The Nunc Dimittis in the Prayer Book

The use of the Song of Simeon as a daily canticle is as ancient as the other two Gospel Canticles, but its placement in the Anglican tradition is different.  Before the Reformation, the Nunc Dimittis was the canticle for Compline, and when Archbishop Cranmer reduced the several monastic hours to two offices, this canticle found a new home in Evening Prayer, just as various morning offices were combined into Morning Prayer.

Psalm 67 was soon added as an alternative to the Nunc Dimittis, provided it was not the twelfth day of the month (when that Psalm was one of the Psalms Appointed).  The first American Prayer Book replaced the Nunc with either Psalm 67 or 103:1-4,20-22.  The 1892 Prayer Book restored the Nunc Dimittis alongside those psalms, which was maintained in the 1928.  The 1979 and 2019 Prayer Books both present the Nunc Dimittis, with the Magnificat, as the default canticles of Evening Prayer, though other canticles and psalms are permitted in their place.

Like the other two Gospel Canticles, the Nunc Dimittis is from early in St. Luke’s Gospel and looks at the birth of Christ.  This one stands out, however, as it takes place after the birth of Jesus, and beholds the child.  The use of the present tense is no longer prophetic but narrative: God’s promises have been fulfilled, Jesus has been seen.  While the Nunc Dimittis shares the Benedictus’ focus on the Gospel of salvation, it is here applied to the Gentiles, the nations or peoples beyond Israel.  Jesus is Israel’s glory, and the light for the Gentiles.

The wording of this canticle has been substantially edited since its previous modernization in 1979, such that it now more closely resembles the classical Prayer Book language.  God is letting his servant “depart in peace” (correcting the unfortunate connotations of “have set your servant free” ) according to his word. Simeon’s eyes have seen “your salvation” – an important distinction as Jesus is not only “the Savior” but salvation incarnate.  The distinction between “to enlighten” (1979) and “lighten” (classical and 2019) is subtle yet still significant: the light Christ brings is not only the internal wisdom and knowledge of enlightenment but also an external source of light that lightens us from without.  Thus the work and Spirit of God is proclaimed more clearly as a divine work and can not be reduced to a merely human spiritual breakthrough.

Inauguration Day Prayers

Our Archbishop, Foley Beach, sent out a reminder today that we as Christians are called to pray for our leaders. I would add the clarification that we pray for them whether we like them or not, whether we’re happy they’re in office or unhappy; whether we prefer them, “the other guy”, or none of the above.

Here is what he wrote to us:

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, 

As our nation inaugurates a new President and Vice-President, and begins a new session of Congress, let us speak to God on behalf of our nation. I recommend the following prayers from the Book of Common Prayer 2019 as a start.

#37. For the President and All in Civil Authority, p. 657

O Lord our Governor, whose glory fills all the world: We commend this Nation to your merciful care, that we may be guided by your providence, and dwell secure in your peace. Grant to the President of this Nation, the Governor of this State, and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do your will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them continually mindful of their calling to serve this people in reverent obedience to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

#38. For Congress or A State Legislature, p. 657

O God, the fountain of wisdom, whose will is good and gracious, and whose law is truth: So guide and bless our Senators and Representatives assembled in Congress, that they may enact laws pleasing in your sight, to the glory of your Name and the welfare of this people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

#41. For Cities, Towns, and Other Communities, p. 658

Heavenly Father, you sent your Son among us to proclaim the kingdom of God in cities, towns, villages, and lonely places. Behold and visit, we pray, the communities throughout these United States of America. Renew the bonds of charity that uphold our civic life. Send us honest and able leaders. Deliver us from poverty, prejudice, and oppression, that peace may prevail with righteousness, and justice with mercy. And at the last, bring us to your Holy City, the new Jerusalem, where we shall know perfect unity and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

the Magnificat in the Prayer Book

Like the Benedictus, this is a Gospel Canticle drawn from Luke 1.  Where that canticle focuses on the work of salvation by Jesus Christ, especially as to be preached by John, this canticle focuses on the experience of salvation to be wrought by Jesus, particularly in line with the language of the Old Testament prophets.

Comments on the Text

In the text of this canticle, the Blessed Virgin Mary “magnifies” or “proclaims the greatness” of God, rejoicing in a litany of wonderful accomplishments that have been brought about by his hand.  The first five verses (as the Prayer Book prints it) are more personal.  She is a lowly handmaiden, regarded by the Lord, all generations will called her blessed for the great honor bestowed on her in becoming the mother of Jesus, God-in-the-flesh.  This special role granted to her in the course of salvation history magnifies her name, akin to how she magnifies God in her prayer.

Her observation “his mercy is on those who fear him” forms a transition from the first to the second half of the canticle.  With what comes before, she includes herself as one who fears God and been shown great mercy and grace, but her inclusion of “all generations” indicates that the entire world shall be blessed by the Son she then carried.

In the second half, Mary’s several “He has…” statements are easier to pray in the context of the Church’s worship after the fact, but form very much a groundbreaking text.  Worshipers can look back to the Cross and easily proclaim that God has shown his strength, scattered the proud, brought down the mighty, exalted the humble, and so forth.  And, although we can rightly celebrate this through Mary’s Canticle, the placement of these words before the birth of Jesus indicate that there is a Gospel to celebrate even then.  In the incarnation itself, God has begun the several reversals that these verses describe.  As the final verses sums them up, it is a matter of God bringing his ancient promises to fruition.  As far back as Abraham, the course of salvation history has been driving relentlessly toward the appearance of God’s Anointed One (or Messiah, or Christ) who finally appears in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Thus, in the evening, the worshiper celebrates the faithfulness of God who keeps his promises and has initiated a great reversal of worldly values and powers in the provision of his Son.

On a secondary note, this Canticle also provides the worshiper with the primary biblical example of what it is to venerate Mary.  All generations will call her blessed, God has regarded her lowliness, he has magnified her.  And all this is celebrated in the context of her role in God’s work of redemption: his ancient promises see their answer in her womb, in accordance with her faithfulness.  Where, with most Saints, the Church remembers their faith and works that point backwards in time to Christ, Mary’s faith and actions point to a present Christ.  She “received Jesus” in a more literal sense than anyone else – this is a blessed magnification that God has bestowed upon her, and the Church celebrates the work of the Lord in her.

History in the Prayer Books

This canticle has been a part of the Evening Prayer of the Church (or Vespers) at least since the 5th century Rule of Saint Benedict.  The Prayer Book tradition has maintained its position as the first canticle – the one read after the Old Testament lesson – excepting only the first American Prayer Book.  Although the Additional Directions for the Daily Office in the 1979 Book suggested more variable use of it, the primary text of the liturgy still held the Magnificat in its traditional place.

The classical Prayer Books appointed Psalm 98 as an alternative.  The first American Prayer Book appointed Psalm 98 and 92 instead of the Magnificat, and those two Psalms remained as options alongside the Magnificat in the subsequent two Prayer Books.

The quietly profound pro-life rite

One of the trademark causes of orthodox Anglicanism in North America today is the commitment to the pro-life cause. Romans and Reformed, Protestants and Pentecostals, Brethren and Baptists, all conservative Christians are concerned about the evils of murder that urge on the abortion industry. Often we are accused of being hypocrites, only really being “pro-birth” and leaving the children of the poor to their fate. Occasionally that is true, especially when you look at the many politicians who only use causes such as the pro-life cause primarily to prop up their re-election campaigns among conservatives… being pro-life in name only is indeed a sham.

But, of course, the Church as a whole is indeed consistently pro-life, however imperfectly aberrant individuals may demonstrate that. One of the particular expressions of this truth in our Prayer Book (which I think is often over-looked) is the Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child. In classical Prayer Books it was often referred to as “The Churching of Women” and it focused more on welcoming the mother back to church after being away for the latter weeks of her pregnancy and giving thanks for her survival. Modern edits to the rite have expanded it to be a bit more flexible to the varied family situations we’re likely to see on the ground today: adoptions, single parents, difficult circumstances.

This rite reminds us that children are gifts from God – all life is sacred.  The Church proclaims and celebrates this truth even amidst the devastating difficulties that can accompany pregnancy and birth. You can read the 2019 Prayer Book’s form of it here, and this Customary’s walk-through of how to implement it here:

About the Phos Hilaron

Greek for “gladsome light”, Phos Hilaron is a hymn that was already considered a time-honored tradition over 1,600 years ago.  Functionally, it offers a word of praise while the lamps or candles are lit in a chapel or home for the evening.  Deeper, the lyrics describe the sanctification of time that good liturgy inevitably does: “as we come to the setting of the sun… we sing your praises.”  And yet, God is “worthy at all times to be praised.”  That “happy voices” are appropriate for the worship of God can be a stumbling block – what if the worshiper does not feel happy one day?  The idea of happiness in biblical literature, from which this hymn is certainly derived, is nearly identical with blessedness.  Like Psalm 1:1, “Happy/Blessed is the man…” we also ought to read here – God is worthy to be praised by the voices of God’s blessed people.  We are therefore comforted, also, that even if we do not emotionally feel happy, we know that there is a fundamental happiness, or joy, that we can derive from the blessings of God that we have already received.  This is spelled out with an example in the next line where Jesus is proclaimed as the “Giver of Life”, and celebrated with the final assertion that he is to be glorified “though all the worlds” – that is, saints in heaven and earth alike are united in the worship of the eternal God.

O gladsome light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,*
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,*
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,*
O Son of God, O Giver of Life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.

This anthem was introduced into the Prayer Book tradition in 1979.  Only one translation change has been made in this version: the “gracious light” has become a “gladsome light.”  It is a lamp-lighting hymn drawn from ancient Christian custom (especially in the Byzantine and Ambrosian rites), being referenced as far back as 379AD by St. Basil the Great.  Several metricized versions of this anthem can be found in Anglican hymnals.

The rubrics permit another hymn or Psalm to be used in its place, acknowledging the Western custom of having a variety of Office Hymns according to the season or occasion.

Considering the Wedding and its Due Preparation

After the theological drift in the past two American Prayer Books, the service of Holy Matrimony in the 2019 Prayer Book is a breath of fresh air, its content rooted in the traditional material of the classical Anglican tradition. The format of the service is very much in the modern style, but language and doctrine it contains are long-awaited returns to historic orthodoxy.

The opening text on BCP 198-199 outline the doctrine of marriage and call for “great care” in the preparation of all candidates for Holy Matrimony. The word “candidate” should be taken seriously: just as in Confirmation and Ordination, those preparing for marriage are merely candidates, and the minister is well within his rights to deny officiating the wedding if the couple is not prepared or ineligible for marriage. The Banns of Marriage are one line of discernment, wherein the congregation is to be given at least three opportunities to offer any “cause, or just impediment” that the wedding should not go through. Furthermore, the minister is expected (and in many dioceses required) to have the couple sign the Declaration of Intention on BCP 200. This, and its accompanying liturgy on BCP 213, is essentially a formalized betrothal ceremony, and serves as the primary “gateway” to the path to marriage. If the couple is unable to sign the Declaration in good conscience they need further instruction and catechesis concerning Christian marriage before they can receive the Church’s blessing. The minister should take this role with grave solemnity, as many believers have slipped through the cracks in recent decades, entering into marriage with (at best) anemic views of biblical marriage.

What follows is but one way of approaching pre-marital counseling, which the minister can adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the couple in question.

“Marriage is two people made one flesh in community bearing fruit for life before God.”

1. “Marriage Is”

  • Examine the Declaration of Intent study its four-fold purpose of marriage
  • Examine Holy Matrimony as an image of Christ & Church
  • Gateway: Sign the Declaration of Intention

2. “Two People”

  • Profile the personalities of the man and the woman with appropriate social and religious tools and measures
  • Consider their schedules, lifestyles, interests, personal spaces
  • Gateway: Make plans for Confirmation if not yet done

3. “Made One Flesh”

  • Consider the unity of the couple, especially their disciplines (spiritual and otherwise)
  • Examine their conflict resolution past and present, and where peace is found
  • Gateway: Have them paraphrase the Wedding Vows for their own understanding

4. “In Community”

  • Consider the community, especially the future in-laws, for this couple, and their relationships
  • Explore their baggage, expectations, history, and wishes about family and friends
  • Gateway: Offer Healing Prayer

5. “Bearing Fruit”

  • Explore the subjects of agape love that sacrifices & spreads, especially with regards to sexuality, family planning, and child-rearing
  • Examine their sexual desires, history, expectations, and ethics
  • Gateway: Offer private Confession & Absolution

6. “For Life”

  • Consider ordinary household plans like finances, spending & saving habits, occupations
  • Explore the subjects of homemaking and domestic duties and expectations
  • Gateway: Have them prepare a budget and list major milestones as a couple for their first year

7. “Before God”

  • Explore spiritual habits shared by the couple and pastoral accountability for the future
  • Consider the religious life of their family-to-be
  • Gateway: Plan the wedding ceremony’s liturgy together

A History of the Opening Sentences in the Daily Office

Since 1552, the Prayer Book tradition has begun the Morning and Evening Offices with “opening sentences of scripture.” The sentences listed in the English Prayer Books are largely penitential: Ezekiel 18:27, Psalm 51:3, 51:9, 51:17, Joel 2:13, Daniel 2:9-10, Jeremiah 10:24, Matthew 3:2, Luke 15:18-19, Psalm 143:2, and 1 John 1:8 If read through in order, they form a sort of outline of salvation. There are Sentences about repentance, God’s grace toward sinners, trust in God’s mercy, and expressions of commitment to God’s judgment and cleansing. These are not Opening Sentences that are meant to set the mood for the Office as a whole, these are preparatory words of Scripture meant to lead specifically into the exhortation to Confession that follows: “The Scripture moveth us in sundry places…”

The first two American Prayer Books added Habbakuk 2:20, Malachi 1:11, Psalm 19:14-15, Psalm 122:1, and Philippians 1:2 to the list, as well as an additional 14 verses for various seasons and holy days in the Church calendar. The penitential character began to recede, and a broader “call to worship” role came to the fore. The classical list of sentences were retained, however, after the first and seasonal options. This trend was continued in the 1928 and 1979 Prayer Books, where the original list finally disappeared entirely, though several of the original sentences were rolled into the seasonal lists (particularly in Advent and Lent). The evolution continues here: recognizing that these are opening sentences to start the Office as a whole, the need to include all them at the front of the Office is greatly lessened, and therefore the “seasonal” Opening Sentences are now appended to the back of the liturgy to allow the primary text of the Office to be more streamlined and simple.

Another result of this change over the past nearly century and a half is that the Opening Sentences in the 1979 and 2019 Books are optional. This can be understood from two different angles. On one hand, it is a natural result of the “call to worship” role that renders these sentences to secondary importance. If, as in the classical books, they are specifically preparing the congregation for the exhortation and confession of sin, then they very much belong. But when they are preparing the congregation for worship in general, the exhortation to confession could very well do that on its own – and arguably more substantially if the rubric to read only one Sentence is strictly followed. On the other hand, additional rubrics make the Confession itself to be optional, provided it is said at least once in a given day. This allows for the Office to begin with the Invitatory, which has precedent: the 1549 Prayer Book began the Office with “O Lord open thou our lips…”

Unique to this book, however, the rubric’s language indicates that one of the Sentences provided here “is customary.” Thus, it is permissible for the officiant to elect to read other sentences of Scripture that are not provided for, and this opens the door not only for innovation – adding further sentences to the list – but also for restoration, opting to read the opening sentences of a previous Prayer Book.

Discerning Morning & Evening

The Opening Sentences of Scripture were identical in Morning and Evening Prayer until 1892. Since then, several sentences have become established as particularly appropriate for either Morning or Evening. These are largely represented in the sentences appointed on BCP pages 11 and 41, as well as the appended sentences “At Any Time”.

For further devotional considerations on these Sentences, see: Opening Sentences of Scripture in the Daily Office

The Midday Collects

Of the four collects provided on page 38 of the Book of Common Prayer, 2019, the first three are drawn from the Canadian Prayer Book of 1962, where they are appointed as Prayers at Mid-Day for Missions. They were written by various ministers in the late 19th century. The fourth collect is the collect for The Annunciation, and is derived from the Angelus, a traditional Western devotion concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Blessed Savior, at this hour you hung upon the Cross, stretching out your loving arms:
Grant that all the peoples of the earth may look to you and be saved;
for your tender mercies’ sake. Amen.

This brief prayer holds together the traditional midday devotional focus on the Cross with a modern-tradition devotional focus on the mission of the Church. Our Savior’s will to “draw all people unto myself” becomes the object of our prayer.

Almighty Savior, who at mid-day called your servant Saint Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles:
We pray you to illume the world with the radiance of your glory,
that all nations may come and worship you;
for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This prayer reflects upon the conversion of St. Paul, which took place at this time of day, and asks God to provide similar enlightenment to the whole world. Although the Cross is the primary traditional devotional object at midday, this and the following collect bring us to other important biblical events that took place at or near this hour.

Father of all mercies, you revealed your boundless compassion
to your apostle Saint Peter in a three-fold vision:
Forgive our unbelief, we pray,
and so strengthen our hearts and enkindle our zeal,
that we may fervently desire the salvation of all people,
and diligently labor in the extension of your kingdom;
through him who gave himself for the life of the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Recounting the story in Acts 10, we pray for the same zeal and vigor that St. Peter received for the Gentiles about midday (“the sixth hour”). Like many good prayers, this collect leads us to ask for a change of heart before a change of action – we ought to “fervently desire” the mission of Christ to advance if we are to “diligently labor” to see it carried out.

Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord,
that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ,
announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary,
may by his Cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection;
who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Although not specifically labeled as such, this collect is especially appropriate for Saturdays. Much like how Sundays commemorate the resurrection and Fridays the crucifixion, Saturdays are traditionally a day of Marian devotion in historic Western piety. This prayer, in particular, plays well into that rhythm of spirituality because it appeals to Christ’s “Cross and passion” (Friday) to lead us to “the glory of his resurrection” (Sunday), assuming we pray this in between those days, on Saturday.

Video: the Holy Days in the Prayer Book

The video series I started a year ago nears its conclusion. Here is a summary of how the Holy Days (commonly, the Major Feast Days) fit into the Christian Calendar.

Subject Index:

  • 00:00 Definition & Major Themes
  • 05:20 Historical Features
  • 10:13 Walk-through in the 2019 Prayer Book
  • 15:36 Daily Office & other features
  • 17:36 The Collect for All Saints’ Day

Links for further reading: