I recently wrote three pieces on the New Testament Canticles over at the blog my brother and I share. These are the Benedictus (song of Zacharias at the birth of John the Baptist), Magnificat (song of Mary), and Nunc Dimittis (song of Simeon upon encountering the Christ Child) — all known by their first word or two in Latin. All sung/recited during the daily office. All in the Gospel of Luke.
The reflections are devotional exercises considering the content of the canticles and their historical context. I hope they are a blessing to you:
I had the wonderful opportunity of seeing my wife’s favourite piece of art on Friday. After I was done work at the Vatican Library, we popped over to St Peter’s, and I beheld Michelangelo’s Pietà. This is one of the Florentine sculptor’s greatest masterpieces, alongside big, naked David, horny Moses, and the Sistine Chapel. I present it to you (in my wife’s own photo!) as large as this WordPress theme will allow:
When I beheld this milky, silky, polished chef-d’oeuvre, I could not help but be overcome by emotion. It is a striking, powerful image. Mary is cradling her Son in her arms.
Yet he droops lifelessly.
Mary gestures to the viewer in her grief, her eyes cast down towards her lifeless, spent Son.
Here, at the Pietà all the sorrows of the world meet.
This is the depth of the reality of all human sorrow, compounded because this Son of hers was the Son of promise.
And what does that promise contain?
Because of its inclusion in Roman Rite Compline and Cranmer’s Evensong, the Song of Simeon, or Nunc Dimittis, is the most famous part of the old Israelite’s encounter with Christ in the Presentation in the Temple (Lk 2:29-32). However, Simeon also speaks a prophecy:
Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Lk 2:34-35, NKJV)
When I looked upon the Pietà, upon the grief of the Mother of Our Lord, upon the immediate, earthly aftermath of the terrible necessity that was wrought for our salvation, that verse struck me with force and vigour.
a sword will pierce through your own soul also
Here sits Mary, full of grace. Full of sorrow. For her Son is dead.
The little chapel was lit only by ambient light from the sides, the chandelier from the ceiling turned off — this, of course, augmented by the lights on Fr. Raphael’s lectern and the glowing candles in the lamps before the iconostasis and those lit by the faithful before the icons near the door.
Icons hung on the four walls of the room as well as on the iconostasis, although not completely covering this piece of ecclesiastical furniture which was made from simple timbers and boards, no fancy carvings in sight. Although the chapel had no dome (I believe Fr. John lives upstairs), a circular icon of Christ Pantokrator was mounted to the ceiling above the nave.
When the curtain in the iconostasis opened, I could see the Holy Table* with an ornate cross with two other ornate objects flanking it; they reminded me of monstrances, but I knew they couldn’t be since Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is a western phenomenon associated with the 13th-century feast of Corpus Christi.
Fr. Raphael stood at his lectern in the back left corner of the chapel and chanted and sang Vespers. There were Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, Kyries, and many others. Amidst these beautiful hymns and chants were hymns for St. Ambrose of Milan whose feast was the next day. These were beautiful and complex, verse homilies in miniature, teaching us of the life and teachings of St. Ambrose, praying that our faith might mirror his.
My Sundays of worship at Evensong at St. Alban’s in Ottawa as well as the many nights I have prayed Compline alone gladdened my heart when Fr. Raphael sang the Nunc Dimittis. I mouthed the words silently along with him.
Every once in a while, I would see Fr. John behind the iconostasis, standing before the Holy Table, bowing, praying, and chanting a few portions of the order for Vespers himself. At one point, Fr. John censed the Holy Table and then proceed out from behind the iconostasis with the censer. He censed the doors, the icons of the day posted near the doors, Theodore, me, and Fr. Raphael, before proceeding back to his position behind the iconostasis.
Theodore, a young Romanian student of electrical engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and I were the only two congregants for most of Vespers last night. We stood at the back, crossing ourselves at the right moments and lifting up our hearts to God. Using skills developed at Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic services, I kept half an eye on Fr. Raphael to know when to cross myself. I tried to listen to the words of the service, but sometimes, especially when the chanting became singing, I got caught up in the melody and lost track of the words.
I prayed the Jesus Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’) many times over. My charismatic upbringing also manifested itself in the quiet praying in tongues through the movement of the Holy Spirit in that quiet, holy space. At times, my mind wandered as I stood there, thinking about Eastern Orthodoxy, liturgy, and worship, as well as St. Ambrose. Inevitably, my thoughts turned to the fact that my back was hurting.
I sat down. Theodore had already done so, so I didn’t feel bad about it.
Within about a minute of having sat down, Fr. Raphael called me over to his four-platformed spinning lectern to read.
I read the Trisagion, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer to St. Ambrose, and a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I may have prayed something else, but those are the prayers that stand out in my mind. Fortunately, I know enough of Orthodox liturgy to have been able to pray the Glory Be without printed words properly.
After this beautiful service, we retired to the church hall for tea and cake. I met Theodore and Dimitri, and had a conversation with Fr. Raphael about Pope St. Leo the Great and St. Cyril of Alexandria. Then, as it was about 8:15 and I hadn’t had supper, I went home.