A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mag & Nunc

The Magnificat (“Song of Mary”) and the Nunc dimittis (“Song of Simeon”), both of which are found in Luke’s gospel, are the two great Gospel canticles of the church. They are among several choices of canticles in Morning Prayer/Matins and the only ones appointed for Evening Prayer/Evensong.* The first is sung by a young pregnant woman whose greeting by an older female relative has affirmed the miraculous message given her by an angel. The second is offered by a man, usually assumed to be an old man, who has beheld the young woman’s child forty days after his birth and recognized, in this tiny baby, the embodiment of God’s salvific plan for the world.

In the Eucharistic lectionary, Mary’s song is included in the gospel reading for Advent IV in year C, as well as the Feast of the Visitation on May 31; Simeon’s occurs in the gospel appointed for the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple on February 2. Neither the Visitation nor the Presentation may be transferred to a Sunday, so that many who are familiar with the context of the Magnificat from its place in Advent (not to mention the popularity of Mary) are not at all aware of the context of the Nunc dimittis (Simeon seldom makes anyone’s list of Top Ten Saints). The somewhat rare occasion of the Presentation falling on Sunday this year gives more people the opportunity to experience Simeon’s song in its scriptural setting.
We’re used to singing and praying these canticles (often referred to as “Mag” and “Nunc”) in tandem, but their connection goes much deeper than simply being paired up in the Daily Office. In Luke’s gospel they serve as bookends for the lovely but brief narrative of Jesus’ infancy. The Fourth Sunday of Advent is the first and only Sunday of that season actually to speak of the upcoming birth of Jesus; the Presentation is the final event recorded by Luke of his infancy. Mary’s young life is only beginning to unfold, though much of what lies ahead of her will be tragic (Simeon tells her that a sword will pierce her soul). Though we don’t really know Simeon’s age, he is usually depicted as elderly, and having been promised by God that he would not die before seeing the Savior, he can behold the holy infant and know that God’s assurances have been fulfilled - he can "depart in peace". The words of Mary’s song belie the oft-held view that she was “meek and mild” – her words are a manifesto of kingdom justice and mercy, the future God has promised, a paean to the Good News. Simeon’s speak of freedom, peace, the reward of faith. Ages ago God had promised Abraham that in him all the peoples of the world would be blessed. The young woman carries in her womb the long-awaited hope of her people from the time of Abraham; the old man holds in his arms that promise realized, not only for Abraham’s descendants, but for all.

In the Greek Orthodox church, Mary is known as the theotokos ("God bearer"); Simeon is called theodoches ("God receiver").

 *Morning and Evening Prayer are two of the spoken daily prayer services (“Offices”) of the church; Matins and Evensong are their sung counterparts.
The texts of the two canticles, from The Book of Common Prayer, are below:

 The Song of Mary   Magnificat  (Luke 1:46-55)
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
    for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *

    the Almighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *

    in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *

    he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *

    and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *

    and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *

    for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *

    to Abraham and his children for ever.
The Song of Simeon    Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32)  Lord, you now have set your servant free *
    to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *

    whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations, *

    and the glory of your people Israel.

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