Saturday, 2 February 2013


Today – forty days after Christmas – is the ancient Feast of Candlemas...

Marking the mid-point of winter, halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox, the name Candlemas derives from the custom of taking into church the candles to be used in the coming year and blessing them.

Since the earliest days of the Christian church, this festival has signalled the formal ending of the Christmas season by commemorating an event recorded in the Gospel of St Luke.

Following the Jewish tradition of pidyon haben, Mary and Joseph presented their first-born child, Jesus, in the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Luke, the event was witnessed by an elderly devout Jew named Simeon who had received a promise from God that he would not die until he had seen the Saviour of the world.

Taking the child in his arms, Simeon spoke words that, across the centuries, have featured in the daily services of worship throughout the Christian church.

In Greek the words say...
νῦν ἀπολύεις τὸν δοῦλόν σου, δέσποτα, κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου ἐν εἰρήνῃ·
ὅτι εἶδον οἱ ὀφθαλμοί μου τὸ σωτήριόν σου,
ὃ ἡτοίμασας κατὰ πρόσωπον πάντων τῶν λαῶν,
φῶς εἰς αποκάλυψιν ἐθνῶν καὶ δόξαν λαοῦ σου Ἰσραήλ.
In Latin...
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.
 And in the English of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer...
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.
The prayer, known as the 'Nunc Dimittis', became part of the night time office of the Christian church called Compline, or Evening Prayer, and many composers have written settings for the 'Nunc Dimittis' from Thomas Tallis to Arvo Part. (You can click on the composers' names to link to recording of their versions.)

In popular culture, the 'Nunc Dimittis' will be forever associated with the closing titles of the 1979 BBC TV dramatisation of John le Carré's spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in a setting by the late Geoffrey Burgon (responsible for another magnificent television score accompanying Brideshead Revisited).

The Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy version was sung by a boy soprano (the uncredited Paul Phoenix) and, despite having a child singing what is the prayer of an old man, it it has a haunting and gloriously ethereal sound as you can hear here.

Here's another famous former boy soprano, Aled Jones singing Burgon's setting in company with a current young chorister, Ben Crawley...


This Candlemas, I wish you all a day of peace and tranquillity.

Images: Candle in St John the Divine, Kennington by Brian Sibley © 2012; 'Simeon's Song of Praise' by Aert De Gelder c.1700


WendyLady@GoodBooks said...

I was not familiar with Nunc Dimittis - thank you for sharing those beautiful renditions. May the Light of Christ illumine us all! We are taking our candles to church tonight to be blessed for the coming year...and we'll see if the groundhog has a shadow tomorrow!

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas brings cold and rain,
Go, winter, and come not again.

Suzanne said...

Here in Belgium (and possibly elsewhere on the Continent) it is traditional to eat pancakes. Apparently we can't wait until Shrove Tuesday!
Today however is called "Jour de la Chandeleur" which does roughly translate into Candlemass - we just have the pancakes as well!

Brian Sibley said...

WendyLady – You'll find the original prayer (and Simoen's prophecy about Jesus) in Luke's Gospel Chapter 2: verses 22-34. Here's a modern English version.

Suzanne – Pancakes! How lovely! The great things about ALL religions is that, at the drop of a hat, they'll find an opportunity to work in some (quite often yummy) food!

boinky said...

Lovely. Thanks

SharonM said...

Of course, as we'll both remember, it was played at the Memorial Service for Ian Richardson.
But, this is the first time I have seen the translation.

Beth Stilborn said...

Lovely, lovely, lovely, both the post and the ethereal music. Thank you, Brian. Peace to you.

Eudora said...

In Spain, so devoted to Virgin Mary, we have Marian advocation: Virgin of Candelaria, since XV century, very popular in some regions like Canary Islands.

But the music, oh, is wonderful... thank you Brian. My God, I am a fan of Smiley and today for the first time I've learned that the music of Tinker, Taylor was the Simeon prayer

Brian Sibley said...

Great to have those different cultural stores WendyLady, Suzanne and Eudora, thank you; and thanls, too, to Sharon for reminding me that 'Nunc Dimitis' was sung at Ian Richardson's memorial service.

Glad you enjoyed the music boinky and Beth.

Woman on a Raft said...

Thank you, I've very much enjoyed this post. The modern pagans enjoy this festival too. They classify it as the return of the maiden, walking over the frozen fields to announce the spring.

There might be something in it; today the birds have been going crazy with singing. Despite the lack of leaves and the cold weather, both the blackbird and the robin wanted everyone to know they were back in business.