In the past few weeks we have taken a closer look at three of the great Biblical songs: the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Gloria. These are among four of the songs bestowed to us by the Holy Spirit through Luke’s account of the Christmas story. To conclude this series let us consider the last of these, the Nunc Dimittis or Song of Simeon.
Following the birth of Jesus, several ceremonies were performed. On the eighth day after his birth, Jesus was circumcised after which he was named (Luke 2:21). Names were very important, so parents kept them secret until after the circumcision. They were also considered to be prophetic, which is certainly the case with Jesus (see The Meaning of the Name of Jesus). The circumcision and naming were family affairs and usually followed by a celebratory meal.1 That being the case, it is possible that Zechariah along with Elizabeth and their young son John, who three decades later would prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry, were there. On our liturgical calendar this event is celebrated on January 1, the eighth day after Christmas.
Following the circumcision and naming of Jesus, two more ceremonies had to be performed according to Jewish law. On the 33rd day after Jesus’ circumcision, Mary presented herself to the Temple to be purified (see Leviticus 12). Jesus was also consecrated to God since he was the firstborn (see Exodus 13:1-2; 11-16). These ceremonies did not have to take place at the same time, but since Jerusalem was a good six mile walk from Bethlehem, it made sense to combine them into one trip. It was during the latter ceremony that God revealed to the prophet Simeon who the baby Jesus was (see Luke 2:22-35). Simeon took Jesus into his arms and sang the following song:
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,Luke 2:29-32
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
A prophetess by the name of Anna witnessed this event and, thanking God, began to proclaim who Jesus was to all who could hear (see Luke 2:36-38).
In the Western tradition, these latter two ceremonies are celebrated on February 2 which is 40 days after Christmas. Some celebrate it as The Feast of the Purification, focusing on Mary, while others celebrate it as The Feast of the Presentation, focusing on Jesus. A tradition developed to hold an evening service on that day. Churches were filled with candles and people would bring their own candles from home. During the service all the candles were blessed for use in the next year to highlight what Simeon said about Jesus: that He is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.” Hence this day also became known as Candlemas.
As with the other songs of Christmas, the Song of Simeon became a part of the liturgical tradition and was sung generally at evening services. In the Western tradition it became a part of Compline, the final prayer service of the daily canonical hours. In some Lutheran churches the Nunc Dimittis is sung in the Divine Service following the distribution of Holy Communion highlighting the Doctrine of the Real Presence (click here for an explanation within the context of a worship service).
Sadly, many Christians no longer sing the Biblical Christmas songs. These songs are important because they were first sung when the promises of God were in the process of being fulfilled. Among other things they helped to shift the focus of believers from relying on external things such as rites and sacrifices for salvation to looking to Jesus Himself, the Word incarnate who is the Savior of the world. They are also summaries of basic Biblical doctrine that proclaim the secrets of God hidden for ages. The doctrines proclaimed in them are founded upon the Old Testament and then more fully revealed in the New Testament. Simeon’s statement about the Gentiles, for instance, became in its ultimate form the Great Commission, Jesus’ last words on earth (Matthew 28:16-20). It is a statement that began to be fulfilled in the mission work of the Apostle Paul and inspires the Christian church to this day.
Below are some musical settings of the Song of Simeon. They include a few settings of Martin Luther’s paraphrase of the Nunc Dimittis, “Mit Fried und Freud fahr ich dahin” (“In Peace and Joy I Now Depart”).
NUNC DIMITTIS – Traditional Latin Chant (adapted)
NUNC DIMITTIS – William Byrd (c. 1540-1623)
NUNC DIMITTIS – Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
NUNC DIMITTIS – Sir George Dyson (1883-1964)
IN PEACE AND JOY I NOW DEPART – Martin Luther (1483-1546)
IN PEACE AND JOY I NOW DEPART (#2 of Suite Luther) – Barbara Harbach (b. 1946)
1 For more information about circumcision ceremonies, visit Brit Milah: The Covenant of Circumcision.