Day 21: Sunday

Week Four: The canticle of Simeon (the Nunc Dimittis) – Luke 2:29-32

Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s Song of Praise, by Aert de Gelder (or Arent, 26 October 1645 – 27 August 1727), one of Rembrandt’s last pupils while in Amsterdam (1661 to 1663).


The names given to each of the canticles are from the first word of each Latin Vulgate translation. Therefore the Nunc dimittis from Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, or “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart…”


The circumstances under which Simeon uttered his song-petition, thanksgiving, and prophecy are narrated by Luke (2:21-35). The words following those quoted above, “according to thy word in peace”, are explained in Luke 2:26: “And he had received an answer from the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.” Brief though the Canticle is, it abounds in Old-Testament allusions. Thus, in the following verses, “Because my eyes have seen thy salvation” alludes to Isaiah 52:10, rendered afterwards by Luke (3:6), “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God”. Verse 31, “Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples” accords with the Psalmist (97:2); and verse 32, “A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel”, recalls Isaiah 42:6.


“And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon…” (Luke 2:25). The name Simeon in Hebrew means “hearing” or “one who hears” from the verb shema. In the Hebrew language, hearing is deeply connected with obedience. Recall the shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” When someone was said to “hear” the voice of God in the Old Testament, it was implied that this person also heeded that voice. Simeon, in his name and in his character as presented in Luke’s Gospel, embodies the obedient man praised in the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings of the Old Testament. He also symbolizes all of the Jewish people, who have waited for the Messiah since the promise was first given in Genesis 3.


The song of Simeon has also played an important role in Church liturgy through the ages. The text of the Nunc Dimittis is given in full in the brief evening prayer found in the Apostolic Constitutions. In the Catholic church’s office, the daily cycle of monastic prayers, the canticle is assigned to Complin. If St. Benedict did not originate this canonical Hour, he gave to it its liturgical character; but he nevertheless did not include the Canticle, which was afterwards incorporated into the richer Complin Service of the Roman Rite, where it is preceded by the beautiful responsory, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit) etc., with the Antiphon following, “Salva nos, Domine, vigilantes, custodi nos dormientes” (O Lord, keep us waking, guard us sleeping) etc., all this harmonizing exquisitely with the spirit of the Nunc Dimittis.


Read Simeon’s Song and the narrative context around it. (Luke 2:21-35). Augustine argued that the Lukan canticles themselves are good examples of faith, hope, and charity at work in human beings: they aim to teach the reader how to behold the incarnation which requires faith, how to respond to it, which requires love, and how to hope
for eschatological fulfillment based on the knowledge that the promises of Christ’s first coming have already been fulfilled. If lf we approach Simeon’s song in the way that Augustine suggests Scripture to be read, and in the way that Luke intended for them to be read by his own admission (indeed even in the way, it may be argued, that the cantors themselves intended) – namely as texts through which the charity, faith, and hope of the reader may be strengthened: then,


  1. How does Simeon’s song require love, faith and hope as he beholds the incarnation?
  2. How does Simeon respond to each in a way that fulfills the promises of Christ’s first coming?


As you reflect on this week’s last canticle on this Sabbath day and the questions above, take time to listen prayerfully to Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Dunc Dimittis (1524?-1594)..