In today’s Gospel on this Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, we hear last words. We have always placed a special emphasis on last words. There are websites dedicated to recording the last words of famous people. Some are profound, some hilarious, and some ironic. Movies highlight the last words of the dying. I guess it is that we believe that for the person, this is their last shot at figuring things out, summing things up. We assume that at death’s doorway there is no need nor desire for pretense or fabrication, but only moments of deep, abiding truth and wisdom – and we hang on the edge of our seats.
There is a medieval axiom: nemo moriturus praesumitur mentiri – no one dying is presumed to lie. That axiom has found its way into our legal system. The dying declaration, which under other circumstances would be dismissed as hearsay or excluded because of the inability to confront or cross-examine, has voice and standing in some courts of law. The first use of the dying declaration exception in American law was in the 1770 murder trial of the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre. One of the victims, Patrick Carr, told his doctor before he died that the soldiers had been provoked. The doctor’s testimony helped defense attorney John Adams, our future president, to secure acquittals for some of the defendants and reduced charges for the rest. Last words can indeed have powerful effects.
Lent is around the corner and we will soon turn to the seven last words of Jesus – including the verse, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). Last words.
You know, it is never too early to plan. So, have you planned your last words? You might want to plan, lest your last words are, “Hey, watch this….” I think we’d rather have our last message be of love, of truth, the one-line summary of life, a fond farewell, something memorable, something quotable.
OK, maybe that is a bit much to think about on a Sunday morning, but maybe an equally interesting question would be, what were your final words for yesterday? Edgar Allen Poe called sleep a small slice of death. I don’t know that I agree, but let’s just take Edgar at his word and ask, what were your final words last night? Were they words of heartfelt compassion? Were they harsh words? Were they regular – “what are you doing tomorrow” words? Did you say, “Honey, could you turn off the TV?” Were they simple words: “Goodnight?” Were they memorable, passionate, forgiving, loving? What were your final words of yesterday. Can’t remember? That’s OK, it just means that tonight you will have a new opportunity to shape and form your last words before you slip across sleep’s dark and dreamy threshold.
I know what mine will be. My last words will be the same as last night. The same as tomorrow night: “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; Your word has been fulfilled. My eyes have seen the salvation You have prepared in the sight of every people, A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.” Hopefully you recognize them from our Gospel, spoken by Simeon in the Temple, when after a lifetime of righteousness, devotion, awaiting the Messiah, and doing what was his to do, he was ready. His life was ready for lasting peace.
I will pray them because they are the prayer of the Church for Compline – night prayer – the prayer when night has fallen, and the house is still and the shades of sleep fast approach. I will pray these words, the Nunc Dimittis, because I like them, I feel connected to God, and I am reminded to remember.
Tonight, I will remember today. I will be leaning against the sink, back to the mirror, brushing my teeth, and reflecting on today. I will think about the things I did – good and less so. The things I failed to do. Was I kind amidst my hurriedness to see this person, talk to that person? Did I listen? Did the engaged couple gain insight and self-understanding from my questions. Or was I just annoying? Did I remember to pray for everyone who asked me? Will I keep my promise to myself and take a full day off? Were my words true, necessary and helpful. Did I pass up a good opportunity to remain silent? Was I silent when I should have spoken? Was today all about me, or was my day for the greater glory of God? Did I take and make time for God? Did I pray? … I will remember many moments of the day. In the end, I will be grateful for many moments and, for the others, I will ask for forgiveness and mercy from God…And then retire for the night – as I pray:
“Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; Your word has been fulfilled. My eyes have seen the salvation You have prepared in the sight of every people, A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.”
If tomorrow comes I will hopefully carry that gratitude, forgiveness and mercy into my new day. If tomorrow does not come for me, then these are my last words.
Truly, I tell you, I will go in peace.