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.Luke 2:29-32
Through the centuries, the Church has sung Simeon’s Song, the Nunc Dimittis, at two important moments: When the Church gathers for Compline, or Night Prayer, the last service before sleep. And after the Church celebrates Holy Communion, as a post-communion canticle. We shall see why these are both very appropriate times to sing this beautiful song.
The Nunc Dimittis receives its title from the Latin for its first two words. It was first sung by Simeon in the Temple after he took Jesus in his arms. Simeon was a righteous and devout man and had been promised that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. When Joseph and Mary entered the Temple, Simeon saw his promise fulfilled, and he sang his song of prayer.
Consecrating Their Firstborn
Joseph and Mary went to the temple because the ceremonial law required two things at the birth of the firstborn son. In the early days of the exodus, all healthy firstborn sons were consecrated to the Lord. This practice is tied to the Passover, when the Lord spared the lives of the firstborn Hebrews. The firstborn were spared their lives, but now were to be set apart for service to the Lord. Later, when the Lord instituted the Levitical priesthood, the service of all firstborn males was no longer required. But the parents would still present the child before the Lord and make an offering to redeem their son from Temple duty (Exodus 13:1–2; Numbers 3:44–48).
The Old Testament law also required that 40 days after the birth of a son, a one-year-old lamb be sacrificed as a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove offered as a sin offering (Leviticus 12:6). The purpose of these sacrifices was to atone for the sins of the mother and render her ceremonially clean. If the parents were poor, a pigeon would suffice. Mary and Joseph were indeed poor, so no lamb was offered for Mary’s atonement.
It was time for Mary and Joseph to make their way to the Temple to fulfill these duties. This humble, young family of our Lord would have hardly been noticed among the crowds at the Temple that day. They would be just another devout, pious Jewish family presenting mother and son to the Lord. But there was someone there that day who saw with the eyes of faith that something special was indeed happening. Simeon was led by the Holy Spirit to the Temple that day, and was given the eyes of faith to see in the baby Jesus his Savior, the long-awaited Messiah.
The song that he sang is so powerful, in part because of the time and place in which it was sung. The long-awaited Messiah has come, and is being consecrated to the Lord in the Lord’s house. Salvation has come. And it was Simeon who was led by the Spirit and given the eyes of faith to see it.
The Temple and the Church
Something like this happens every time we come to church. We are led by the Holy Spirit, and are given the eyes of faith to see Jesus in our midst. Even more than that, when we celebrate Holy Communion we, like Simeon before us, are given the grace to hold Jesus in our arms.
How can we not sing Simeon’s Song after holding Jesus in our arms? After seeing, touching, and tasting our Lord, and becoming united with him in Holy Communion? It is no wonder that the church has so often used this as a post-communion canticle. After we receive the body and blood of our Lord, we can truly sing:
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.
Every time we receive this Sacrament and sing the Nunc Dimittis, we, like Simeon before us, are saying: Okay, Lord, now that you have placed your Son in my hands, I place my life in your hands. My own eyes have seen your salvation. Now you are dismissing your servant in peace.
Dying in Peace
Indeed, that is one of the reasons why this song is also sung in the Church’s daily prayer at Compline, right before we go to sleep. Sleep has long been thought of as a form of death, just as waking up every morning is a type of resurrection. We go to our sleep each night as though going to our death, to rest in the peace of Jesus. But by doing this we are ready to one day go to our death, as though simply going to sleep, trusting that we will awake in the peace of Jesus.
And that is why we sing Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis before going to sleep. Lord, now we can rest in peace, for we have seen your salvation. We have held your only Son in our arms through the bread and wine of Holy Communion. We are ready now, to die or to live, but to do it all for you.
We sing Simeon’s Song, after Holy Communion and before sleep because this is not only Simeon’s Song. It is also our song. It is the Church’s song. Like Simeon before us, we have been shown what we have been promised, what our souls have been waiting for and seeking. Now we can sleep in peace. Now we can even die in peace. For our eyes, too, “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.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.