Saturday, March 2, 2013

I understand why Luther loved the Nunc Dimittis. . .

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.   BCP 1662

Truthfully, there is little that can be identified as Lutheran in the Lutheran liturgy.  We are, after all, evangelical catholics and we joyfully treasured the Mass as it came to us, albeit cleansed from some of the accretions that had overwhelmed its form and content.  But we did add on little thing to the Mass that is a distinctly Lutheran addition.  That is the placement of the Nunc Dimittis as the Post-Communion Canticle.

Another Lutheran contribution to the church's liturgy is the use of the Nunc Dimittis as the post-communion canticle: "Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace." At first glance it appears that we're taking the words of Simeon completely out of context. After all, what does his experience have to do with ours? How can Holy Communion ever compare to Simeon's unique honor of holding the infant Jesus in his arms during the child's first visit to the temple at the tender age of 40 days (Lk 2:25-38)?

Of course, we would love to have been in the temple and shared in the experience with Simeon. For that matter, we would give anything to have been the first--along with the shepherds--to see the infant Jesus, or to have been with the Magi as they offered their gifts to him. But, as Luther so insightfully taught, we don't find Christ in those places. Through the events of his incarnation, birth, crucifixion, and resurrection our Lord has accomplished our salvation. But the benefits of his saving work--forgiveness, life, and salvation--are distributed to us through his means of grace, his Word and Sacraments. We can't go back to stand with Simeon in the temple. The good news is that we don't have to.

So when, following our reception of the Lord's Supper, we sing Simeon's ancient song of faith--"Lord, now let your servant depart in peace"--nothing could be more appropriate. Indeed, our eyes have seen his salvation. Better yet, we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8). So, what could be better than holding the infant Jesus in our arms? How about eating and drinking his body and blood given for the forgiveness of our sins? This truly is heaven on earth, because here we have Jesus and all his benefits.  ---from the LCMS website

I understand the love of Luther and the Lutherans for this canticle.  Having grown up to the setting from TLH page 15 and the Vespers setting of the option of the Nunc Dimittis, the words grow on you.  I always found the "Thank the Lord and Sing His Praise" option of LBW and LW to be a pale and tepid replacement for the one most profoundly Lutheran addition to the Mass form.  Having prayed Compline alone and as an office of the Church (Mondays at 7 pm), the Nunc Dimittis is appreciated even more by frequent usage.  Our tradition of Evening Prayer (which, I admit, love more than Vespers) is to close with the Quinn setting (LSB 937) to the tune Land of Rest, preceded and followed by the sung antiphon from Compline.  With the lights low, the last sound before leaving for home is the echo of that antiphon.

Anyway, as I said, I have grown extraordinarily fond of the Nunc Dimittis.  It is hard not to!  If you are not familiar with this canticle borne of Simeon's words in the Temple, become familiar.  Pray them.  Sing them.  They not only reflect the heartfelt prayer of the Christian soul, they teach us how to live our lives as Christians, redeemed from sin and death and born anew in the baptismal flood to life everlasting.

Pick and choose.... I have put a fair smattering of musical forms for the Nunc Dimittis...  Listen up


Unknown said...

Here are two performances of my favorite version of the Nunc Dimittis. It is best to close your eyes when you listen to them, because they are not performed in a church setting, and the visual is, at least for me, distracting. The second one is sung by the famous Russian bass, Fyodor Shalyapin. Because of the age of the recording it seems to me to be not as listenable as the contemporary one, in spite of the fact that Shalyapin’s voice must have been magnificent. The music was composed by the 18th century composer A. L. Vedel. Today he is called a great “Ukrainian” composer, although during his lifetime that part of Russian was called Malorossia, or literally, Little Russia. In other words, when you hear Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian Symphony”, it is by no means little; rather it is the “Ukrainian” symphony.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart
Sorry, the links are lost in copying, so if you want to hear these, you will actually have to copy them.

Anonymous said...

I love this one:

And it's from Lutheran Scandinavia.

David, son of Jack said...

Greetings from a Catholic convert who grew up in a Missouri Synod church in Detroit (and attended the day school for nine years) and who also loves TLH liturgy!
The Order of Matins still rings through my heart due to our Thursday morning chapel each week, and the Nunc Dimittis came back to my mind as I was reading Luke this morning. I googled to see if that particular canticle was ever a part of the mass. Apparently it wasn't, but I am twice blessed to have found your blog!
May our LORD bless you and keep you strong in His service!!