History of Hymns: “My Master, See, the Time Has Come”
By C. Michael Hawn
My Master, See, the Time Has Come
Words from Luke 2:29-32;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 226
“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.” (Luke 2:29-32, NRSV)
The paraphrase of Scripture in "My Master, See, the Time Has Come" is the final of the four famous canticles found in the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke, the most complete narrative we have of the prophecy and nativity of Christ. The four are (with their traditional titles from the Latin Vulgate, a fourth-century translation) Zechariah's song (Benedictus), found in Luke 1:59-79, Mary's song (Magnificat), found in Luke 1:46b-55, the angel's song (Gloria in excelsis Deo), found in Luke 2:14, and Simeon's song (Nunc dimittis), found in Luke 2:29-32. This paraphrase, taken from The Psalms: A New Translation (1980), is a fitting close to the year and to the events of Christmas (Young, 1993, 490).
The term “canticle” is a bit slippery to define. To some degree, the understanding of a canticle depends upon the specific ecclesial tradition that uses the term. The Eastern Orthodox Church, for example, designates nine canticles to be chanted at Matins, the midnight office.
Generally, the term canticle is reserved for biblical songs that do not come from the Psalter. Both Testaments contain canticles. They often appear at very important places in a specific biblical narrative, somewhat analogous to an aria in opera, allowing the primary character(s) in the narrative to share their laments and hopes as a part of the grand story of salvation. A few examples must suffice:
- The (first) Song of Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15:1-21) following the crossing of the Red Sea.
- The (second) Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43a), sung just before Moses’ death as the Israelites are entering the promised land.
- The Prayer of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), sung as a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the birth of Samuel, her son, and viewed as the prototype for Mary’s song in Luke 1.
- The Prayer of Jonah (Jonah 2:2-9) sung from the belly of the whale.
- The Songs of the Three Holy Children (Daniel 3:26-56; 57-88), sung by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when they were thrown into the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon.
Thus, it is no wonder that the events surrounding the birth of Christ deserve canticles as well.
In Luke 2:21-28 we find the context for Simeon's beautiful canticle. It was the custom to bring an infant to the temple in Jerusalem for circumcision after eight days; indeed, Scripture records that Elizabeth brought John to be circumcised and named on the eighth day (Luke 1:59-60).
The occasion for this canticle was not for Jesus’ circumcision, as this had taken place earlier (Luke 2:21), but for Mary’s purification (Luke 2:22), a ritual that would not take place until at least forty days after Jesus’ birth. As the first-born male, Jesus was consecrated to the Lord (Luke 2:23) and a sacrifice of two turtledoves was offered. (Luke 2:24).
In the temple was a priest named Simeon, a devout Jew, who had been waiting for the "consolation of Israel" – the promised Messiah. The Holy Spirit was upon Simeon and it was revealed to him that he should not see death until he had seen the Christ-child – the fulfillment of prophecy.
When Jesus was brought to the temple, Simeon took Jesus into his arms and sang the canticle. The King James Version, the version that seems to be closest to the paraphrase, presents Simeon’s Song 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."
It is interesting to note that the birth of the infant signified “salvation . . . prepared before the face of all people” (Luke 2:30-31). What is astounding is that a Jewish priest would specifically mention that Jesus’ coming was “a light to lighten the Gentiles” as well as “the glory to thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32). Earlier in the story, the Canticle of Zechariah proposed that the coming Messiah would fulfill the prophesy and that this one would “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79b, NRSV). The Canticle of Mary literally turned the world upside down with the coming Messiah bringing down the “powerful from their thrones” and “lift[ing] up the lowly” (Luke 1:52, NRSV). The Canticle of the Angels promised “peace to all those whom [God] favors” (Luke 2:14, NRSV). But, it must have come as quite a shock to the early Jewish community when Simeon recorded that the Messiah was the salvation of both Israel and the Gentiles!
Luke 2:36-38 records the presence of the old prophetess Anna, who had also been searching for the one who would signify the redemption of Israel. She lived in the temple, constantly fasting and praying.
Though Simeon and Anna understood the broader significance of the circumcision of this Jewish boy, Luke 2:33 records that Joseph and Mary "marveled" at what they heard and saw. This child was the salvation not only for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles.
If one attends an Episcopal or Anglican Church for Evening Prayer, the canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are fixed features in the order of this popular service. Perhaps our daily prayers should also conclude with Simeon's words of peace and salvation for all people.
For further reading:
Young, Carlton R. Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.
About this week’s writers:
C. Michael Hawn is the University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director of the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX.