Our daily death

The Compline, or Night Prayer, of the Book of Common Prayer features Nunc dimittis, the song of Simeon from Luke 2.29-32:

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 to be the glory of thy people Israel.

In the context of Luke, Simeon was clearly referring to his own death: he had waited in the temple to see the Messiah until he was an old man. Now that he had seen him, he can “depart in peace.”

Does it seem strange, or even a little morbid, to be praying about death as we go to sleep? Perhaps it is, but it is a prayer worth praying nonetheless.

When we fall asleep each night, we enter into a death-like state. We become unaware and completely vulnerable. And this is not optional. We cannot skip sleep just because we feel afraid. Refusing to sleep will eventually cause us to really die — anyone who has experienced extended sleeplessness knows first-hand its destructive power. So every day we must symbolically die in order to live.

God built this into the pattern of our lives. Every day we must become vulnerable and dependent. We must give up our self-sufficiency, productivity, and any illusions we have of invincibility. If we refuse to do so, then we will be destroyed by our rebellion against God’s rhythm of life. Every day we must fully entrust ourselves to him. As the old children’s prayer puts it:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

It is very much worth noting that God built sleep into the pattern of human life from creation. This image of death, even of death being necessary for our survival, and the reminder of our feeble reliance on God himself, existed before humanity’s fall in Genesis 3. Ponder for a while what the theological implications of that might be.

Or for more theological reflection, consider the Compline’s statement that Jesus by his death & burial did “sanctify the grave.” Did Jesus’s death really turn the very symbol of our sin and curse into a holy place? The Apostle John seemed to think so, considering how he depicted Mary Magdalene peering into the Holy of Holies as she looked into Jesus’s grave.

Pondering death before sleeping might feel a bit morbid, but it is certainly appropriate and by no means unnecessary. We can do nothing better at a day’s end than praise God for his faithfulness in the day past, anticipate his faithfulness the coming day, and confess our faith that God will be raise us from the grave in the same way that he raises us from our symbolic death every morning.

Other prayers from the Compline illustrate this same faith:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord;
by thy great mercy defend us
from all the perils and dangers of the night;
for the love of thy only Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Look down, O Lord, from thy heavenly throne,
illuminate the darkness of this night with thy celestial brightness,
and from the sons of light banish the deeds of darkness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Be present, O merciful God,
and protect us through the silent hours of this night,
so that we who are wearied
by the changes and chances of this fleeting world
may repose upon thy eternal changelessness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And perhaps most of all, Psalm 4.8 as quoted in the conclusion of the Compline:

We will lay us down in peace and take our rest,
For it is thou, Lord, only that makest us dwell in safety.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus; be with us this night and forever, we pray.


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