Nunc Dimittis

Sunday is the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus in Year B. In years past there were no options for the readings. The gospel was always from Matthew 2, the death of the Innocents and the escape to Egypt. Now each lectionary cycle has its own gospel. This year the gospel is one of my favorite passages: Luke 2, the Nunc Dimitis, or the encounter with Simeon in the Temple. The moniker of the passage comes from the opening words in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible: “Nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace” – 29Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,31 which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.”  (Luke 2:29-32)

I was quite surprised to discover I had never attempted a commentary on the passage! Maybe I will get to that task this week… maybe. In the interim, here is a brief description from Fr. Jerome Kodell, O.S.B.

Jesus’ parents obeyed imperial law at the time of his birth; now they are portrayed as observant Jews, fulfilling the prescriptions of the religious law concerning circumcision and the presentation of the first-born to the Lord. The scene at the temple is slightly confused because Luke has entwined two separate ceremonies. The Book of Exodus required the presentation and redemption of the first-born son because the first-born sons “belong” to the Lord who saved them when the Egyptian first-born were destroyed at the Passover (Exod 13:15). Leviticus described the ceremony for the ritual purification of the mother forty days after giving birth (Lev 12:1–8). On this occasion she was to offer a lamb and a pigeon or a turtledove, but a poor couple was permitted to bring only two pigeons or doves.

The emphasis is less on the purification of Mary than on the presentation of Jesus in the temple, where he will receive a more official recognition as the promised Savior of Israel. The temple symbolizes for Luke the continuity between Judaism and Christianity. The first announcement of the definitive act of salvation takes place in the temple (1:11), Jesus teaches in the temple (19:47), and the disciples continue to worship in the temple well into the new age (24:53; Acts 3:1).

Simeon and Anna are faithful, humble Israelites waiting in the temple for the revelation of God’s salvation. Just and pious (see 1:6), they are open to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. Simeon recognizes Jesus as the Anointed of the Lord and in his Nunc Dimittis (2:29–32) further prophesies that Jesus will be a “light for revelation to the Gentiles.” In blessing the parents, he warns that this child will be a sign opposed and that Mary will be pierced with a sword. With these two utterances of Simeon, we are given a foreshadowing of the universal salvation that will be proclaimed in Jesus and of the necessity of suffering in the mission of this Messiah. The shadow of the cross falls across the Holy Family. The later followers of Jesus are not to be surprised that suffering is encountered in their pursuit of a gospel life. Even families and friendships will be broken up as “the thoughts of many hearts” are laid bare, because the peace Jesus brings will not be a counterfeit covering secret divisions (12:51–53).

The Nunc Dimittis is part of Night Prayers/Compline in the Divine Office of the Church. It is perhaps my favorite prayer of the day.


Source – Jerome Kodell, O.S.B., “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary: Based on the New American Bible with Revised New Testament, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris.  (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1989) p.942

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