Introit for Candlemas, BL Egerton 3759, f.72
'Suscepimus Deus, misericordiam tuam in medio templi tui: secundum nomen tuum Deus, ita et laus tua in fines terrae: justitia plena est dextera tua.'
In other words:
'Senex puerum portabat: puer autem senem regebat...'
Kate Rusby sings Robert Herrick's poem 'Candlemas Eve':
'Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.'
A few favourite settings of the Nunc Dimittis:
I promise this is my very last post about Candlemas. I am, as you may have gathered from my last few posts, particularly fond of this feast, for reasons which are personal and a little sentimental: they include, for instance, a love for Cnut's Candlemas song at Ely, the subject of a section of my doctoral thesis I was particularly proud of; a real fondness for the medieval texts I've posted and linked to over the past few days; and a sense that on this day one can get especially close to the world of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, of Ælfric and Æthelwold and Dunstan and the rest. But more than anything I associate this day with the Nunc Dimittis, a text which as a student in a college choir I sang many times, in many different forms, week after week, with people who are very dear to me - so it's dear to me too, for that reason.
I also have a special liking for the Nunc Dimittis because I vividly remember the first time I encountered it. It was in my early teens, when I was taken for some reason to Evensong in a little church in the town where I grew up. Although a beautiful (and, I know now, an ancient) church, it's in a deprived area, rundown, with a small and aging congregation. When I went to Evensong there were perhaps four or five people in the congregation, with a few more in the dedicated but raggedy choir. The service, from the Book of Common Prayer, was mostly said or chanted by the congregation in unison. So there I was at thirteen, encountering Evensong for the first time: a near-empty church, the very plainest music, and an elderly church community of the kind which is always supposed to put young people off. But I loved it, odd child that I was - all because of the strangeness and beauty of the language. Although I had had quite an extensive religious education, and had been to a Catholic primary school, I don't think that until that point in my life I had ever heard a beautiful prayer; I'd certainly never encountered religious language that was challenging or difficult. At Evensong I was fascinated by the knotty language of the psalms and the collects, but it was one phrase in the Nunc Dimittis which struck me most of all: a light to lighten the Gentiles. It's such a simple, obvious rhetorical device, and I didn't know then that there's a name for it (polyptoton, in case you're wondering); I didn't know where the phrase came from, or what it meant, or even what Gentiles were (extensive religious education, remember!). I didn't know then what would matter to me now, that it's a poetic device which would work just as well in Old English as in the Tudor English of the Prayer Book - a phrase which an Anglo-Saxon writer could recognise, appreciate, even play with. None of that would have meant anything to me then. I just knew that it was beautiful. Up to that point, religion and beauty of language had seemed to me like quite distinct concepts; beauty was what I found and hungered for in poetry, but it had nothing to do with the simple, mostly banal language in which all religious ideas had been taught to me. I didn't know you could pray beautiful prayers, and I didn't know you could pray for abstract things like 'light'. It was a revelation to me that religious language could be interesting or beautiful, or that there was a place for beauty or complexity in religion at all. It was the first time I learned that prayer could be poetry, and poetry could be prayer.