Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine

(The Canticle of Simeon)

Found in St. Luke's Gospel (Chapter ii, v.29-32), Nunc dimittis is the last Canticle in the historical sequence of three great sacred songs of the New Testament, the other two being the Magnificat (Canticle of Mary) and the Benedictus (Canticle of Zachary-Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel). All three canticles are in use in the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Anglican denominations.



Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace:

nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine secundum verbum tuum in pace


Because my eyes have seen thy salvation,

quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum


Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples:

quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum


A light to the revelation of the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.

lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuae Israhel

November 19, 1861: Julia Ward Howe,a Newport Rhode Island bon vivant, wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic. A simple poem, it secured her place in American history. The hymn, as most of you will remember, was the center piece of the Service for the Dead at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001. In 1853, William Steffe, a Southern composer of many Sunday School songs, had written this tune to accompany his sermons at camp meetings. It was originally called "Brothers will you meet us on Canaan’s happy shore?"

Mrs. Howe composed her verses in Washington after her visit to the soldiers and battlefields, just outside the Nation's Capital in occupied Virginia. There she first heard Union soldiers singing John Brown's Body to the Steffe tune. Rev. Freeman Clarke, a clergyman who had read Julia’s published poems, suggested that she write new words for the war effort, saying the old tune deserved fresh words to encourage the fighting men. This had become a popular tune of wartime because of circumstances with which she had already a close connection. Hymn/index.htm

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave;
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave;
Oh, John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave;
But his soul is marching on ...

Her then husband, Samuel, was one of a secret circle of Northern aristocrats that quietly aided Brown in his quest to ignite a nationwide slave revolt. They called themselves the Secret Six. Brown's quest led to him seizing the 60 year-old Federal armory at Harpers Ferry (October 16, 1859). Two days later, the raiders gazed out on a company of U.S. Marines, under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee. A young lieutenant, James Ewell Brown Stuart, approached under a white flag, asking for surrender. Brown refused. The Marines stormed the building. Captured alive, Brown later was hanged for the offense. In contrast, the covert circle of conspirators who furnished financial aid, never were punished. The Secret Six included the editor of the Atlantic Monthly. The abolishionist magazine would publish the verses Julia Ward Howe had written. Her husband fled to Canada, but soon returned and served in the Lincoln Administration. Mrs. Howe had her sixth and last child soon after the death of Brown. She wrote another less famous poem called The First Martyr at this time, Winter 1859-60.

O babe unborn! O future race!
Heir of our glory and disgrace,
We cannot see thy veiled face;
But shouldst thou keep our crime,
No new Apocalypse need say
In what wild woe shall pass away
The falsehood of the time.

Very early the next morning, after her visit to the bivouacs of the Army of the Potomac, she awoke quickly. Although startled from deep sleep at dawn, the "lines of the desired poem began to entwine themselves in my mind.” She arose and in the dim light “scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper … I returned to bed and fell asleep, saying to myself, I like this better than most things that I have written." This account is drawn from as well as Her poem, when published by the Atlantic Monthly, February 1, 1862, was lightly lauded, but the War between the States had so engrossed public attention that few took strength from only its literary merits. It had a profound impact when coupled with music. “I knew, and was content to know, that the poem soon found its way to the camps, as I heard from time to time of its being sung in chorus by the soldiers.”

Winston Churchill loved the great music of war. When, in his eighties, he became too old to get pleasure out of books he used to sit with his record player in the afternoons and listen to military marches. He liked especially the high-souled trumpet calls. After his death in 1965 some of these were played at his state funeral, and their notes sounded in the baroque spaces of Saint Paul's Cathedral in London. Reveille was played — together with The Last Post — by trumpeters high up in the Whispering Gallery of the massive dome; Fight the Good Fight was sung; and so, too, was The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." This, of course, is ... the Nunc dimittis of Luke 2:29-30, where, upon the first presentation ... in the Temple, Simeon says, "Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation." National Review, ibid.

The Publication date was February 1st; coincidence, or not, the Feast day on February 2 is The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple {or the older name Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary; another popular name for the day used to be “Candlemas,” which came from an early church custom of carrying candles in procession as part of the observance}. Nunc dimittis is a principle part of the reading, and often the focus of the sermon.

« grâce et paix »

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, Hallelujah!
Glory, glory, Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery Gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;"
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with His heel,
Since God is marching on.

Since God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

While God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.

Our God is marching on.

In later years, when this song was sung in a non-military environment, the clause "let us die to make men free" was sometimes changed to "let us live to make men free". The sixth verse is often omitted. Also, a common variant changes "soul of Time" to "soul of wrong", and "succour" to "honor". -- other days (in French)

A page for Lent, first prepared for 2005

New: 11/15/04 -- Revised Last 04/16/08