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John DelHousaye on Praying the Nunc Dimittis

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Simeon in the Temple, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631

Luke has given us three prayers for Advent—the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis. This meditation focuses on the third; I intend to offer context for the focus (kavanah) we bring to the prayer.

This section in Luke’s birth narrative of Jesus has four chiastic subunits:

A         Piety of Parents (2:21–24)

B          Simeon’s Piety (2:25–28a)

B′         Simeon’s Prayer (2:28b–32)

A′        Piety of Parents (2:33–35)

Luke frames the unit by emphasizing Mary and Joseph’s obedience to the Law of the Lord. In the first subunit, Jesus is circumcised and presented to the Lord in the temple. This was the first shedding of his blood. When God covenanted with Abraham, he commanded, “He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised” (Gen 17:12 ESV). God goes on to promise the birth of Isaac (vv. 15–27), and then paradoxically commands his sacrifice, although the son is ultimately spared (ch. 22). The presentation evokes the exodus when God killed all the first-born males in Egypt. Now God the Father will sacrifice his only Son.

At the center of the unit, Simeon “takes up” (dechomai, δέχομαι) the body of Christ (2:28a). The verb describes receiving something like a gift (see Phil 4:18). At the Lord’s Supper, “After taking up (dechomai) the cup and giving thanks,” Jesus said: “Take this and divide it among yourselves” (Luke 22:17).

Simeon had been yearning “for the comforting of Israel,” a motif in Isaiah. The prophet looks forward to the end of exile and a Davidic Messiah. After the first call for comfort (40:1), the ministry of the Baptist is foretold (vv. 3–5), a passage that is cited in the next chapter (Luke 3:4–6), and then we find this meditation on God’s promises and life’s brevity:

All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field . . .

[selah]

The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word (rēma, ῥῆμα) of our God will stand forever. (Isa 40:6–8 ESV)

Simeon “blessed God and said:

‘Now you are releasing your servant, Master,
according to your word (rēma, ῥῆμα) in peace. [Isa 40:8]
For my eyes saw your salvation
that you prepared before (the face of) all the peoples,
a light for the revelation of the peoples
and glory of your people Israel.’”

The Nunc Dimittis (“Now as you dismiss”) has been sung or recited in the evening before sleep, a kind of death, since the fifth century and following the Lord’s Supper. Like the characters in the story, we bring our weariness of life to the Nunc Dimittis. T. S. Eliot expresses this suffering in A Song for Simeon (1928):

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Yet God offers personally redemptive moments in a fallen world. We see the pattern with Jacob and Simeon, and we have all been given the Holy Spirit in the new covenant. Until then, as part of the body of Christ, we take up the bread and wine and pray expectantly. Instead of competing with other disciples or trying to control circumstances, we serve joyfully until our release. We have seen God’s intervention, and may go in peace.


About the Author

Dr. John DelHousaye joined the faculty of Phoenix Seminary in 2001 and predominantly teaches the books and language of the New Testament. Dr. DelHousaye serves the local church through preaching and teaching, as well as through the development of discipleship materials. His academic interests include Jesus, Judaism, the Church Fathers and Mothers, gender, justice, non-Western expressions of Christianity, and spiritual formation. He has taught at Seminario Evangelico de Lima and Arizona Christian University, also serving on the Advisory Council for Hope Women’s Center in Phoenix.

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