Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Which Version of Simeon's Song?

The Nunc Dimittis. The Song of Simeon. Luke 2:29-32. Whatever you call it, it’s beautiful. It’s a powerful statement of faith that reminds us how those who wait faithfully on God’s salvation will have their hopes fulfilled.

My friend Steve Pankey posted on Monday about the NRSV language of the gospel lesson for Sunday. Most of us will hear, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word…” I agree with Steve: it doesn’t quite convey the poetic beauty of the text like one of the canticles. He gives us the Prayer Book translation that shows up in the service of Compline, but I want to go back one further and look at the Rite I version of the song, which is taken from the Books of Common Prayer before it—all the way back to Cranmer’s 1549 version:

            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,
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, *
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Maybe the real question is, “How do you hear Simeon’s song?”

Some of us hear this as if it were being sung by our youth groups at the end of the EYC program. For many that is the touchstone of their teenage years in the church: peers gathering together to say the familiar words of Compline and chant the Nunc Dimittis. Some of us hear it as if it were being sung by a cathedral choir at Evensong, perhaps even using the 1662 Prayer Book. Both are powerful expressions of faith, and neither is better than the other.

There is power, however, in Simeon’s words—not just in the singing of them. And I’m curious whether the first line says something to us that gets lost—both in the NRSV and in the Rite II canticle. Here are some comparisons:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word” – NRSV
“Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised” – BCP, Rite II
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word” – ESV
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word” – BCP, Rite I

I think the NRSV and Rite II versions convey the “release” or “dismissal” of the “slave” or “servant” implied in the original text. The other two—by using the word combination of “letting/lettest” and “depart”—might not convey that to a contemporary reader who isn’t thinking about Simeon’s servanthood/slavery to God in this capacity.

But more importantly to me, I think the ESV and the Rite I versions give us something powerful in the “letting/lettest” that conveys a greater sense of waiting-expectation that is central to the passage, and I think that is echoed in the “according to your/thy word” that is also picked up by the NRSV. This is about more than just promise. It’s about prophecy. It’s about God giving his word not just as a pledge but also as a prediction. It’s about Simeon waiting a lifetime for this morning, and now finally being allowed by God to “depart in peace” because his service is finished as the prophecy has been fulfilled.

Preachers have a hard job this week—as they do every time one of scripture’s songs appears in Sunday’s lessons. How do you convey the multifaceted, poetic beauty of a text that is more than that just a reading? Prayers for all of you.

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