As our Advent journey draws to a close, we want to consider the last two canticles presented for our prayerful consideration by St. Luke, the Gloria1 and Nunc Dimittis.
We now move into the second chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, where we read of the birth of Jesus and various events connected to the infancy and early life of the Child Savior. These texts have been known to us since childhood, enchanting us then; it is devoutly to be hoped that they enchant us still. If they don’t, it may be a very worthwhile Christmas project to attempt to regain that spiritual childhood promoted by St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Of course, the Little Flower didn’t invent the notion; it came from the lips of the Lord Himself: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3).
Once more, St. Luke – ever the historian – sets the stage for the second act of this sacred drama. Interestingly, it is Luke’s very “historical” thrust that has caused some modern scholars to question the accuracy of his assertion that an “enrollment” of the whole Roman Empire took place under Caesar Augustus and Quirinius; the claim is that there is no secular historical evidence for that. A solution, however, is found in the fact that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, not once.2 The thrilling traditional Christmas Proclamation adds that this was the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus “when the whole world was at peace”3 – the Pax Romana, the ideal circumstances for the entrance into the world of the One who was (and is) the Prince of Peace. That “enrollment” (however it is conceived) brings Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem (which means “House of Bread,”4 a foreshadowing of Christ’s gift of Himself in the Holy Eucharist). Bede the Venerable offers this exhilarating reflection:
He is confined in the narrow space of a rude manger, whose seat is the heavens, that He may give us ample room in the joys of His heavenly kingdom. He who is the Bread of Angels is laid down in a manger, that He might feast us, as it were the sacred animals, with the bread of His flesh.
To which, St. John Chrysostom adds:
Surely if He had so willed it, He might have come moving the heavens, making the earth to shake, and shooting forth His thunderbolts; but such was not the way of His going forth; His desire was not to destroy, but to save; and to trample upon human pride from its very birth, therefore He is not only man, but a poor man, and has chosen a poor mother, who had not even a cradle where she might lay her new- born Child; as it follows, and she laid him in the manger.
Our Evangelist is also careful to observe that this “little town of Bethlehem” (as the carol would have us sing) is the City of David. A Greek exegete of the Patristic era sees great significance in this:
Now he added, a city of David, that he might declare that the promise made by God to David, namely, that from the fruit of his loins there should go before him a king for ever, was already fulfilled. Whence it follows, Because he was of the house and lineage of David. But since Joseph was of the family of David, it pleased the Evangelist to make known also that the Virgin herself was of the same family, because the divine law enjoined marriages between those of the same line; and therefore it follows, With Mary his espoused wife.5
We are told that it was there that Mary delivered her “first-born.” That expression was a legal designation, involving inheritance rights. It did not imply the births of subsequent children; in fact, there are several “first-borns” mentioned in the Old Testament, who had no siblings.6 Then follows one of the saddest lines in all of Sacred Scripture: “There was no place for him in the inn.” Those who are obsessed with themselves, craving money and power, continue that sad tradition of denying a place for Him in the inn of their hearts.
The angel of the Lord appears to the poor shepherds, who are doing nothing more than their duty. However, therein lies the reason for their being gifted with the first announcement of the Savior’s birth. The Venerable Fulton Sheen never ceased to be profoundly moved by the mystery of Christmas (as should we all), making this trenchant observation: “. . . at the crib, only two classes of people found their way to Christ when he came to this earth: the very simple, and the very learned – the shepherds who knew that they knew nothing, and the wise men who knew that they did not know everything.” Those same “two classes” seem to have provided the largest groups within the Church throughout her history. Sheen continues with a most charming comment: “The simple shepherds heard the voice of an angel and found their Lamb; the wise men saw the light of a star and found their Wisdom.”
St. Ambrose highlights an aspect of the scene which could get easily lost: “Observe with what care God builds up our faith. An Angel teaches Mary; an Angel teaches Joseph; an Angel the shepherds also. . . . “ St. Bede underscores the importance of these angelic ministrations:
Nowhere; in the whole course of the Old Testament do we find that the Angels who so constantly appear to the Patriarchs, came in the day time. This privilege was rightly kept for this time, when there arose in the darkness a light to them that were true of heart. Hence it follows, and the glory of God shone round about them. He is sent forth from the womb, but He shines from heaven. He lies in a common inn, but He lives in celestial light.
Beholding the “glory of the Lord,” the shepherds are rightly frightened, for this is the same “shekinah” that Moses beheld, that guided the Chosen People from slavery in Egypt to eventual freedom in the Promised Land, that dwelt in a particular way in the Temple of Jerusalem. To assuage their fears, the shepherds hear the self-same consoling words as did Mary and Zechariah: “Be not afraid.” Those words are followed by another word that always signals a revelation, “Behold!” The angel is the bearer of nearly incredible “good news” (euangellion/Gospel), which should bring “great joy” (here is that Lucan theme of joy once again).7
Like Mary and Zechariah before them, the shepherds are also given a sign,8 and that “sign” is nothing other than a Child. And that new-born Child is Soter (Savior), Christos (Messiah), Kyrios (Lord). In one sentence, Luke presents us with an entire course in Christology. The Infant is wrapped in swaddling cloths (a common practice), however, St. Cyril of Jerusalem sees a connection between this event and the Lord’s Second Coming: “In His former advent, He was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger; in His second, He covers Himself with light as with a garment.” Other Fathers saw in the swaddling the shroud that would enwrap Him in death. In yet another Eucharistic allusion, we are informed that the Infant is placed in a “manger,” a feed box for animals; in due course, He will reveal Himself as the very “Bread of Life” (John 6), on which we must needs feed.
At that point, the lone angel is joined by “a multitude of the heavenly host,” with yet another message, which is the substance of our third canticle of St. Luke.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”
Notice the order of things: God first; man next. One of the more unfortunate developments in Catholic spirituality after Vatican II has been a “humanization” of things. To be sure, there is a valid and good Christian humanism, echoing the intuition of the pagan Roman Terence, who asserted: “Nil humanum mihi alienum est” (Nothing human is alien to me). That is even more true, thanks to the inestimable self-abasement of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity in the mystery of the Incarnation. However, there is a proper order to things. Mother Teresa, who could never be accused of holding herself (and her Sisters) aloof from human concerns, nonetheless said on many occasions that her Community’s early morning hours spent in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and in the celebration of Holy Mass were key to their apostolate: Recognizing Christ in the Bread of the Eucharist, she said, gave them the ability to recognize Christ in the broken bodies they would tend later in the day. Conversely, many clergy and Religious in the misbegotten euphoria of the immediate post-Vatican II era gave up the transcendent dimension of their vocations, hied themselves off to the inner-cities, rather swiftly became disillusioned with human ingratitude and their own ineffectiveness, and just as swiftly abandoned their religious commitment. No, glory to God brings peace to men.
Bede makes an intriguing suggestion: “They [the angelic hosts] wish also peace to men, as they add, On earth peace to men, because those whom they had before despised as weak and abject, now that our Lord has come in the flesh they esteem as friends.” A fascinating thought, put forth by not a few Fathers of the Church, holds that God the Father – not long after His creation of man – revealed to the angels His plan for the Incarnation of the Son. Lucifer and his minions were repulsed at the thought of God assuming the nature of humans, lower than the angels in the created order. Hence, their rebellion.9 This is apparently behind Bede’s suggestion of the angels’ less-than-enthusiastic assessment of us mortals. However, they re-assess their judgment, precisely in light of the Incarnation and come to regard us as “friends,” which, of course, is how Jesus would later deem His disciples (see Jn 15:15).
St. Bede also teaches an important truth, for those who follow the idea of God’s indiscriminate acceptance of all: “. . . there is no peace to the ungodly, but much peace to them that love the name of God.” Put simply: The “ungodly” have no claim on divine love, most easily manifest in the experience of peace.
Luke picks up the story-line by telling us that the shepherds heeded the message of the angels, beheld the Holy Family, knew for sure that the angelic message was verified, and became evangelists, sharing the “good news.” Mary, we are told, “pondered” all these happenings; this verse led the then-Anglican clergyman Newman to deliver an entire sermon in the University Chapel of Oxford on Our Lady for the feast of the Presentation in 1843:
But Mary’s faith did not end in a mere acquiescence in Divine providences and revelations: as the text informs us, she “pondered” them. When the shepherds came, and told of the vision of Angels which they had seen at the time of the Nativity, and how one of them announced that the Infant in her arms was “the Saviour, which is Christ the Lord,” while others did but wonder, “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” Again, when her Son and Saviour had come to the age of twelve years, and had left her for awhile for His Father’s service, and had been found, to her surprise, in the Temple, amid the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions, and had, on her addressing Him, vouchsafed to justify His conduct, we are told, “His mother kept all these sayings in her heart.”
Newman even presents Our Lady as the prototype for the Christian theologian:
Thus St. Mary is our pattern of Faith, both in the reception and in the study of Divine Truth. She does not think it enough to accept, she dwells upon it; not enough to possess, she uses it; not enough to assent, she developes it; not enough to submit the Reason, she reasons upon it; not indeed reasoning first, and believing afterwards, with Zacharias, yet first believing without reasoning, next from love and reverence, reasoning after believing. And thus she symbolizes to us, not only the faith of the unlearned, but of the doctors of the Church also, who have to investigate, and weigh, and define, as well as to profess the Gospel; to draw the line between truth and heresy; to anticipate or remedy the various aberrations of wrong reason; to combat pride and recklessness with their own arms; and thus to triumph over the sophist and the innovator.
Laconically, our Evangelist records the Child’s circumcision and naming – all in accord with the directive of the angel. We then fast-forward forty days to the Child’s Presentation at the Temple, again, in accord with divine law. The devout parents show themselves true members of the Chosen People by their total obedience to the Law, presenting the Baby and offering the prescribed gifts, in their case, the gifts of the poor.
St. Cyril of Alexandria hypothesizes on the spiritual significance of these offerings:
But let us see what these offerings mean. The turtle dove is the most vocal of birds, and the pigeon the gentlest. And such was the Savior made unto us; He was endowed with perfect meekness, and like the turtle dove entranced the world, filling His garden with His own melodies. There was killed then either a turtle dove or a pigeon, that by a figure He might be shown forth to us as about to suffer in the flesh for the life of the world.
The obedience of Mary and Joseph provided the Incarnate God with an example He would emulate after His boyhood tarrying in the Temple and even to the point of undergoing baptism at the hands of John the Baptism, and most especially in His obedience, “even unto death, death on a cross” (Ph 2:8).
At this Temple visit, we are introduced to the pious old man Simeon. Three times in three verses, the Holy Spirit (another favorite Lucan theme) features as the prime Actor in this entire episode: The Spirit was with Simeon; the Spirit had assured him he would live to encounter the Messiah; the Spirit inspired him to venture into the Temple precincts at this very hour. Simeon is a kind of “corporate” person, representing old and faithful Israel, in ardent anticipation of the long-expected Messiah. St. Bede proffers:
Now the righteous man, according to the law, received the Child Jesus in his arms, that he might signify that the legal righteousness of works under the figure of the hands and arms was to be changed for the lowly indeed but saving grace of Gospel faith The old man received the infant Christ, to convey thereby that this world, now worn out as it were with old age, should return to the childlike innocence of the Christian life.
And then, with consummate tenderness, St. Luke gives us this image of the Old Law being fulfilled in this sacred encounter with the One we earlier met in the manger as Savior, Messiah and Lord (Hypapante is what the Eastern Churches call the liturgical celebration of this event). The only appropriate response to this “Encounter” by the venerable man is to break into song:
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.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word;
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation
which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to thy people Israel.
This canticle is prayed every night at Compline in the Roman Rite,10 which ushers in the hour of sleep but also serves as a preparation for death. In addition to settings in Gregorian and Anglican chant, we have Latin renditions from Palestrina, Byrd, Des Prez, and Holst; Schütz in German; Howells and Stanford in English; and Rachmaninoff in Old Slavonic.
In the most endearing language, Origen opines:
If we marvel to hear that a woman was healed by touching the hem of a garment, what must we think of Simeon, who received an Infant in his arms, and rejoiced seeing that the little one he carried was He who had come to let loose the captive! Knowing that no one could release him from the chains of the body with the hope of future life, but He whom he held in his arms.
Photius underscores Simeon’s peace, “neither dismayed at the taste of death, nor harassed with doubting thoughts.”
Donning the mantle of prophecy, Simeon declares that this Child will unite Gentiles and Jews in Himself, hence, “all peoples.” What need of “revelation” did the Gentiles have? Athanasius informs us: “For the Gentiles before the coming of Christ were lying in the deepest darkness, being without the knowledge of God.” We sometimes forget the immense darkness and pervading influence of evil existing before the proclamation of the Gospel – a point often made by missionaries, who attest to the palpable presence of the Evil One in a place until Holy Mass is first celebrated and sacraments begin to be administered.
And what about the “glory” of Israel? St. Gregory of Nyssa explains:
. . . although some of them were disobedient, yet a remnant were saved and came through Christ to glory, of which the Apostles were first-fruits, whose brightness illumines the whole world. For Christ was in a peculiar manner the glory of Israel, because according to the flesh He came forth from Israel, although as God He was over all blessed for ever.11
These pronouncements undoubtedly brought joy and pride to the new parents as they received the blessing of the faithful old man. However, there is more, which is directed to the Infant’s Mother: Her Son is destined to be the occasion for the fall and rising of many in Israel. This sounds quite ominous, but some of the Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa, see it otherwise:
Mark the nice distinction here observed. Salvation is said to be prepared before the face of all people, but the falling and raising is of many; for the divine purpose was the salvation and sanctification of every one whereas the falling and lifting up stands in the will of many believers and unbelievers.
However, there is no way to finesse Simeon’s word directed to Mary personally as he speaks of a “sword” that will “pierce” her heart. As the Mother will share in her Son’s glory, so too will she share in His passion. This gut-wrenching prophecy grounds the Church’s devotion to Our Lady as the Mother of Sorrows (promoted by the Servite Order), who did not endure a red martyrdom but did endure the “seven dolors.” St. John of Damascus draws out the implications with great empathy:
But this blessed woman, who was deemed worthy of gifts that are supernatural, suffered those pains, which she escaped at the birth, in the hour of the passion, enduring from motherly sympathy the rending of the bowels, and when she beheld Him, whom she knew to be God by the manner of His generation, killed as a malefactor, her thoughts pierced her as a sword, and this is the meaning of this verse: Yea, a sword shall pierce through your own soul also Luke 2:35. But the joy of the resurrection transforms the pain, proclaiming Him, who died in the flesh, to be God.
And what is said of Mary very often can be said of the Church, of which she is both Mother and Image. And so, we find this truly inspired insight of St. Bede:
But now even down to the close of the present time, the sword of the severest tribulation ceases not to go through the soul of the Church, when with bitter sorrow she experiences the evil speaking against the sign of faith, when hearing the Word of God that many are raised with Christ, she finds still more falling from the faith, when at the revealing of the thoughts of many hearts, in which the good seed of the Gospel has been sown, she beholds the tares of vice overshooting it, spreading beyond it, or growing alone.
The narrative ends with the approach of an old prophetess, who also rejoices in what she perceives to be the realization of the hopes of Israel’s faithful remnant. St. Ambrose sees Anna’s presence as a fitting conclusion to these opening acts of the drama of salvation:
Thus Simeon prophesied, a married woman had prophesied, a virgin had prophesied; a widow was needed to ensure that there was no lack of life, no sex. That is why Anna is presented to us: the merits of her widowhood and her conduct oblige her to judge her completely worthy to announce the coming of the Redeemer of all.
This is a good note on which to end our considerations for now as we observe, like the anawim of the Old Covenant, a holy anticipation to reflect more deeply on that hymn of the Church, which has its origins in the Song of the Angels on Christmas Night, the Gloria.
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