Monday, 20 October 2014

The place of the Nunc dimittis




The cross on the east gable of St Nicolas', Great Coates has suddenly started to topple, although it is held in place by a significant metal spike.  It is possible that it has taken a knock from a branch of a neighbouring tree - a tree we planned to fell in the next few weeks.  Ah, well.  The area around the east end of the church is now taped off.

Meanwhile, my rare 'turn' to preach at Cathedral Evensong came yesterday, at a service formally attended by members of the recently re-formed Lincolnshire branch of the Prayer Book Society.  I habitually preach from notes so any readers of this Blog are usually spared lazy posts which simply consist of my reproducing my sermons, but the Cathedral often asks for a full text so I had to type it up.  I wouldn't read much further if such a service is not your thing.

"May words trip from my tongue at this time not hollow and vain, but in honour of Him, and which profit and please every person who hears them.  Amen.


There is a poem from about the year 1400 which only survives in a single manuscript, one held by the Library of this Cathedral; the opening prayer for this sermon is Simon Armitage’s translation of some early lines of that poem.

But, for a text, let us look to the words of this service in the Book of Common Prayer, the words of Luke 2.29: Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.

If I say that there is a decent word for Lord in the Greek New Testament but it is not the word which Luke uses here, that there is a decent word for servant in the Greek New Testament but it is not the word Luke uses here, and that there is a decent word for depart in the Greek New Testament but it is not the word which Luke uses here, I hope that is sufficiently intriguing.

But first, a step backwards.  I hope the members of the newly re-formed Lincolnshire branch of the Prayer Book Society and those very familiar with Prayer Book Evensong will forgive me for going over very familiar ground for just for a moment.

The early chapter of Luke’s Gospel includes three songs. 

First, in the mouth of Jesus’ pregnant mother, responding to the greeting of her cousin Elizabeth, there is the song beginning My soul doth magnify the Lord, known to us by its first word in Latin as Magnificat.

Second, in the mouth of John the Baptist’s father when his tongue was freed at the naming of his son, there is the song beginning Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, known to us by the Latin title Benedictus.

Thirdly, in the mouth of the prophet Simeon as he takes the new born Jesus in his arms, the song beginning Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace and known by its opening words Nunc Dimittis.

In the monasteries of developing Christendom these songs were sung every day.  A ‘Gospel Canticle’ was at the centre of each of the main services.

At Lauds, the nearest equivalent to our Morning Prayer, it was the Benedictus which was sung.  At Vespers, the nearest equivalent to our Evening Prayer, it was the Magnificat.  At Compline, what for us is Night Prayer, it was the Nunc Dimittis.  So the three songs became associated with prayer at certain times of day - and, given they were sung in Latin, this is how they came to be known by the Latin names we still use.

Part of the genius of Thomas Cranmer in creating what we know as Prayer Book Matins and Evensong was to re-use and re-shape this tradition.  He placed a reading from the Old Testament and a reading from the New Testament in both services.  And he placed a Canticle as a response to each.

So at Matins, the Old Testament lesson is followed by a translation of the non-biblical Latin hymn Te Deum, and the New Testament lesson by the Benedictus, while at Evensong, the Old Testament lesson is responded to by the Magnificat and the New Testament lesson by the Nunc Dimittis.

Cranmer stripped out all complexity and the vast majority of non-biblical material.  There is a non-biblical chorus in the service beginning Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, and this comes up several times in the opening responses, after Psalms and after Canticles.  But otherwise, through the first half of Evensong in particular all the others words are from scripture.

The opening sentences are from scripture.  The Psalms are scripture.  The readings are scripture.  And, as we have just seen, the Canticles are scripture.  It has been said that taking part in the service is like being ‘pickled in scripture’.

So, I’ve got there now, every day at Evensong, the reading from the New Testament is responded to by the words of the Nunc Dimittis beginning Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.

There is a decent word for Lord in the Greek New Testament but it is not the word which Luke uses here. 

The word for Lord is kurios – and those who take part in choral worship actually know this because it is one of few New Testament Greek words which are still sung regularly; kyrie eleison means Lord, have mercy.

But the word which Luke uses is despota – from which we get the word despot, which already gives a different flavour to it.  Where both kurios and despota are used together later in the New Testament the usual translation is Lord and Master.

There is a decent word for servant in the Greek New Testament but it is not the word Luke uses here.
The word for servant is diakonia – and this is the source of our word deacon for a sort of ordained servant.

But the word which Luke uses is doulon – which is the word for slave.

So less Lord and servant than Master and slave.

Then, although there are a range of decent words for departing, going and dying in the Greek New Testament, Luke uses a particular word. 

The Greek word luo is to untie: there are many things which the New Testament tells us are untied from donkeys and sandals to graveclothes and chains.

The word Luke uses here is an intense form of the word luoapo-lueis.  It is the word for release - for release from prison, for divorce (because that is release from marriage) and for being set free.
So we have Master you are freeing your slave.  It is an act of manumission with which we are dealing.

If we were to try to put this into modern English - and I realise in present company that this is a dangerous thing to suggest – members of the Prayer Book Society might like to put their fingers in their ears and say ‘la, la, la’ to themselves for seven seconds...

If we were to try to put this into modern English it is almost true that the best form of words would be  Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!

So there may be a quite unexpected rhythm to Prayer Book Evensong – one which Cranmer can hardly have intended.

What at first might seem to be something to do with a depth of continuity – pickling in the sense of preserving – Nunc Dimittis conveying a flavour of beginning a well deserved retirement...

... may actually be about transformation – pickling in the sense of taking what would otherwise soon rot and changing it so that that it will remain useable – Nunc Dimittis conveying a flavour of being set free from bondage.

We are invited to hear the Old Testament lesson and then to respond with a recognition of the range of possibilities which this opens up - as the Magnificat makes it clear that the proud, mighty and rich must give way to the humble and hungry – I’ve not touched on that.

We are then invited to hear the New Testament lesson knowing that we will respond to it each and every time with a shout that all these possibilities are now actually opening up in front of us.

We are invited by the constant round of reading and singing scripture to be pickled in it so that our priorities and attitudes change.

We are invited by each and every specific reading of scripture to ask ourselves in what particular way this passage frees us and might free others.

Regular attentive participation in Prayer Book Evensong may be one of the most radical things in which it is possible to be involved."

1 comment:

Joy Davis said...

Having just said the Nunc dimittis as part of the Night Office this was timely and very interesting information Peter..as always.