In his book The Call, Os Guinness tells the following story of John Coltrane.
After one utterly extraordinary rendition of “A Love Supreme,” Coltrane stepped off the stage, put down his saxophone, and said simply “Nunc dimittis.” … Coltrane felt he could never play the piece more perfectly. If his whole life had been lived for that passionate thirty-two minute jazz prayer, it would have been worth it. He was ready to go.
Nunc dimittis is Latin for “Now dismiss.” These are the opening words of the Vulgate translation of the Song of Simeon, Luke 2:29–32. Simeon says he is ready to die because he has seen what he was waiting for, the promised Messiah.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
Coltrane’s story brings several things to mind. First, it is awe-inspiring to imagine an accomplishment so fulfilling that you would say “That was it. I’m ready to die.”
Next, it’s interesting to ponder Coltrane’s eclectic spirituality. I knew Christianity was part of his spiritual gumbo, but I was surprised to hear that he made a spontaneous reference to Latin liturgy.
Coltrane was canonized by the African Orthodox Church in 1982. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Finally, I was interested in the name Nunc dimittis itself. I hadn’t heard it before. (I’ve only been part of non-liturgical churches.) I thought the name might only be familiar to Catholics, being a Latin term. But an Episcopalian friend informed me that the Anglican mass preserves many Latin titles even though the liturgy itself is in English. I suppose Coltrane encountered this Anglican name via the Episcopalian influence on the African Methodist Episcopalian Zion Church.
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