Question: "What is the Nunc Dimittis?"
Answer: The Nunc Dimittis is traditionally seen as a song and derives its name from the Latin Vulgate’s opening words of Simeon’s speech when he saw Jesus. In English, the Latin phrase means “now you dismiss,” taken from Luke 2:29.
Simeon was a follower of God who waited and longed for Israel’s rescue (Luke 2:25). A “righteous and devout” man, Simeon had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would live to see the Messiah (verses 25–26). When Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the temple for the purification ritual required for every firstborn male, the Holy Spirit led Simeon there to fulfill His promise (verses 22–23, 27). Simeon was able to see Jesus Christ and hold the baby Messiah while praising God (verse 28).
Simeon’s entire proclamation of praise is found in Luke 2:29–32:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
Like Mary’s Magnificat, Simon’s Nunc Dimittis is sometimes called a song or canticle, although Simeon is not described as singing when he speaks his words of praise. In gratitude, he speaks of Jesus being the source of salvation, a light to the Gentiles, and a source of glory for Israel (Luke 2:30–32). After praising God, Simeon blessed Joseph and Mary, and he told Mary that “this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (verses 34–35).
The Nunc Dimittis contains allusions to other passages of Scripture. Luke 2:30–31, which speaks of seeing God’s salvation, can be compared to Isaiah 52:10, which states, “The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (ESV). Simeon’s praise of Jesus as a light to the Gentiles in Luke 2:32 seems to allude to a portion of Isaiah 49:6, which reads, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The prediction of Jesus being a light to the world is a major theme throughout Luke’s gospel, pointing to the fact that the salvation Jesus provides is for all people.
Many Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican churches sing the Nunc Dimittis during Evening Prayer or Night Prayer services as part of their liturgy. Lutherans typically recite or sing the Nunc Dimittis after receiving the Lord’s Supper. Although there is nothing wrong with using Scripture in worship and song (Ephesians 5:19), one must be careful of hearing, reading, and singing the words by rote or in mindless repetition. The person who hears, reads, and sings the Nunc Dimittis should be mindful of the words of Simeon’s poem of praise and meditate on their meaning.
Recognizing God’s faithfulness, the Messiah’s advent, and Jesus’ redemptive purpose for all people are important elements in the Nunc Dimittis. Offering up praise to the Lord for the salvation He has provided, just as Simeon did, is something all Christians can do wholeheartedly.