Wednesday, January 21, 2009

LinguistFriend: Simeon in the Temple of Democracy

(We can't get LinguistFriend's blogger account working for whatever reason, so I posted this for him, but he wrote it... CC)

Kit Ketcham has provided us at her blog with the words of Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction at the end of Obama’s inauguration ceremony. Lowery, as Kit recalls, was cofounder with Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Lowery’s own words are indeed wonderful, but they reminded me of other words which further illuminate the nature of yesterday's drama for people of his generation. My best Latin teacher, Dr. John Colby of Phillips Andover school, initiated his students to the reading of Latin prose in the form of medieval Latin legends and the Latin Bible. One of these biblical texts was spoken by the elderly Simeon (Luke 2:25-33), to whom it had been foretold that he would see the Messiah before he died. So he waited at the temple in Jerusalem, and when the infant Jesus was brought to the temple, Simeon took him in his arms, and blessed God and spoke the words known as the Song of Simeon: "Now you let go your servant, oh Lord, according to your word in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel". This text I learned in Latin many years ago; the English version here is a mixture of the NRSV and my version of the Nestle-Aland Greek text.

Obama of course is not the Messiah, and he does not claim to be, although the tasks that await him are worthy of one. But the role of Rev. Lowery at the inauguration was precisely that of Simeon. His text, which Kit has kindly made available, deserves to be read carefully. From another point, of view, Lowery is also a distinguished representative of countless many Africo-American people. I am reminded more than others of the faculty of Hampton University, where my father taught architecture many years ago, and other black professionals for whom such an event as yesterday’s could have been no more than a wild dream. My black adopted youngest son sent me a message from Los Angeles yesterday, expressing that fact well: “ Take time to reflect on how amazing this day is historically!!! WOW!!!” (his emphasis), words that have less dignity than the song of Simeon, but also work.



Lilylou said...

Oh, LF, thanks for that reminder! I resonate with it strongly, saw it in the faces of Lowery, the Tuskegee Airmen, Maya Angelou, and all those beautiful people who have been waiting so long. Someday perhaps our generation will have a moment in time when we can say "I'm ready to go now, my dream has come true". Each of us has a personal dream and many, maybe most, of us have a larger dream---of full inclusion of all people.

Thanks for making that connection

fausto said...

As others have noted elsewhere, probably the best Biblical analogy to Obama is not that he is a new Messiah (or Antichrist, according to some right-wingers), but that he is a new Joshua to MLK's Moses.

(Although I understand, subject to LF's confirmation, that in the LXX and the Greek NT, the names of Joshua and Jesus are the same.)

(And please, LF, it's Phillips Academy! I'm going to have to have the development office call and straighten you out.)

fausto said...

As for the Nunc Dimmittis, a few years ago I was at a GA breakout session on the resurgence of the UU Christian Fellowship where the Rev. Carl Scovel, recently retired from the pulpit of King's Chapel, recited it in response to a question about the increasing number of Christian UU seminarians.

LinguistFriend said...

Fausto, I recognize and respect the analogy, but I don't think of Obama as being a successor to MLK. Obama is a different sort of man, more appropriate for his tasks.
You are certainly right about the names Joshua and Jesus, as I am sure you knew.
With due respect, I put in Academy at first, but then I felt that it would be unintelligible to those who are unfamiliar with the New England academy tradition, and replaced it. Besides, Exeter is also Phillips Academy.

LinguistFriend said...

Fausto - I am charmed at Scovel's response. I can recite the Nunc dimittis in Latin and Greek, but for English I can only translate the older versions in my head. The beginning has a strong (different) rhythm in both Latin and Greek, which is absent in the NRSV, and I tried to insert such a rhythm at the beginning of the English version here.

fausto said...

No, only PA is PA. Exeter is Phillips Exeter Academy!

Did you take any classes with Carl Krumpe? He's the Pearson denizen I remember best.

LinguistFriend said...

No, I did not encounter Carl Krumpe. I don't even recall the name, and last year I received a mailing from Andover which made it possible for me to identify the names of even my less memorable instructors. I'm sure that you are right about the customary syntax, although I found several versions when I looked yesterday.