“What is a canticle?” The word, canticle, comes from the Latin word, canticulum, meaning “little song.” A canticle uses a hymn-like text derived from one of the books of the Bible other than the Psalms. During the Wednesdays in Advent, we will look at three of the canticles used in the Divine Service, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, and the Nunc Dimittis.
The Sanctus is based on several passages of scripture, two of which are: Isaiah 6:3—”Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” and Psalm 118:25— ”Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Just as a hymn of praise is sung before the Service of the Word, the Sanctus, a beautiful hymn of praise is sung before the Sacrament. The Sanctus has been called “the most ancient, the most celebrated, and the most universal of Christian hymns.” [Arthur A. Just, Heaven on Earth (St. Louis: CPH, 2008) 215] The first part of the canticle joins the liturgy of heaven and earth, as we are united in singing songs to the Lamb with the saints and angels, while we still reside on earth. The second part, taken from Psalm 118, proclaims that He comes to us in this meal to make us holy. “When we commune it is with Christ and wherever Christ is, there is heaven.” [Timothy H. Maschke, Gathered Guests (St. Louis: CPH, 2009)166] The supper gives us a glimpse of heaven amid a broken world.
The Agnus Dei:
John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the Savior of the world, as recorded in John 1:29— ”Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
The Agnus Dei is sung at the beginning of the distribution of communion, acknowledging what is about to be received in the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s mercy and forgiveness. The Agnus Dei ends as the Kyrie, began, [“In peace let us pray to the Lord,”] with a petition for peace, “The Lord who joins earth and heaven together in peace now gives the Prince of Peace into the mouths of the communicants.” [Arthur A. Just, Heaven on Earth (St. Louis: CPH, 2008) 233] The assurance of forgiveness comes to us in a tangible form as we receive these gifts, gifts that encourage and enfold us in God’s great mercy each day.
The Nunc Dimittis:
The Nunc Dimittis, as early as the Apostolic constitutions (c. 500) was traditionally used in the services of Compline or Vespers. However, since the Reformation, this canticle, based on the Song of Simeon in Luke 2:29-32, ends the distribution of communion. “We join Simeon in recognizing God’s peace in the Christ Child who has opened our eyes to His salvation in the breaking of the bread.” [Arthur A. Just, Heaven on Earth (St. Louis: CPH, 2008) 234] Those who communed at the table may now depart in peace, free to proclaim the message of salvation through faith in Jesus.