and specialist care of Marie-Curie and Macmillan nurses.
No one need die an agonising death, even with a very life-limiting condition.
A further false claim is that religious minorities are ‘holding back’ change in the law, as a way of imposing outmoded religious beliefs on the rationalist and sensible general public. This presumption ignores the Christian origin of most long-established medical institutions. I was at St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield this last weekend, whose foundation alongside the hospital of the same name was in 1123!
One of the sharpest questions in this debate is: Does the right to choose the date and time of my death entail a responsibility on others to kill me? In the light of the motivation to care for and heal others, and the sentiments of the Hippocratic oath, this is a very pertinent question. Put in other words: if my right to choose the end of my life is paramount, what does that mean about requiring another to take my life, especially if their solemn and sacred trust is to care for me?
The ethics of modern medicine are always hotly debated. The risk-benefit equation in the treatments of terminal cases can depend on a range of factors. Some lives are prolonged successfully, while other people experience considerable suffering. Many medical decisions are unenviable in this regard. My admiration for doctors in their day-to-day lives as diagnosticians and physicians is unending, as they help and guide people in their decision- making about their treatment.
We might give thought to our own treatment, should our health deteriorate. The patient’s choice to decline treatment or not to be resuscitated in extremis, is not the same as assisted suicide, it is a legitimate choice. Choosing not to be treated is choosing not to be treated, it is not choosing to die.
One of the remarkable discoveries for good in this pandemic has been to see that society willed the care of the most vulnerable at the expense of much else. (At this point I do not wish to debate the success of the management of the Pandemic, that is another question). One approach might have been to let the virus take the world by storm without preventative measures, leaving many of the sickest people to shield until the discovery of a vaccine or to die. Instead, most modern governments in democracies prioritised the most vulnerable. Behind this is the deeply-held view that life is precious and not expendable, thank goodness. The alternative is the path to actual and spiritual annihilation.
Put very simply, the injunction ‘Thou shalt not kill’ remains foundational to how we must live. Sanctioning killing, which assisted suicide would do, must be resisted.
As you may have gathered, these last few weeks have been ones in which the ministry to the sick, the dying and the bereaved has been to the fore in the life of St Mark’s. Being with the dying, and with those who mourn the departed, is a special part of the Church’s ministry. The sacrament goes by different names: sometimes, The Last Rites, or Extreme Unction or the Viaticum (provision for the journey). The words and actions (and crucially both) which make up these rites, give shape and meaning to things beyond adequate description and easy acceptance.
The Church offers this sacrament to those who are dying. Some people may wish to unburden themselves of anything weighing on their hearts. The office begins with the opportunity of confession and the assurance of forgiveness offered to them personally. ‘I absolve thee’, the priest will say. This is not a general confession but a personal and ultimate one with absolution, with all that word implies – complete forgiveness. The penitent is offered communion, which for some may be the merest fragment of the reserved sacrament, because in the latter stages of life, a patient’s swallow may be compromised. As the Apostles were instructed to lay hands on the sick, in imitation of their Lord, so the priest lays hands on the head of the dying. And then, in conformity with the life of the early Church, the sick person is anointed. The sensation of oil on forehead and hands has an immediate effect of calm. It symbolises and enacts the outpouring of the Spirit of comfort.
Simeon prays ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’ This is said or sung at funerals, as we say it each night of our lives in the daily office.
As your parish priest, I say there is and can be such a thing as a good death. We can pray for a good death, and endeavour to die peacefully, commending our spirits into the loving care of our heavenly Father, whose creative purpose is the only source of meaning and hope. Like Anna, we are looking for redemption, but also know that we have found it in the child in the arms of his parents. He is the one who enters the Temple and is at once the dawning of the new day of God’s visitation upon it.
1 February 2022