Posts Tagged Nunc dimittis


CandlemasIn the Christian calendar, February 2 is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also known as Candlemas (or “Candle-Mass”). This year, it falls on a Sunday, and we’re going to observe it in a new and special way at Compline at  St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, and so I wanted to give you a preview.

Candlemas commemorates the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, on the fortieth day after his birth, to fulfill the Jewish law requiring both ritual purification of the mother and presentation of a firstborn son. As recounted in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2: 22-38, the aged Simeon (who may have been the officiating priest) took Jesus in his arms and said what we now know as the Nunc Dimittis:

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
 your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation
 which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
A light to reveal you to the nations
 and the glory of your people Israel.

In addition to Simeon, an elderly woman named Anna prophesied about Jesus as the long-awaited messiah – in fact, she is the first to utter this prophecy.

The Christian celebration of the feast of the Presentation (earlier called Purification) can be traced back to the early fourth century. When the birth of Christ became set to December 25, the celebration forty days later on February 2 was almost exactly midway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, coinciding with the returning light and the beginning of preparation for spring planting. It became the time when candles were blessed for the new year, and carried by everyone in a great procession.

Compline was influenced by themes of light and salvation, and the Nunc Dimittis was made a key part of the Cathedral observance of the office. Jesus, as the “light of the nations,” gives us hope and encouragement as the day’s light dims and darkness takes over. And the themes of salvation and resurrection give us hope at the time when sleep presents us with a portent of our own death.

At St. Mark’s, people will receive candles on the way in to the Cathedral. The Compline Choir, Dean, and acolytes will gather in the chapel behind the altar, where the candles will be blessed, and the Nunc Dimittis sung with its antiphon Lumen ad revelationem gentium. Then a procession will be formed and go out into the cathedral, with the choir singing the chant Adorna thalamum, while acolytes will pass the light to everyone’s candles. The procession will stop at the altar, while it is incensed, and then the choir will process to its normal place singing the chant Obtulerunt pro eo Domino (“They offered for him unto the Lord a pair of turtledoves…”). From there, the Compline Service will take place as usual – except it will be entirely in the light of everyone’s candles.

Candles and incense and processions – oh my! Sounds like a beautiful way to celebrate this special midwinter day in the Emerald City.

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Lord, keep us steadfast

crocus in springThe liturgical season of Lent is a time of quieting the mind and simplifying one’s life.  We do this not only by giving up things that are unessential, but by pursuing new activities that deepen us.  In the Compline Choir, we observe the season by making changes in how we sing parts of the office.  The psalm, hymn, and Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon) are often sung in plainsong (simple unison chant).  We also sing the same Orison (sung prayer) at the beginning of Compline each of the weeks of Lent: “Lord, keep us steadfast in your word” (words by Martin Luther, trans. by Catherine Winkworth) — listen to it on our podcast from March 20 (click “Play” — the Orison starts almost immediately). 

This simplification gives us more time to rehearse a more complex anthem, which is sung at the end of the Compline service.  There are many choral compositions appropriate for Lent, especially settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. When Peter Hallock founded the Compline Choir back in the spring of 1956, he had in mind the vocal forces that could sing the Lamentations settings by the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) — and for that reason invited a group of men that could sing this piece, set for altos, tenors, and basses only.  We’ll be singing the first of the Tallis Lamentations in April, and then Hallock’s own setting for choir and solo cello on Palm Sunday.  We started Lent by singing a motet by Tallis on the text “In jejunio et fletu“.  The words are from Joel 2, vs. 12 and 17, and were used as a Responsory at the Office of Matins for the First Sunday of Lent.  Here is a link to a performance by several groups, and a translation:

With fasting and weeping, let the priests say: “Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people, and give not Thy heritage to destruction.” Let the priests weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, “Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people!”

The Second Sunday of Lent the Compline Choir sang the motet “Ne reminiscaris, Domine”, by Jacobus Vaet (ca. 1529 – 1567).  This is a piece not heard very often, as opposed to the “In jejunio”.  It was new to the Compline Choir; Jason Anderson, our director, had made a special edition for us.  What a blessing it is to be a part of a group which is able to meet on a Sunday night, rehearse a new and difficult piece like this, and perform it on live radio an hour-and-a-half later — not perfectly, of course, but with a good degree of credibility.  My favorite part is the ending, where on the words “Thy most precious blood”, there is a change to a slower triple meter — it almost seems like time itself is standing still — a very haunting effect.  (Listen to the podcast from March 20 – the anthem begins at about 19:44).  And the translation:

Remember not, Lord, our offenses, nor the offenses of our forefathers; neither take Thou vengeance of our sins.
Spare us, good Lord, spare Thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy most precious blood.  And be not angry with us forever.

I’ve also made room in my life so that I can focus on more silence and reflection.  I attended a day-retreat at St. Placid Priory on the first Saturday of Lent, where we spent the day with Morgan Atkinson, who showed his documentary film “Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton” (here’s a sample), as well as selections from several other films.  I’ve been subscribing to the daily messages from Abbey of the Arts (see a link on the right), which during Lent are reflections drawn from the writings of the desert fathers and mothers.  I’ve also started submitting sections of my book, Compline Reflections, to a writing coach — a Lenten discipline that I plan to extend through the summer.

May you be steadfast in your observance of this special time of the year, as we enter into Spring and look forward to rebirth and new life.

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Presentation of the Lord in the temple

The Presentation of the Lord

The Presentation of the Lord

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.

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