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Nunc Dimittis

A meditation on Candlemas.

From the book of Malachi: And suddenly, there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek.

They entered the temple in the gathering dusk, the shadows deepening, they entered carrying the child, now wrapped up not only in the normal clothes but extra clothes, a blanket against the coolness, nearly cold now, of the evening. They came with anxious faces, came to do the right thing, to bring their first born son into the temple to be consecrated to God, that is to be redeemed, by offering a sacrifice, hostiam, the Latin says, of a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons, not quite sure which was the right thing, so they perhaps brought both, this symbolic offering, a sacrifice for them in terms of cost, but this they had to do, to make their child consecrated in the sight of God, to offer their thanksgiving by making this sacrifice. They come according to the Law, that Law that cannot save and yet must be obeyed. 

The oil lamp burning before the Shekinah, the holy presence, flickers at their entrance, perhaps a mere coincidence, perhaps not, perhaps a bow of creation through the long chain molecules of this oil to what was happening in this moment, this time. But no one seemed to notice; most never do, except shepherds tending their flocks or strange men from the East who are supposed to be outside the circle of the covenant.

And then there is that encounter with the old man, the old man who waited, waited for the consolation the comfort of Israel, coming every day, looking at the lamp with the burning flame, and waiting for an end to types and shadows, the time when novo cedat ritui. He came every day and listened to the crying out of animals being slaughtered in the outer precincts, blood spilled and offered every day, for everyday people sinned and every day these sacrifices has to be accomplished. And so he waited. And suddenly he sees them: and in the words of the last prayer for the blessing of candles: agnovit, suscepit, benedixit: he recognized Him, he took Him, he blessed God, that is, he blessed Him. 

In the old man’s mind he heard words that he had never heard but knew what they would be and were and are: fregit, benedixit, dedit. He saw the red rubric: Signat super hostiam. And he recognized this child so tightly wrapped, and he took him, took him from his mother’s arms, suscepit, cradled him, held him close, and he sang, blessing God for this moment, this nunc, this now, this now that flooded his whole being with such joy that the only thing he could do was to sing, and he sang in a tone he did not know, but he knew he had to sing in the sixth tone: and out it came: Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum. No cheap and vulgar imperative here, somehow ordering God to do something; nor the softness of the subjunctive with its sense of unreality. No, the indicative used here, nunc dimittis, almost untranslatable and yet it must be: Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. The request as statement of fact. There it is. Whom he agnovit, whom he suscepit into his arms, whom he benedixit, is what and the one not only he but all of Israel had been awaiting for many, many years.

They came, many of them, to see the spectacle. In fact, they were no better than the Romans who loved blood sport. They came to this crucifixion of the one who claimed so much for himself, as if he were God. They came and stayed a few minutes and got bored with the sight of the three men on the cross. Even the thunderstorm did not do much for them. Thunderstorms and dark skies come and go. There will be another one soon. That’s nature. And so they did not hear the cry, the cry not of animals being slaughtered in the temple precincts, but the cry of the boy redeemed in the temple now the man on the cross, the hostia, not now, non nunc, a type and symbol but the flesh and blood reality, no religion game here, but the presence of the scourge of humanity that is suffering and death. 

She agnovit, suscepit, et benedixit, she who stood at the foot of the cross, she who remembered the old man’s words in the temple, not just the song, the song that haunted her for her whole life, but the sword that pierced and was now piercing her heart. She saw him and recognized him, she recognized him not only as her Son who was dying a horrible death. She recognized this, for this was real. But like the old man Simeon, she recognized what he was doing and what he was doing was who he is. Agnovit. But she could not suscepit, she could not take her child now, nunc, into her arms and cradle him. But she could and she did join her heart to his and cradle him with her heart, her heart riven through with that pain that only the Mother of God can know. But at this moment, this nunc, she blessed God, benedixit, she blessed her Son, and her heart was filled with joy. 

That night at Compline, when all were gathered who were there and who believed, they sang, they sang that song that they had heard once, or someone had taught them, they sang that song that would be sung by so many while gazing at the oil lamp burning before the Presence, the Real Presence, and they sang, and always in the correct mode: Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine: Quia videtur oculi mei salutare tuum. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation. And when they sang, the flame of the lamp flickered, and they knew why.