Image description

The Octagon Parish

The Nunc Dimittis


Simeon’s song of praise and prophecy. Luke 2 29-32


Context. Simeon was the old man at the Temple who recognised the baby Jesus as the Lord when Mary and Joseph presented him there in accordance with Jewish practice.


Opening hymn based on the Nunc Dimittis (Tune Winchester Old, normally used for ‘While Shepherds watched’)


Lord, let your servant now depart, into your promised rest, since my expecting eyes have been with your salvation blest.

Which ‘till this time your favoured saints, and prophets only knew; Long since prepared but now set forth in all you peoples’ view.

A light to show the heathen world the way to saving grace; But O, the light and glory both, of Israel’s chosen race.

To Christ thy peoples’ glory be, watching and doubting cease. Grant unto us, your servants all, our own discharge in peace.

Image description


Talk by the Ven. Douglas McKittrick, Archdeacon of Chichester


Luke 2 22-33 King James Bible


And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;


(As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)  And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.


And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.  And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ.


And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,  Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,


Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:


For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,


Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;


A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.**


And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.


There are some variations in translations:

The earlier Latin Vulgate Bible opens ‘Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord’. 

** The Book of Common Prayer 1662 ends ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel’


The story emphasises how deeply devoutly Jewish the holy family is in observing the law and customs. It is Luke alone, the only non-Jewish Gospel writer, who tells us this story.


After the purification of Mary after childbirth they come to the Temple for the presentation of Jesus. (Many years ago it was also customary for the Church of England to offer women a service of thanksgiving, the ‘Churching of Women’, after child-birth. (Book of Common Prayer) The practice dates back to the Jewish deliverance from Egypt, the first born son had to be presented to the Lord in order to be redeemed. Jesus is himself the redeemer though.


Simeon is just towards men and devout towards God. Prompted by the Holy Spirit he comes to the temple just at the time the holy family is there.


Simeon had been promised through the Holy Ghost that he would not die before he saw Jesus, the redeemer. Simeon had waited all his life for this moment. He took the baby in his frail elderly arms and sang this song as he held the saviour of the world.


The Nunc Dimittis and the Old Testament.

1.‘Mine eyes have seen thy salvation’ v.30 links to Isaiah 52:10 written eight hundred years before – ‘and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God ‘


2. Luke 2.10  And the angel said unto them [Mary and Joseph], Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

and ‘Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken." Isaiah 40.5


3. Luke 2.31   Which thou has prepared before the face of all people

Psalm 96.2-3 Sing unto the Lord, …….. Declare his glory among the heathen, his wonders among all people


4. Luke 2.32  32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.**

Isaiah 42.6 I the LORD ….. will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles


Liturgical context

The Nunc Dimittis is the last of the three canticles - the Benedictus (said at morning prayer), the Magnificat (morning and evening prayer) and the Nunc Dimittis (evening and night prayer, Compline). 


It is a prayer of praise and prophecy with a long history in worship not just in the Anglican church but in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches and the Orthodox church where it forms part of Vespers.


The Nunc Dimittis and the arts.

Literature.  TS Eliot poem A Song for Simeon.  Roald Dahl uses Nunc Dimittis as the title of a short story.

Art.  Several have painted the story including Rembrandt. Around 1700 the Dutch painter de Wet, created the Song of Simeon, shown above.


The infant lies in Simeon’s arms. Mary prays beside them. Both are gazing up. The baby, characteristically, is dressed in Dutch costume while Mary has a lace cuff showing beneath her shawl. In the background you can just pick out Joseph. (The centrality of women is one of the themes in Luke. Here Mary’s face and hands are bathed in light beside the infant and Simeon.)


Music: Rachmaninov Vespers


Organ recital by Malcom Brinson

As with the Magnificat there is little organ music for the Nunc Dimittis other than chorales and a hymn tune by Bach. Malcolm played us his own arrangement of the version of the Nunc Dimittis sung at the end of the John le Carré ‘Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy’ TV episodes in 1979.

All original material on this website is Copyright © 2014-2017 The Octagon PCC