On February 2 was the feast of The Presentation of the Lord – it has a special meaning for Compline, so I will focus my thoughts on it this week.
The second chapter of the Gospel of Luke tells the story of how Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to “present him to the Lord”; it was also to fulfill the rite of purification forty days after childbirth. I’ll let the gospel continue the story:
“Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:25-32, New Revised Standard Version)
“There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:36-38)
The story of Simeon and Anna has two strong ideas which are central to the Office of Compline; the first is the message of Jesus as a light to enlighten the nations. Simeon echoes Isaiah 49:6: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” The whole “Song of Simeon”, whose Latin beginning was Nunc dimittis servum tuum in pace, was placed in Compline in the Roman Rite as a Gospel Canticle just before the Preces (prayers), a position comparable to Benedictus at Lauds and the Magnificat at Vespers. During Compline, as the light turns to darkness, we turn to Christ our light. Whenever I sing this canticle I am always reminded of the Presentation, which is also called Candlemas. Before the beginning of the Mass, there is a procession during which the Nunc Dimittis with its antiphon Lumen ad revelationem gentium is sung, and beeswax candles are blessed.
It’s another feast of light at a time when winter is at its midpoint; celebrated 40 days after Christmas, on February 2, it is about halfway through the 90 days of winter. To underscore it as a turning-point, the Marian Antiphon sung at the end of Compline changes to a new one, Ave Regina Caelorum. The images of light continue on February 3, St. Blaise’s Day, when in the Catholic church people have their throats blessed by the priest, who holds two crossed candles over their heads or throats.
The other deep symbol of the Nunc Dimittis for Compline is that of Simeon now able to die in peace because he has seen the Savior. In Compline, we prepare for sleep, but we also prepare for that greater sleep which is death. We, like Simeon, are able to let go, and rest in the hope of the Resurrection. I am also moved by Luke’s inclusion of both male and female elders in the story. Not only is Christ’s light and resurrection available to all peoples, there is no distinction in gender or rank (always take note whenever “widows” are mentioned!).
I’ve updated this post so you can listen to a setting of the Nunc Dimittis by William Byrd, on the website that accompanies my book, Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline (2013). Also, a lovely contemporary composition by Johannes Eccard (1553 – 1611) tells the story of the Presentation; you can listen to a recording of it here.
May the last verse be our prayer today: Help now thy servants, gracious Lord, That we may ever be As once the faithful Simeon was, Rejoicing but in Thee; And when we must from earth departure take, May gently fall asleep, and with Thee wake.