– Psalm 48:9 (Introit for Candlemas)
Candlemas is a principal feast of Christ in the church year, taking precedent over any Sunday that might fall on the same day. The custom of lighting candles for Christ, the Light of the world, dates at least back to Egeria, a fourth-century pilgrim whose famed travel diary documented the celebration in Jerusalem. The title “Candlemas” appears to be a later addition to an older title, “The Meeting,” which indicated the fulfillment of the Old Testament reading, Malachi 3:1-4, “The Lord, whom ye seek, will suddenly come to His temple” (v. 1). The gospel lesson for the day, St. Luke 2:22-32, which includes the presentation of Jesus in the Temple and Simeon’s canticle, the Nunc Dimittis.
The text of Cantata 83 (the number is neither liturgical nor chronological) is by an anonymous librettist and incorporates images and echoes of the appointed liturgical texts of the day, along with a few quotes from Simeon’s canticle and one stanza of a Luther hymn. As you survey the English translation below, you will see that it begins with the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Testament, as befits the Gospel for the day. As with any good sermon, however, the poet eventually places the good news of Christ into the ears and hearts of the modern hearer, especially when and if the congregation joins in the familiar hymn stanza in movement 5.
The scoring of the cantata is for alto, tenor, and bass soloists, a four-part choir for the final movement, and a small orchestra of strings, woodwinds, two horns, and continuo. Since this is a cantata for solo voices, regular readers of “Lifted Voice” will immediately notice that there is no opening chorus, leaving most of the work to the three soloists, with the addition of the soprano line (sung by the boys of St. Thomas, perhaps?) for the final chorale. The transparent textures and individual vocal lines paint a vivid and expressive musical picture as you journey from the old temple to the new and greater Temple, Christ Himself, who is present for you in the new Jerusalem.
So grab a cup of coffee, follow the translation and commentary below, and behold the One who has suddenly come to His temple.
O joyful time of the new covenant,
when our faith keeps hold of Jesus.
How gladly do we order, in our last hour,
will our resting-place, our grave.
Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace according to Your Word. – St. Luke 2:29
What seem frightful from our human point of view
is for us an entrance into life.
Death is an end of this time and its woe,
a pledge, that the Lord has given to us
as a sign that his intentions are kindly
and that after the struggle has ended
he will bring us peace.
And since our Savior now
is the comfort to our eyes, refreshment to our heart
there is no wonder that a heart forgets its fear of death!
The heart can joyfully proclaim:
For my eyes have seen Your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. – St. Luke 2:30-31
Make haste, heart, full of joy
to walk before the throne of grace.
You will consolation receive
and be granted mercy.
Yes, in sorrowful times
be strong in spirit, vigorous in prayer.
Yes, even though your faith is aware there is much darkness yet,
your Savior can dissolve shadows of doubt.
Yes, when the grave’s night
makes the last hour frightful,
you will still be certain
to recognize his bright light in death itself.
Of lands benighted;
By Him are they who dwell in night
Fed and lighted.
He is Israel’s Praise and Bliss,
Their Joy, Reward, and Glory – The Lutheran Hymnal 137.4
The header quote that I have selected for this Candlemas column is from the older Introit or entrance Psalm for Candlemas:
We have thought of Thy lovingkindness, O God, in the midst of Thy temple: according to Thy name, O God, so also is Thy praise, unto the ends of the earth: Thy right hand is full of righteousness. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised: in the city of our God, in the mountain of His holiness. – The Lutheran Hymnal, p. 76
O joyful time in the new covenant as the mystery of salvation unfolds! The same gifts given to old Simeon are now delivered to you this Candlemas as you hold Christ, the new Temple, in your hand in the Blessed Sacrament of the new Jerusalem. You hasten to His throne of grace, where He hears your prayers according to His lovingkindness. The candles for the liturgy of Candlemas remind you of Christ, whose light shines in the darkness. And you are ready, with Simeon and all the faithful, one day to depart this world in peace and to praise God in the choir of the heavenly Jerusalem.