The Nunc Dimittis: Our Last, Best Hope
Lutherans sing at the deathbed. More and more, there’s only one voice singing, though: mine. What can you sing that everyone knows? Who sings anymore?
If you know the hymns of the Lutheran Church, you know we aren’t boasting to suggest we have the best. The protestants have “Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes,” which isn’t bad; we had it already many years earlier from St. Bernard via Paul Gerhardt:
Be Thou [Christ] my consolation, my shield when I must die.
Remind me of Thy Passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee—upon Thy cross shall dwell—
My heart, by faith, enfold Thee; who dieth thus dies well!
There was once a whole section of hymns labeled “Death and Burial.” Some even told you when to sing them: “When My Last Hour is Close at Hand…” (We have forgotten how relevant death remains to the average person, it seems.) Yet, all three of our latest LCMS hymnals retain this treasure: “Lord, Let at Last Thine Angels Come.” The old guard—forgotten by the movers and shakers in the Church, but beloved to anyone who still visits shut-ins—sometimes knows these hymns. You know that because you’ve already sung with them and buried them.
What does this mean? It means our task will be increasingly difficult. I’ve started teaching “Lord, Thee I Love” to my congregations (one saint already knew it, and he sings with tears). Future generations may be ready to die again. But what about the intervening saints?
There’s still one tool in my belt, thank God: the Nunc Dimittis. For whatever reason, and despite all liturgical innovations, it wasn’t forgotten. The history on the Nunc Dimittis in the Mass is pretty shaky. Nuremberg and Strasbourg appoint it in 1525, Petri makes use of it in Sweden (1531), but it never really caught on until the 19th century (you can find the tune in Kliefoth & Kade’s Cantionale, 4 volumes, 1868-1887). It’s one of our few “Lutheran innovations,” and that a recent one. Even so, our people still know it. So they know how to die. They know how to sing a passage from the Bible, even, in faith. For a while, at least, I think you may find the same thing I have: the Nunc Dimittis is indispensable.
Now, of course the Nunc won’t help new members. I expect a gap in our own churches is coming where people do not remember the name “Simeon” or his song. And when we finally hit the folks who don’t know the Lord’s Prayer (“deliver us + from evil”), it will really be hard to help the dying. But until then, thank God for old Simeon. His song is my last bullet.
If you are blessed to have Simeon in your toolbox still, use him. Adding the sung version from LSB (Divine Service 3) to its order for funerals is quite easy. (You can sing the antiphon to Gregorian tone V as noted below.) And if you have sung it even once with a dying member, their family and the congregation will be glad to sing it again at the service. They will take ownership of it as “our tradition” in no time. The pastor who follows you in 50 years won’t have to sing alone.