Monday, 18 February 2013

Free at last

The nice gentle Evensong ‘Lord, now lettest thou they servant depart in peace’ turns out to be a liberation chant.

One of my resolutions this year is to try to keep my very limited grasp of New Testament Greek in some repair – although my rate of work is turning out to be about one verse every three weeks, which isn’t quite what I envisaged on New Year’s Day.

This verse from Luke 2 came up in our Sunday Gospel earlier this month and comes up at Evening Prayer each day, and is one of very few I have tackled so far.

There are decent Greek words for ‘Lord’ (kurios – hence ‘the kyries’ as the title for the responses beginning ‘Lord, have mercy’), ‘servant’ (diakonos – a source for our word ‘deacon’), and ‘depart’ (hup-ago – a more intense form of ‘to go’ which is ‘ago’). I do remember all of that from basic Greek lessons over thirty years ago!

But what I had never noticed (or had forgotten) is that none of these Greek words is used in this particular verse.

Here ‘Lord’ translates ‘despotos’ (a source for our word ‘despot’); elsewhere in the New Testament the phrase ‘Lord and Master’ translates both ‘kurios’ and ‘despotos’ side by side.

‘Servant’ translates ‘doulos’, which is actually the word for ‘slave’ (although the household servant-slave distinction might not have been quite as clear cut in that social context as it is today).

‘Depart’ translates ‘apoluo’ (a composite of ‘apo’ which is ‘from’ and ‘luo’ which is ‘loose’).

So ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart’ turns out to be ‘Master, you set your slave free’. Not so much ‘I can rest content now I’ve seen this’ or ‘I can die happy now I know my work is complete’ as ‘My enslavement is finally over’ or ‘Slave master, you set me loose’.

Evensong turns out to be a more ‘happy-clappy’ experience than the hallowed language, devotional music and evening light has trained me to feel and think.

We respond to the first scripture reading with Mary’s song ‘This sparks my praise – the world is being turned upside down’. We respond to the second with this verse - Simeon’s shout ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last’.

And knowing this might affect how we listen to the readings in the first place. Not so much an academic interest or Bible study (‘I wonder what interesting ideas this passage might have?’) as personal longing (‘I wonder what this might unlock in my life?’).

The pictures are from the south door at Fishlake, forty miles along the A180 from here. We went to look in Saturday when I noticed our books on Malmesbury say it appears that some of the same masons were involved in both places.

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