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Ever wonder why we Lutherans use the form of worship we do? In this series we examine the depth and meaning of the various elements of our Lutheran worship service.

The three best known New Testament “hymns” all occur in the Gospel of Luke. The Magnificat (Mary’s song when she greeted her relative Elizabeth) in 1:46-55, the Benedictus (the song of Zecharias at the birth of John the Baptist) in 1:68-79, and the Nunc Dimittis (the song of Simeon when Jesus was presented at the temple) in 2:29-32. The titles are simply taken from the first words of those verses in Latin.

All three are used regularly in Christian worship and are frequently set to music by a variety of composers, but the one found most often in our Lutheran liturgies is the Nunc Dimittis, sung following the distribution of the Lord’s Supper: “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; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” (KJV)

In the traditional daily services, the Nunc Dimittis is part of the Compline service, the last service of the day. It is also frequently used in Vespers, the evening service. Either way, it has its liturgical roots in the evening and nighttime hours, when the sun is setting or has set, and our thoughts turn to the end of the day, the passage of time, and the end of times.

It is a song of departure. When Simeon first uttered these words while holding the infant Jesus, he indicated his readiness to depart this life, for he had seen with his own eyes the promise of God fulfilled, the promise to send a Savior into world.

We too have seen Jesus. We have not cradled Him in our arms in the very same manner that Simeon did, but we have seen Him through the Scriptures with the eyes of faith. According to the Word of God, Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. We have seen Him come and know Him as our salvation just as Simeon did. We too have seen the promise fulfilled: a Child come for the forgiveness of our sins.

Having seen Jesus, we are also ready, as Simeon was, to “depart in peace” from this earthly life—not only in the kind of peace that comes from feeling calm and settled, free from care or worry, but being at peace with God. As one of our hymns says: Christ came and has God’s anger stilled, Our human nature sharing. He hath for us the Law obeyed And thus His Father’s vengeance stayed Which over us impended. (The Lutheran Hymnal, 387:5)

The Nunc Dimittis also speaks of Christ as the Savior of all people. His salvation was prepared “before the face of all” and He is “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” There is only one way to peace with God, one way to eternal life in heaven. It is through Jesus, and it is the same way for everybody: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:31 EHV) and “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2:21 EHV)

In our worship we customarily sing Simeon’s song when we leave the communion table. This is an appropriate place for the hymn because the Lord’s Supper is a way of “holding” Jesus like Simeon did. There we see His salvation. There we are given peace with God. And in the joy of forgiveness we are prepared even to leave this life when the Lord chooses to take us home.

Having seen Jesus, we are also ready, as Simeon was, to “depart in peace” from this earthly life.

David Schaller is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.