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Musical Musings: Prayers and Liturgical Texts Page 2

The Canticles of Luke

Benedictus and Nunc Dimittis

The Benedictus, or Canticle of Zacharias, is found in Luke 1:68-79. Zacharias was a direct descendant of Aaron and thus one of the many priests serving the Jewish people. He felt himself to be cursed, however, since he and his wife, Elisabeth, now of old age, had no children. It was while performing his priestly duties, offering incense prior to the evening sacrifice, that the Lord revealed to Zacharias that Elisabeth would bear him a son. From that moment on, Zacharias was unable to speak, until after the birth of John, when he spoke this great canticle.

This hymn may be divided in four sections. The first offers thanks to God, using a traditional Hebrew formula, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel." Secondly, it speaks of the great deliverance of God's people as recorded in the holy covenant of Abraham. The hymn then specifically recalls John's role as a prophet of the Most High who will go before the Lord to prepare his way." The canticle concludes telling of the salvation that is ours through the Messiah.

The Nunc Dimittis, or Canticle of Simeon, is found in Luke 2:29-32. In the latter days of Old Testament history, many of the Jews saw the coming of the Messiah as a violent overthrow of oppressive forces, a powerful new reign for the Second-David. Others, like Simeon, were known as "The Quiet of the Land," and spent much time in prayer and quiet watchfulness. It was to Simeon that the Lord promised, through the Holy Spirit, to reveal the Messiah. It is assumed that when Jesus was born Simeon and his wife Anna were quite old. Simeon's canticle speaks of the imminence of his death, accepted now in peaceful resignation after having witnessed the coming of Salvation. The hymn deals with the image of freedom from slavery, with death as a "release from a long task."

Luke's is a Gospel of prayer and praise, a magnificent exposition of the infinite love of God. Barclay's commentary states, "Faber wrote the lines,

There's a wideness in God's mercy, Like the wideness of the sea;
There's a kindness in his justice Which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader Than the measure of man's mind;
And the heart of the Eternal Is most wonderfully kind.

Luke's Gospel is the demonstration that this is true."

  Back to Part I: "The Singing Gospel"

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