Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Many evenings since my freshman year of college (when I was in the undergraduate seminary), I have prayed before bed the canticle for Compline, the Nunc Dimittis. The well-known text spoken by Simeon in the Gospel of Luke states:
Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
Your word has been fulfilled.
My eyes have seen the salvation
You have prepared in the sight of every people,
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.
Simeon’s words, over the course of years of praying, has become written upon my own memory and shaped my desire. It is no longer a prayer outside of myself, written upon a page, but has become part of my identity. As I prepare to sleep every night, I practice Simeon’s own readiness to die as one who has encountered “the light of the nations.”
In this way, to pray the Nunc Dimittis is a counter-cultural performance in which each day the Christian practices the art of dying. This is not the death of the philosopher, who acknowledges the brevity of life, and seeks to attune the passions to this inescapable reality. Rather, it is the death of those who have seen the very source of salvation made manifest in the weakness of the infant Son. The death of those who have desired to see God enact the definitive plan of salvation and now abide in a world in which God’s glory has taken flesh. Simeon, who has seen the beginning of this salvation, gives himself over to the Father, already offering the gift of self that is at the heart of the Church’s Eucharistic life.
Of course, the Christian does not pray at the end of every night that he or she may “literally” die in the course of sleep. Rather, the practice of the Nunc Dimittis is a constant reminder that there are innumerous invitations to die each day, to practice that final self-offering each of us will be called to make (sleep being the perfect image or icon of this death). Our death is inescapable but the Christian takes control of one’s death through transforming even these small deaths into moments of self-gift. We take control through losing control. Like Simeon, only those who recognize the gift before their eyes of the Word made flesh, the gift of existence itself, can make this self-offering. Practicing death doesn’t mean denying that the world matters. Only the one who sees the glorious light of the created order can make this offering.
In this way, to pray the Nunc Dimittis everyday is to practice the very art of discipleship, which is nothing less than the art of dying. It is not a morose dying but a Eucharistic gift of self that renews us every evening in the fundamentals of Christian identity: to take up our crosses and to follow Jesus the Christ. It is to receive anew the light of the world in the risen Lord and to offer up the only thing that we have to give to the God who is pure gift: ourselves. The Nunc Dimittis is, in this way, an icon of Christian life as a whole, of our fellowship in the Church. As Rowan Williams writes:
“…we, drawn into communion, into participation with God through the mutual giving of Jesus and his Father, have become part of a fellowship initiated and sustained by gift, and to abide in this fellowship is to learn how we can give, to each other and to God. That we can give at all rests on what we have been given, on the sense of receiving our very selves as gift…If we are to be fully a gift to the Father, given by ourselves yet also by and through the crucified Jesus, by our association with that prior gift, we must bear the cost–which is the loss of all we do and all we possess to defend ourselves against God and others and death…The cost is the loss of images and fantasies, of clear, tight frontiers to the self. If we can even begin to give in this way, it is only because of the depth of the assurance implied in the given given us on Calvary” (Eucharistic Sacrifice–The Roots of a Metaphor, 29).
Therefore, the last gift of the Christmas season given by God through the Church’s celebration of the Presentation of the Lord is a reminder, as we enter into the season of Lent, that the return-gift that God desires is our very selves. Our whole identities, offered to the God who is love. To die into a world that is pure and total gift.