Nunc Dimittis: Beyond “Lord, Now Lettest Thou Thy Servant Depart In Peace”

A Sermon preached on the Feast of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (commonly called Candlemas) at St. Thomas, Kefalas, 11:00 am Feb 3, 2018 (transferred from Feb 2).

 

Perhaps the most beautiful setting among many beautiful setting of the Nunc Dimittis is the one above, by Geoffrey Burgon, originally composed, not for church, but for the end credits of the 1979 BBC TV adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The words may be familiar to many Anglicans or survivors of Anglican school chapel services.

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.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world without end. Amen.

How many of us have fond memories of singing this at Evensong? The words are, of course, the 400 year old translation of the Authorised Version (i. e. the King James Version). They ring the changes on memory.

Thomas_Cranmer_by_Gerlach_Flicke

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, by Gerlach Flicke. Cranmer was the principal author of the Book of Common Prayer in its 1549 and 1552 editions. He would have come out with a third edition, but Queen Mary, a staunch Catholic, became Queen of England in 1553, and had Cranmer deposed, imprisoned, defrocked, tried, and finally in 1556, burned at the stake. They took liturgy seriously in those days.

For those of you not raised in the Anglican Church and have not spent much time in the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, or haven’t attended Choral Evensong, allow me to explain. In the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 (revised in 1552, 1559, 1604, and lastly, in 1662) the authors set up two daily services. Thomas Cranmer, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, condensed the seven monastic services down into two, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Evening Prayer combined two services, each of which had two canticles or songs from the New Testament. The two canticles are commonly known from their Latin first words, namely, the Magnificat (The Song of Mary), and the Nunc Dimittis (the Song of Simeon), or in crude choral usage, “the Mag and Nunc”.  The Nunc Dimittis is the second of two canticles from Luke, and is part of our gospel reading today, when Jesus is presented by his parents in the Temple and a sacrifice is made by which Mary is made ritually pure in accordance with the Jewish Torah. Now, today in Cathedrals and places where they sing there is a choice of many settings of the Mag and Nunc, including versions of the two by Thomas Tallis, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Sumsion, Charles Wood, Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert Howells, and John Tavener The Magnificat, which in the context of the Gospel of Luke is sung by a young, pregnant Mary, is usually upbeat, loud and joyous, capturing the sense of exaltation she is experiencing. The Nunc Dimittis is sung by Simeon, an old man who has probably seen a lot in his life and is ready to die. As a result the musical setting is usually more meditative, moderately paced, frequently building to a climax. It is all very lovely.

But what does it mean?

In the Nunc Dimittis Jesus is presented as the glory of Israel, God’s salvation come to the Temple in Jerusalem, and one who would be a light to the nations of the world. Let’s parse that out.

Jesus is the glory of Israel. Jesus is a Jew, not a Roman, or a Gentile. He is a colonized indigenous person who ultimately is put to death by a great and terrible empire and their native collaborators. In his life and teachings he is the heir of Moses the giver of the Torah and David the king of Judah and Israel. He is the one foretold by Malachi – the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. He is the servant foretold by Isaiah who would be a light to the nations. So, in that sense, he is the Messiah the fullfilment of the Law and the Prophets. And this glory is not seen in power, in the kind of terrible, violent strength held by the Romans, but in servanthood and care, of solidarity with the oppressed and suffering, and of sacrificial love even to the point of death.

He is God’s salvation because, as the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews describes it, in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus is in a cosmic battle with the powerful forces of darkness, described as the devil. He suffers the worst that can be thrown at him, death itself, and yet his sacrificial love is more powerful, and in the moment of grief and despair after death and burial he destroys death and all who are held in slavery by death. As the Christmas carol puts it, “Now we need not fear the grave.”

He is proclaimed by Simeon as the light to the Gentiles – the one through whom the promises God made to Israel are extended to the nations of the world, wild vines to be grafted on to the chosen people.

bcp-eveningThere is another person there who celebrates the coming of Jesus, and that is Anna, who if anything is even older and more pious than Simeon. She was excited as she spoke to those who looked for the redemption of Israel. Why was she excited? The word here, in Hellenistic Greek, is λύτρωσιν – which can mean redemption, as in paying money for something that perhaps has been ransomed, or paying the money to free a slave. In both cases of that meaning it means getting something back which was unjustly taken away, one’s freedom. In modern Greek the noun means “release”, and the verb means “to free”. So the coming of Jesus was good news to those who were looking for freedom, for release from being hostages of their oppressors, from being treated like slaves. Jesus is the glory of Israel, God’s salvation, and a light to the Gentiles, because Jesus is freedom.

So what does that mean for us?

  1. One way to understand this is that we are like Simeon and Anna. When Simeon and Anna see Jesus he is presumably being held by his mother, a scene represented on tens of thousands of icons and paintings presenting the mother and child.  Icons usually present people and occasions that actually happened. Icons of the infant Jesus and his mother Mary are recreations of what Simeon and Anna saw. Like them, we may worship the child in word and deed, in song and action, perhaps by joining with our Orthodox sisters and brothers by venerating an icon.
  2. Another way is to proclaim Jesus as light and salvation, and challenge people to personally accept him as that for them. This is basic evangelism.
  3. But we must go further, I think. A third way to understand it is that we are like Jesus, called to challenge the forces of evil in the world, not by power and violence, but through love and care, even if sacrifice is required. We are called to be lights in this world and speak truth to power, even if the emperors of our day and their collaborators do not like it.

130828b MLKNow, we are not indigenous colonized people, as Jesus and his disciples were. But that does not mean that we can ignore the deeper meaning of the Nunc Dimmits, nor does it allow us to be dismissed, because with one or two exceptions we here are just not that old. We are generally comfortable people, guests here in a foreign land, often with more means than many here or in other parts of the world. We are called to worship, to proclaim Jesus, and to use our privilege, knowledge, and voice to advocate for those who are indigenous, colonized people, for those who are not being heard, for those who dwell in darkness, for those who despair of any succor. It’s not one over the other, it’s the whole deal.

Despite the average age here, God is not done with us, just as I hope each of us is not done with God. God has a mission, and part of that mission is freedom, May we join with Christ in defeating the forces of evil, and making people free.

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About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
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