In Phyllis Tickle’s multi-volume work for daily prayers, The Divine Hours, one of the final prayers for each night is the one traditionally called in Latin the Nunc Dimittis. It comes from today’s reading.
In the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, we have the origin of three traditional songs of the Church: first, the Magnificat of Mary—each of these songs takes its title from the Latin translation of the first few words, in this case Magnificat anima mea Dominum, my soul magnifies the Lord—then the Benedictus (Blessed be the God of Israel) of Zechariah when he’s allowed to speak again after the miraculous birth of his son John, and finally, the one in today’s reading, the Nunc Dimittis (Lord, you are now dismissing your servant in peace), which many who pray the Hours say at the end of Compline, the final prayer office of the day.
It makes sense, really, because we hope that through the course of a day we have had the opportunity to see God’s work and God’s salvation. But when Simeon first uttered it, it was much more than that.
Compressed into just a few verses of Luke 2, we have no less than three rituals and two trips to the Temple. The first happens eight days after Jesus is born; according to the Law all male Jewish babies had to be circumcised. Mary and Joseph may have been poor, but they observed the Law as best they could.
Since they had found themselves in Bethlehem—just a few miles outside Jerusalem—when Jesus was born, they were able to go to the Temple for this important milestone in Jesus’ religious upbringing. They had probably stayed near there after Jesus was born, possibly with family in Bethlehem, or maybe even with Zechariah and Elizabeth in the Judean hill country, until the time the Law prescribed for Mary to isolate after childbirth was completed. At that point they went to the Temple again to offer the required sacrifice to end her purification time.
The sacrifice they offer is one way we know they were poor. According to the Law, the sacrifice was to be a lamb and a dove; but if a family could not afford a lamb, they could bring two doves instead. (For some sacrifices, although I don’t know about this one, if someone couldn’t even afford to buy the two birds, they could simply bring a small measure of flour. The sacrifice was meant to be an outward demonstration of what was already happening within a person’s heart and life; it was not an end unto itself where bringing the correct animals or saying the correct words would magically change the person.)
The Law also said that the firstborn of every womb, human as well as domestic animal, was holy and must be dedicated to God, so Mary and Joseph were there to do that, too. We still dedicate children, although we dedicate all children, not just the
firstborn, promising that we will do our best to raise those children into mature Christians.
In Mary and Joseph’s time, a child dedicated to the Lord could be redeemed for five shekels. There isn’t any mention of that happening with Jesus, which raises a question: Was this detail left out because Luke didn’t think it was important, or was he not redeemed; and if that’s the case, was that meant to indicate that his parents were too poor, or are we meant to understand that Jesus was dedicated to God and remained so throughout his life? Luke never puts in or leaves out something without a good reason; I suspect Jesus’ not being released from his dedication to God is one more detail intended to show us that he had an unusual birth and life and an unusually close relationship with God.
It was during this second trip to the Temple, when Jesus was a little over a month old, that Mary and Joseph met two very elderly people.
First came Simeon, who doesn’t appear to have any actual business in the Temple, no prayers to say, no sacrifices to offer. Instead, like so many in the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, Acts, Simeon is led by the Holy Spirit to go there at that particular time. Simeon was righteous and devout, Luke tells us, and had been watching and waiting for “the consolation of Israel,” by which Luke meant the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. He listened when the Spirit spoke to him, and he did what the Spirit led him to do, and this time the Spirit sent him to the Temple so he could see the One he had been watching and waiting for—not a king in royal purple, but a six-week-old baby in his mother’s arms.
Simeon knew immediately who Jesus was, and then he sang his song, the one we may pray daily as the Nunc Dimittis:
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 Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.
On Simeon’s lips this song is a thanksgiving for release from a period of servitude. God had let it be known to him that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. Perhaps he had long been ready, but every day he woke up forked end down, thinking, “Will this be the day?”
The day finally came, and he rejoiced. He held the baby Messiah in his arms and blessed the boy’s parents.
Then the word of the Lord came to him—for he was a prophet—and he spoke of the child’s future, and that of his mother. This child will turn the world upside down, he said; some will rise, some will fall, some will resist, and that resistance will one day lead to great sorrow for Mary. I wonder what she would have done at that moment if she had fully understood what Simeon was predicting.
Simeon’s prayers and prophecy drew the attention of another elderly person at the Temple, the widow Anna. After being married for only seven years, and presumably having had no child, Anna lost her husband. Luke doesn’t tell us what happened to her family of origin or her husband’s, but they must have been out of the picture by then, because Anna had nowhere to go when her husband died. So she went to live at the Temple. I don’t know if there were quarters set up in the Temple precincts to house widows like Anna, or if she was simply a homeless woman who had made her bed in a corner of the women’s court in the Temple.
But in either case, she was there that day praying, and so she heard Simeon speaking to Mary and Joseph, and went to see what was going on. She may well have known Simeon; after all, she had lived in the Temple for several decades and saw lots of people come and go, and she probably was well acquainted with the regulars. Maybe she even knew his story, how his life had been preserved so he could see the Messiah’s arrival.
She went to investigate, and as she looked upon the little family, the word of the Lord came to her—for she, too, was a prophet. She didn’t speak so much to Mary and Joseph, though; she began to speak to others in the Temple, praising God and telling them that the One they had been waiting for had finally arrived.
That’s where our reading for today ends; there are actually three more verses in the episode, but they just tell us that at this point the Holy Family goes home to Galilee and Jesus grows up.
Why is this episode included in Luke’s Gospel? Actually, why are there birth and childhood narratives about Jesus in the Gospels at all? Only Luke and Matthew include them; in Mark Jesus shows up only when he goes to be baptized by John, and the Fourth Gospel begins by placing Jesus in a cosmic context that goes all the way back to Creation.
For a long time the church mostly taught that the main point of the infancy stories was to show Jesus as especially pure, because his mother was a virgin. I don’t think that was really Luke’s or Matthew’s purpose for including them, though. The business about Mary’s virginity and Jesus’ resulting purity, free from “original sin” that the church came to understand as having a lot to do with the parts of our bodies that our swimsuits cover, came much later and was sort of read back into the stories.
Yes, both Matthew and Luke make it clear that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born. But they were trying to get across not Jesus’ purity, but the fact that he—his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection—was miraculous from the very beginning.
The story about Simeon and Anna meeting the baby Jesus in the Temple is intended to show us the same thing. Jesus was born of a virgin and sung of by angels, and shepherds who had no reason to know about him heard that song and came to see him. Then when his family, who were observant Jews, went to the Temple as required after his birth, more people became aware of this holy child.
On the one hand, the Gospels are all careful to make sure we know Jesus was a human being just like us: he was born just like we were, grew up in a family with parents and siblings, sometimes exasperated his parents—just like all of us did at one time or another when we were kids—ate and drank and socialized and got tired and suffered grief, just like we all have done. But at the same time, the Gospels want to make clear that Jesus wasn’t just a human being.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Angels sang at his birth. Rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles, old and young alike, all found their way to him and recognized that he was the One whom God had promised. He was one of us—but he was more than just one of us, and that is what has made all the difference.