Nunc dimittis: on Candlemas for me

Nunc dimittis: on Candlemas for me February 2, 2019

photo by me

When a brother of mine in the Latin Church asked about a week ago if Eastern Catholics celebrate Candlemas, it did not occur to me that it was coming up so soon. I’m on the Old Calendar when I’m here in Chicago, so February 2 doesn’t happen for another two weeks. It dawned on me suddenly last night after Reader’s Vespers for Holy Euthymius the Great that everyone on the New Calendar is celebrating the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple.

The answer to my Latin brother is of course we celebrate Candlemas. The Feast of the Meeting of the Lord — or the Encounter, as per the translation of Ὑπαπαντή — is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of our church. It is also a very personal feast for me. In 2008, it was the evening that I became Anglican by chrismation by the hand of the Most Revd Datuk Yong Ping Chung, retired archbishop of Southeast Asia. On that day, a Catholic friend of mine from my seminar group, whom I later learned had been serving at Madonna House, died by accident, though I did not find out till much later. I still remember what happened during the offertory that evening. We were singing ‘The Church’s One Foundation,’ and we got to the verse that says, By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed. I thought of a friend who told me then that for the sake of an unchaste relationship he had been having, he was not able to attend the service, and connecting that to the woes of the Anglican Communion, I fell into tears. It was the first time, as I had been an evangelical who was used to politics only within insular congregations, that I felt that something global could have such a direct and personal effect on me, and it scared me. I told that experience to a Dominican much later, one whom I later found out practiced a Byzantine spirituality and had family lineage in a more-than-canonical way in that ecclesial sense. He remarked to me that it was like I had become Catholic in that moment.

To this day, I am not sure what happened on Candlemas 2008. It was a lot, and it shaped me into the person I am now, though I am no longer Anglican, but it certainly put me on the path to the Kyivan Church. What I do know is that it probably made me more ecumenical, which I felt acutely tonight as a sister of mine in the Latin Church, Grace Yu, dragged my Kyivan friend and me, both of us, to a Vespers done entirely in Latin, though we were on the Old Calendar and her entire church is on the New. It was a beautiful Vespers, though my brother and I, the two of us Orthodox-in-communion-with-Rome, were not sure how the Latins in the space we were in read us as we held our bodies in an Orthodox way. Again, this is something that I shall have to ponder, and probably Grace too, because the Encounter on the New Calendar is actually her name day.

There is a story that to my knowledge only evangelicals tell about the jazz master, if not god, John Coltrane. All the citations that I see about it come either from Os Guinness or Tim Keller, and it is that after a live performance of the masterpiece A Love Supreme, Trane put down his saxophone backstage and said softly to himself, Nunc dimittis, the opening words of the Song of Symeon that we especially remember on the Feast of the Encounter and that we sing every evening, we Byzantines at Vespers and the Latins at Compline (and the Anglicans at both). That story, when I heard it around the time I was chrismated, got me into A Love Supreme, and I still listen to it, though I have my doubts about the veracity of that tale. But I wonder sometimes if my Anglican chrismation was a Nunc dimittis moment, a sighting of the divine beyond myself. I know that my Kyivan one was, eight years later: in fact, the Song of Symeon was sung by the kleros in Kyivan chant as my spiritual father led me through the Royal Doors to kiss all four corners of the holy table as a neophyte.

In any case, the answer to the question of my Latin brother is yes, we celebrate the Encounter. And I must, in a personal sense. But in attempting to write about why I do, I find myself at the edge of mystery, describing realities that I can barely grasp in words. Good thing, I suppose, that the Meeting of the Lord is coming up again in two weeks for us on the Old Calendar. But I doubt that I’ll have figured it out by then. I do not know if I ever will.

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