New Testament Canticles 3: Nunc Dimittis

Simeon with Jesus, St. Boltoph's Church, Boston. Photo by J. Hannan-Briggs

Simeon with Jesus, St. Boltoph’s Church, Boston. Photo by J. Hannan-Briggs

In the morning office, as we praise God, we remember through the words of the Benedictus St John the Baptist who came at the start of God’s redemption, calling God’s people to repentance. At Evening Prayer, we recall the words of the Mother of Our Lord in the Magnificat, that God has lifted up the humble and meek, that the rich he hath sent empty away. If we are praying with Cranmer’s office, we have a second New Testament canticle at Evening Prayer (it is also at Vespers in the Eastern Orthodox tradition); otherwise, this canticle must wait until Compline.

The Nunc Dimittis, the song of Simeon when he encounters the Christ child, is a fitting song for the end of the day, as it was for the end of Simeon’s long life.

At the study group that inspired these posts, I mentioned primarily the Nunc Dimittis (after the hundreds of times I’ve prayed either Evening Prayer or Compline, it is quite familiar).

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 a world where the secular power of Rome had bounded in the Mediterranean as Mare Nostrum, ‘Our Sea’, a Roman lake, with Judaea ruled by client kings of Moabite descent, where Zealots clamoured for death and destruction of the Romans, where Essenes preferred seclusion from all such affairs, where Saduccees were often seen as collaborators, and where everyone wanted to get by; in a world where the restored nation of Israel did not include all the tribes; in a world where taxation would lead to rebellion in the year AD 6 —

into such a world, where God’s chosen people are beginning to create a narrative of their own suffering, where many understandably see God’s salvation for them to be a wresting of power over the Promised Land from Rome, comes the Messiah. And he is greeted not merely as the Saviour of Israel; his is a salvation that YHWH has prepared before the face of all people. Not only that, this infant child, recently on the run, will be a light to lighten the Gentiles. Jesus of Nazareth will be the glory of Israel.

This is the last canticle before bed. We go to bed with Simeon’s words in our ears, looking at our own world torn by strife, and remembering that these nations will be lightened by Christ. The promise uttered by Simeon rings through the ages and is for each one of us, for all the nations. God was faithful to Simeon; He will be faithful to us.

Here it is in the musical setting of Thomas Tallis, the English Renaissance composer:

~ MJH ~


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