All are invited to the next Vespers service celebrated at First Lutheran Church, for the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of the Virgin Mary on Saturday, February 1, at 5pm (prelude begins at 4:30pm).
The feast of the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of the Virgin Mary is one of the oldest on the liturgical calendar. It celebrates the occasion on which Jesus’ family underwent both the ritual purification God required of women who have given birth (Lv. 12) and the redemption of the firstborn (Ex. 13:12–15), both of which were to happen 40 days after his birth—hence, the feast of the Presentation and Purification falls each year on February 2, 40 days after Christmas. The account is remembered more for Simeon’s appearance than anything else, and it is that to which we owe the beautiful canticle of Simeon, the Nunc dimittis: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…” (Lk. 2:29–32). Martin Luther paraphrased Simeon’s canticle as a chorale, sung as the processional hymn this evening: “In Peace and Joy I Now Depart.” Simeon’s canticle introduces one additional aspect to the feast, that of “Candlemas:” it is an ancient and laudable custom that the Church blesses on this day all the candles to be used at the altar and in torches over the following year (this naturally does not apply to the Paschal candle, which is consecrated at the Easter Vigil). This custom recalls how Simeon in his canticle acclaimed Jesus as “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” Candlemas is the “unofficial” end of the Christmas season: while Christmas proper is twelve days long and is followed immediately by Epiphanytide, the parallel of “40 days of Christmas” to the 40 days of Lent and the 40 days between Easter and the Ascension is an attractive one. (In many locales, household Christmas decorations remain up until February 2.)
Following organist Arvid Gast’s prelude recital at 4:30pm, Vespers at 5pm will feature heavily the music of Heinrich Schütz: we will hear his wonderful and expressive setting of the Nunc dimittis (SWV 433), a German Magnificat (SWV 426), and Psalm 134 (SWV 239).
The Magnificat antiphon, Senex puerum portabat, bears special mention:
An ancient held up an Infant, but the Infant upheld the ancient.
Him Whom the Virgin brought forth and yet afterward so remained,
Him Whom she bore, she adored.
What a wonderful confession of that which old Simeon himself knew: though he took the baby Jesus in his arms, it was really Jesus Himself Who gave life to Simeon. This truth is fleshed out and applied to the universal Church in Johannes Eccard’s exegetical motet Maria wallt zum Heiligtum (translated):
Mary went up to the Temple and brought her little Child there,
Who was beheld by the aged Simeon, as was promised to him.
Then he took Jesus in his arms and sang with joyful spirit:
“Now I depart with joy, for today I have seen You, Savior,
You Comfort of Israel, the Light of the world.”
Grant, O dearest Jesus, that we in every circumstance,
just like Simeon, find all our joy in You,
and that, when our time comes, we gently fall asleep and thus sing gladly:
“Now I depart…”
The final hymn, “In Peace and Joy I Now Depart,” is Martin Luther’s translation of the Nunc dimittis. We will use Michael Praetorius’s harmonization (Musae Sioniae VIII/159), and the choir will sing stanza 3 in a setting by Bartholomäus Gesius. And the Office Hymn, “From East to West, From Shore to Shore,” will be sung using the harmonization found in the cantional (a kind of hymnal) by Johann Hermann Schein.
The hymn “From East to West” is really the first seven stanzas of the Latin hymn A solis ortus cardine by Coelius Sedulius, a 5th-century poet. It is an Abecedarian hymn—that is, each stanza begins with the next successive letter of the Latin alphabet. Luther knew this hymn well, having sung it since he was a boy chorister, and throughout his career as a monk and priest. He translated it into German as “Christum wir sollen loben schon.” The music is an ancient plainsong melody. When the sixteenth-century reformers rendered Latin hymns in German, they simply retained the melodies verbatim, and that is exactly what we have here. Praetorius’s organ setting of the final stanza (which serves as this evening’s postlude) places the chant/chorale melody verbatim in long notes in the pedal, while increasingly complex figuration plays out above. At the end, the figuration reaches a dizzying pace, reflecting Praetorius’s reputation as a virtuoso organist.
The subject matter of the text is the Incarnation and the birth of Christ, and its significance. The text features numerous oxymorons, using self-contradiction to reveal paradox: “Behold, the world’s Creator wears the form and fashion of a slave; our very flesh our Maker shares, His fallen creature, man, to save. … A maiden, in her lowly place, became, in ways beyond all thought, the chosen vessel of His grace. … He Whose bounty feedeth all at Mary’s breast Himself was fed. … To shepherds poor the Lord Most High, the one great Shepherd, was revealed.” Oxymoron is an important rhetorical device used by biblical authors, theologians, and in historical preaching, and it aptly describes the many ways God has intervened in history. The Incarnation is probably the most significant of these ways. The Word of God, that same living and active Word of “let there be…” that made the heavens and the earth in Genesis 1:3, was made into flesh, to pitch His tent among us poor sinners. Who could possibly invent such a tale? Who could comprehend it? And in that one Person of Christ, people saw with their own eyes the very glory of the Father Himself, as Jesus says later in His life: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” The significance of this action by God to redeem His fallen creatures can scarcely be over-emphasized. May we all have such a reverence for the mystery of the Incarnation as it is revealed to us in the Scriptures and confessed by Simeon and by the music of Candlemas.