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.
And in the English of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer...
- 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.
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.)
- 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.
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