In this final article of the Divine Service series, we come to the Nunc Dimittis (Latin for “You are now dismissing) and the Benediction (Latin for “blessing,” or even more literally, “a good saying”).
The Nunc Dimittis
Like the entirety of the liturgy, the Nunc Dimittis is drawn from Scripture. The words are as follows:
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.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Ghost,
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and ever shall be, world without end.
These words were first sung 2,000 years ago by a man named Simeon. To understand why we sing them today, we need to understand why he sung them then. Let’s take a look at the story, found in Luke 2. Joseph and Mary are visiting the Temple in accordance with the Mosaic Law. Luke tells us (vv. 22–24):
When the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
Luke further tells us that while they were there they encountered Simeon: “Now, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (v. 25). According to Luke, God had given Simeon a special word: “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (v. 26). According to God’s plan, then, Simeon “came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said. …” Any guesses as to what he said? The Nunc Dimittis!
Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.
We’re almost ready to see why we sing the Nunc Dimittis after Holy Communion, but first we need to see the significance of Simeon’s words. Simeon holds the baby Jesus in his arms and says, “I can depart in peace now.” Why? Because, he says, “I have seen [God’s] salvation.” What, or who, is that salvation? Jesus! And this Jesus was presented before the eyes of all people as the salvation for Gentile and Jew.
Now, let’s consider Simeon’s words in light of their position after Holy Communion. It’s no accident that we sing them after the Sacrament of the altar. Recall the words we sing before the Sacrament—the Agnus Dei. How does that song conclude? With a prayer for peace: “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us Thy peace.” This prayer is followed by the pastor’s words—“The peace of the Lord be with you.” And then we receive the Sacrament—the true body and blood of Jesus given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins—and hear the pastor dismiss us with these words: “Depart in peace and joy; your sins are forgiven.”
With what words can we respond? Simeon’s! We confess that we are able to depart in peace precisely because we have seen God’s salvation in the Sacrament of the Altar. Our eyes have seen Christ, present in His body and blood, and we acknowledge that we have received the very peace for which we prayed in the Agnus Dei. This salvation is for us, for everyone. And that’s a reason to sing.
As the Divine Service comes to a close, the pastor speaks the Benediction over the congregation:
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you.
The Lord look upon you with favor and + give you peace.
These words, as with the rest of our liturgy, are drawn directly from Scripture. Numbers 6:22–27 records the account:
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.’”
These words, more than being a general prayer for blessing, actually impart God’s blessing, because, as the Numbers text indicates, it places God’s Name upon the recipients. And receiving God’s Name means receive His blessing and salvation.
Repeatedly, the Scriptures equate God’s Name with His presence. Where His Name is there is God. In 2 Samuel 7 God sends the prophet Nathan to King David with these words:
Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. … When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
Here God equates His presence with His Name. Furthermore, where God’s Name is, there is salvation. King David, in Psalm 54, prayed, “O God, save me by your name … ” and in Psalm 5:11–12 he prayed:
But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
let them ever sing for joy,
and spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may exult in you.
For you bless the righteous, O LORD;
you cover him with favor as with a shield.
The New Testament takes us a step further by locating salvation in Jesus’ Name. Peter confessed, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Receiving the blessing of the Lord, then, isn’t just the sign that the Divine Service is ending; it is the imparting of blessing and salvation in the Name of God. Even more, it is the giving of salvation and blessing in the Name of the Triune God. Three times the blessing mentions “The Lord” (“The Lord bless … The Lord make … The Lord look upon … ”).
And, fittingly, the last word spoken is “peace.” Blessing and salvation in the Triune Name of God give peace. The closing hymn celebrates that peace and allows the gathered worshippers to depart joyfully with the Lord’s peace.
Pastor Jonathan Conner of Zion Lutheran Church in Manning, Iowa, is a former board member for the Hausvater Project.