April 21, 2016

Savoring Simeon's Song in Worship

Learning What Tenderness and Hope in Response to Jesus Feels Like

One the most tender moments in the entire Bible is Simeon's joy at the presentation of Jesus (Luke 2:29-32). His serene and hopeful song is a model response to the revelation of the Lord: 

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
      according to your word; 
for my eyes have seen your salvation, 
      which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
      and for glory to your people Israel.’

The story of Simeon helps us see why this response is so compelling. Simeon was a righteous and devout man. The Holy Spirit rested on him. He lived with a promise that we would see the Messiah. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple, scripture tells us that Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God with this song of recognition and gratitude, repose and hope.

The Song of Simeon (often referred to by its Latin title Nunc Dimittis—the first two words of the Latin translation) is a model song for us to learn to sing, echoing Simeon. By learning this song we learn biblical language for responding to Jesus in a way that features both tenderness and depth. By learning this song, we learn to convey several things at once:

  • It is God who prepared salvation.
  • This salvation is offered to all people.
  • Jesus’ appearance is a world-changing illuminating revelation.
  • This revelation comes to the world in a way that human beings can grasp
  • Encountering Jesus elicits a response of wonder and a peace that surpasses understanding.

All that is packed into 40+ super-charged words. 

What stands out here is the formative potential of song like this to teach us to feel things we would not otherwise feel, and respond in ways that we might not otherwise be prepared for. It’s a song that forms us to express tenderness and hope in response to Jesus in a culture that often inoculates us against this kind of experience. That makes it a beautiful song for brand-new believers learning to express faith in Jesus, as well as life-long Christians eager to grow in wonder and praise.

Responding To Jesus All Year Long

In many Christian traditions, Simeon’s story and song is read in worship in the days after Christmas. Some Christian traditions mark the presentation of Jesus in the temple with a special day of remembrance.

But Simeon’s song has never been limited to use just when Simeon’s story is read. It has been received as profound gospel canticle of response any time Jesus is at the center of our worship—which is all the time.

This why Simeon’s Song has been so central in daily prayer services in many traditions.  For example, in Anglican Evensong it is sung after the New Testament Reading, just before the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed  Nearly every major Anglican composer has written one or more evening services that feature both the Song of Mary (which is sung after the Old Testament reading), and the Song of Simeon. The thousands of pilgrims who flock to evensong often experience the tender musicality of these settings among the most spiritually poignant moments of the entire experience.  

In Catholic communities of prayer, the Song of Simon is used as a Gospel Canticle following a reading from one of four gospels at Night Prayer (Compline). It is one of three New Testament canticles used in this way, joining the Song of Zechariah which functions as the Gospel canticle for Morning Prayer, and the Song of Mary which is the Gospel canticle for Evening Prayer. In her book on daily prayer, Joyce Zimmerman notes that these gospel canticles function as a “grand doxology” of the Psalms and readings at these daily prayer services (Morning and Evening: A Parish Celebration ). That’s a beautiful way to use this song—as a “culminating or grand doxology” in response to a series of Psalms and readings that unfold God’s salvation in history.

In Response to the Lord’s Supper

John Calvin did something remarkable with the Song of Simeon. After using his 1542 liturgy for a few years, he adjusted practices at the Lord’s Supper in order to feature the Song of Simeon right after communion. After taking the bread and cup, as the Lord’s Supper concluded, the entire congregation sang "I have seen your salvation."  

Calvin had written a lot about the Lord's Supper as "a visible word." He cautioned worshipers not merely to look at the bread and cup, but to look "through" them—to treat them like the Orthodox treat icons, as a visual window into heaven, where we feed on Jesus. He said this in thousands of words. 

But all this meaning was packed into this liturgical juxtaposition with relatively few words. Take the bread and cup, and then sing "we have seen your salvation, a light to the Gentiles." That's a compelling retrospective statement of what the Lord's Supper is all about. 

I know several Calvinists who should thrill to this approach. I also know many Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, as well as Vineyard, Holiness, and Non-Denominational churches who could implement this next week. The best ideas in liturgical history belong to all of us, and not just to congregations in a particular denomination.

I encourage you to follow Calvin's lead. You could read the text after the Lord's Supper. Or sing it. It's easy to find the same tender melody those Genevans used (see Lift Up Your Hearts 935), or a lovely setting of Simeon’s Song to the tune LAND OF REST that works beautifully with either piano, organ, or folk guitar (Lift Up Your Hearts 97). And that’s just the start. See for settings of Simeon’s Song in several meters that could fit with a wide variety of tunes. See for a dozen or more contemporary settings from a variety of songwriters. Visit youtube for stunningly memorable choral settings of the Song of Simeon by Herbert Howells or Alexander Gretchaninoff. Taking an internet tour of all of these options offers a myriad of ways of entering into the tenderness of Simeon’s song.

After a Sermon

Calvin's liturgical logic also suggests another possibility, especially useful in congregations which have relatively infrequent celebrations of the Lord’s Supper: using the Song of Simeon as a standard response to the reading and preaching of the Word. 

I have occasionally stepped into pulpits which have a sign which says: "We would see Jesus." This echo of John 12:21 calls the minister to put Jesus at the center of each and every sermon. 

The perfect counterpart to this challenge is to sing Simeon's Song after the sermon. If the congregation is going to sing "we have seen your salvation” following the sermon, that’s a strong call for the preacher to preach a Christ-centered, salvation-focused sermon. Any sermon that can't lead into the Song of Simeon probably shouldn't be preached. 

Try doing this for several weeks in a row so that the congregation comes to know and love it. See if you can introduce it so that children want to put a bookmark in the Bible by the Simeon and Anna narrative. These are loveable Biblical characters, the kind of people every child would love to have in their family or neighborhood, the kind of people who show child-like wonder. 

As we all prepare for new seasons of worship and renewal, may the curriculum of Simeon’s Song—a school of tenderness and hope—lead the way!

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.