The end of the Christmas season

Posted 2 February 2010 by
Madonna and Child

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace.”

February 2 is the Feast of the Presentation. This feast celebrates the presentation of Jesus for the blessing given to a firstborn son 40 days after birth. Since Jesus is the light of the world, it became customary to bless your candles for the upcoming year at this service. From this practice of blessing candles, sometimes February 2 is called Candlemas.

Some historic English liturgical traditions that says the Feast of the Presentation is the close of a 40 day Christmas season. While this old tradition is not in our present liturgical calendars, since January 6 we have been celebrating the season of Epiphany. In the season of the Epiphany, we see how Christ was made manifest (known) to those around him during his adult ministry on Earth, just as Jesus was made known at his Presentation as a child. Very soon Epiphany ends as we move into Lent, which is our preparation for the joys of Easter.

A part of the Gospel lesson for February 2 includes the canticle that is known as the Nunc dimittis. The traditional Book of Common Prayer translation of this canticle, taken from Luke 2.29–32, reads,

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;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles 
   and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

(The brief snippet at the beginning of this blog post is the New Revised Standard Version translation of the first line of the Nunc dimittis.)

According to the complete Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Presentation, Simeon was told he would not die until seeing the savior. When presented in the for his blessing as the firstborn son of Mary, Simeon knew that Jesus was the savior he was promised. This meant that Simeon was free to die, for his eyes had seen his salvation.

Because of the association Nunc dimittis has with going to one’s end in peace, the canticle became associated with the final church service of the day, Compline. After Compline you went to bed.

Later, when compiling the Book of Common Prayer, the last two services of the day, Vespers and Compline, were combined into a single service, the Order of Daily Evening Prayer. This made the Magnificat (Song of Mary) and the Nunc dimittis (Song of Simeon) as the standard canticles for the evening office (service).

Here is the Nunc dimittis, as composed by Henry Purcell (1659-1695) as part of his Evening Service in G Minor, Z. 231. The performance is by the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, conducted by Simon Preston. (The Gloria Patria at the end of this Nunc dimittis was actually written by Thomas Roseingrave, not Purcell.)

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