This evening has an interesting happenstance if you’re using the ACNA’s current draft lectionary: all three of the Gospel Canticles will be read during Evening Prayer tonight!
What is a Gospel Canticle? Well, a Canticle is a song-prayer that is read during the Daily Office, and a Gospel Canticle, specifically, is one that is found in the Gospel books. There are three: the Benedictus (Song of Zechariah), the Magnificat (Song of Mary), and the Nunc dimittis (Song of Simeon). The first two are from Luke 1, and the last from Luke 2. In the traditional monastic offices the Benedictus is a morning canticle, the Magnificat is said at Vespers (the evening office), and the Nunc dimittis is for Compline (at night). In the Anglican Prayer Book tradition, which reduced all the monastic offices to two, the first is found in Morning Prayer and the latter two are found in Evening Prayer.
But tonight, the lectionary gives us Luke 1:57-end for the New Testament reading, which includes the Song of Zechariah. Therefore we have the rare opportunity to hear all three Gospel Canticles in one service! Neat, huh?
Apart from this being just a fun fact, this is also an opportunity to give special thought to our use of these canticles at all. They are scriptural, literally the words of Scripture simply translated more elegantly for the liturgy. But they aren’t scripture readings; canticles function differently from a reading, even though they’re from the Bible. Canticles are song-prayers, they are offerings of worship. Rather than reading and studying a Canticle, we sing or proclaim or pray it before God. So to have two prayed and one read in the New Testament lesson is an interesting change of pace – a text we normally treat like a Psalm has become a scripture lesson.
This highlights for us the various ways that we can, and should, interact with the Bible. On one level it is for reading and for study – the lessons in every Office and liturgy are didactic moments: opportunities to teach and learn. On another level the Bible is for worship and intimacy with the Lord: we pray and meditate upon its words. Not all parts of Scripture are equally helpful for these differing purposes – the genealogies of 1 Chronicles make for some very silly songs, and offer minimal value in prayer; they’re almost exclusively for our information, not our devotion. But the Gospel Canticles are rich for all sorts of uses, so enjoy this evening’s opportunity to hear them all in just a few minutes’ span.