Canticles of the Christ: The Nunc Dimittis
Midweek of the Third Sunday in Advent
Commemoration of Katharina von Bora Luther
December 20, 2017
Preparation is always in the hope that you will realize the fruition of your preparation. If you do not expect it to come about there is no incentive to prepare. But Advent teaches us to prepare, to give heed to God’s promises and hold tenaciously to them no matter how long it takes for Him to bring them about. We have seen in the canticles of the Christ—the Song of Mary, the Song of Zechariah, and this evening the Song of Simeon—that preparation gives way to joy when God brings about His promises.
The promise was of the Savior. Mary spoke of her joy of the Savior being in her very womb in the Magnificat. The promise was of the one who would prepare the way for the Savior. Zechariah spoke of his joy in his son John being that very forerunner in the Benedictus. These promises were fundamental to the Old Testament Scriptures. The people of God knew these prophecies. They were waiting for them. They expected them. When they came about they rejoiced.
But then there was one that you don’t hear about until Luke tells you about it because it was a promise to an individual. You hear nothing of Simeon in the Old Testament. You don’t see any indication that God would tell one particular individual that he would not die until he saw the promised Messiah. But Luke tells us about this promise to Simeon because his response is a canticle of the Christ, a song the Church sings in perpetuity because it goes beyond his own joy and the fulfillment of the prophecy made to him privately. Just as Mary rejoiced in the Magnificat, the Church has taken her canticle for itself as its own song of praise. Just as Zechariah was joyful in the Benedictus, the Church sings his canticle as its own. And so with the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis.
What makes this canticle so remarkable is that while Simeon in a fashion similar to Mary and Zechariah rejoices in the blessings he personally receives, his praise is also, even especially, for the blessings given to all. Mary and Zechariah recognized that they were individual recipients of a blessing, but it was the result of prophecy foretold in Scripture. They knew the purpose of those prophecies was salvation for all people. Simeon’s was different. It was a prophecy directed to him and for his own blessing. But his joy could not be contained to blessing for himself alone. We sing his canticle, the Nunc Dimittis, in the same way—as fulfillment of promise to each of us personally as well as to others.
We don’t know anything about Simeon except for what Luke tells us about him and his encounter with the infant Jesus. Mary and Joseph brought their little son to the temple in accordance with the law of Moses. They were to offer a sacrifice after the birth of the firstborn son. He would be called holy to the Lord. This was in remembrance of the sparing of the firstborn son at the Passover when the Angel of Death struck down the firstborn of all those homes which did not paint the doorpost with the blood of a lamb. Jesus was being presented at the temple for the fulfillment of this law.
But while they were there God brought about something else. A man named Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel and, Luke says, the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Christ is Messiah, anointed one. The Lord’s Christ is the one God anointed for bringing about salvation. We are not told what Simeon was to look for. Luke simply says he came into the temple by the Holy Spirit while Jesus’ parents were fulfilling what they had come for.
Simeon took baby Jesus into his arms and blessed God. Did he introduce himself to Joseph and Mary first? Did he explain why he was doing what he was doing? Did he ask them if he could hold Jesus? Were they thinking they should call security? In His divine wisdom God desired that we not know. What we do know is that Simeon was aware that this little child, a baby, was the one. The Lord’s Christ. The one he had been promised to see before he would die.
And in taking Him up into his arms, he blessed God and said, “Master, now you are letting your slave depart in peace according to Your word.” His master, his Lord, had fulfilled His promise. He was a mere slave, subject to Him, and yet the recipient of pure grace. He could now depart in peace. In other words, he could now die. It happens at a certain point in life that some people are ready to die. They keep hanging on and wonder how long they have to wait. At some point the body gives out and you recognize that this life is not what we are meant for ultimately. It is the life to come. It is the departure from this world into the heavenly glories. Simeon was ready. He waited, he trusted in the promise given to Him. He now held in his arms the fulfillment of that promise. Lord, let Your servant depart in peace.
And then something remarkable. He understood perfectly what was happening. Had he known before? Was he only now able to see it? We don’t know. All we know is that what he sees as he looks down at that little child is salvation. Lord, let Your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen Your salvation. I wonder what Simeon had expected to see when he would finally see the Lord’s Christ. Whatever it was, he saw pure salvation as his eyes beheld the baby Jesus. Remarkable.
The canticles of the Christ have had a special place in the life of the Church, becoming part of her liturgy, as we sing the ancient songs of the people of God and own them for ourselves. The Nunc Dimittis has been wedded in the liturgy to the Lord’s Supper as the Post-Communion Canticle. As Simeon held Jesus in his arms and saw the Lord’s salvation, we eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus in His sacred meal and see the Lord’s salvation. We sing, Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace according to Your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation. We sing this after receiving the Lord’s Christ not simply as departing in peace ready to face a new week but mainly in the same way Simeon prayed it: we are ready. We may depart in peace. We can now die and everything will be all right because the Holy Spirit has promised us that we have been forgiven, we have received salvation, we are going to heaven.
This salvation Simeon sings of has been prepared in the sight of all people, a light to be revealed to the nations, and the glory of His people Israel. Simeon could have simply given thanks in the blessing he received. He could have rejoiced in the gift given to him. But he couldn’t help but rejoice also in this gift that was for all. He had been waiting, and whether everyone knew it or not, what he had been waiting for was for them too.
And so it is with us. We know. This is why we come here, to God’s House. Simeon came in the Holy Spirit. We do too, as we confess in the Catechism, the Holy Spirit has called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified us by the Gospel. We come to the Lord’s House to receive the Lord’s Christ, in Word and Sacrament. We come and see His salvation. We come and His promise is fulfilled. We can die in peace. We can live in peace. Having partaken of Christ in the Sacrament we can be a light to the world.
We take up the Canticles of the Christ, certainly these three we have looked at in Advent, but also all the others from the Scriptures that have made their way into the liturgy, because our waiting is not just sitting around waiting. It is waiting in the knowledge that God has fulfilled His promises. Christ has come. He was born, He accomplished salvation on the cross, He destroyed death by rising from it. We have nothing to fear in death. We may depart in peace. And like Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon, we may do so with a song in our heart, and joy on our lips. Amen.