“Master, now dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word….” Luke 2:22-40
As I stood at the pulpit and looked toward the pews, my breath was taken away. On the back wall of the chapel were several huge drawings of naked murder victims. An artist had taken a pencil and used it to bring to life the pain and agony of massacre and execution. I tried to imagine what it would be like to preach a sermon from that pulpit with those images of death and torture spread out across the back wall. I then awoke to the reality that Father Brackley indeed did that very thing several times each week.
I was in the middle of a visit to the University of Central America (La UCA) in San Salvador, spending a few precious hours with Father Dean Brackely, a Jesuit priest and chaplain who voluntarily came to serve in the footsteps of martyred colleagues. On November 6, 1989, six Jesuit priests and their two assistants were murdered on the campus of La UCA. Their boldness to speak out against poverty, rampant social injustice, misuse of power, assassinations, and torture in El Salvador led to their martyrdom.
I was profoundly moved by Father Brackley’s story of coming to the war-torn country of El Salvador where he himself could easily have become the next martyr in the annals of the forthcoming museum on the UCA campus. Instead, he became well known as a passionate theologian, writer, and advocate with the poor of Central America. In 2004, drawing from the richness of his experience, he published a fantastic book entitled, “The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times” where he wrote:
"The world is obsessed with wealth and security and upward mobility and prestige. But let us teach solidarity, walking with victims, serving, and loving. I offer this for you to consider."
Father Brackley embodied the prayer of Simeon in Luke 2, which is so often read on Christmas at the conclusion of the time of hopeful waiting of Advent. Simeon had been waiting in the Temple his whole life to see the “consolation of Israel.” As Joseph and Mary entered the temple with the baby Jesus, Simeon was moved to hold the child and began singing a prayer of praise. In the Latin Vulgate, it starts with the words, Nunc Dimittis, or, “Now dismiss your servant in peace.”
This passage has often been used in monastic communities as the final prayer of the day. There is, however, an inherent paradox in its use as a “last prayer.” While it expectantly serves as an invitation to look back with gratitude for what was, it is also an invitation to look forward in great trust to what will be.
Captivated by this paradox as I approach this Christmas from the place of disorientation which has been 2020, I find myself wondering if the kind of peace, joy, and freedom exemplified in Simeon’s prayer of Nunc Dimmitis is reserved only for those who find themselves in the sunset hour of their lives. What about lives during 2020 that have been marked by the kind of pain, torture, and unimaginable suffering that Father Brackley courageously came to give his life to? And what about each of us as we face life’s impossibilities?
Father Dean’s very life was a prayer of Nunc Dimittis as he learned to incarnate Christ and overcame fear, even amidst the real threat of death. Incarnational leaders like him who courageously leave “home” to live and serve somewhere else as well as those who are born into and choose to stay living courageous lives in the hard places of their own cities know the prayer of Simeon. Such leaders are called out of fear and into freedom. They live their lives as prayers where fear dissipates into Nunc Dimmitis peace.
We often get ourselves into trouble because of the ways that we consciously and unconsciously are driven by fear. Now imagine what life would be like when freed of fear. How else can we face life’s most demanding challenges if not by the power of Simeon’s prayer? How else are we called out of fear into freedom, if not by the power of the incarnation?
The baby Jesus held by Simeon would one day face the worst humanity could offer. But amazingly, we see Simeon’s prayer come full circle as on the cross Jesus himself prays, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” This same prayer is available to us who long to be free, even free from fear of death itself.
Joel Van Dyke