A brief history of the Benedictus

This canticle has been a part of the Morning Prayers of the Church (particularly Lauds) at least since the 5th century Rule of Saint Benedict. The Prayer Book tradition has consistently maintained its position as the second canticle – the one read after the New Testament lesson. Its legacy in America, however, has been curious. The 1790 Prayer Book printed only the first few verses, ending with “from the hand of all that hate us.” The 1892 and 1928 Prayer Books included the full text of the Benedictus, but noted that “the latter portion thereof may be omitted”, permitting the short version of 1790. Only in 1979 did the American Prayer Book tradition return to the reading of the full Benedictus without omission.

From the English Prayer Book of 1552 through to the American 1928, the Jubilate (Psalm 100) was offered as an alternative to the Benedictus. This originated from the Puritans’ hesitancy to use anything but the Psalms as hymns and canticles, but by 1662 had settled into an alternative to the Benedictus only when the text of Luke 1 would be found in the New Testament reading on a given morning. The first three American Prayer Books swapped the preferential order between these two canticles, 1979 offered extremely flexible guidance about the choice of canticles, and 2019 has reaffirmed the priority of the Benedictus as the second canticle in Morning Prayer.

Why do we pray Zechariah’s song?

There are three Gospel Canticles, so called because they are drawn from the Gospels (each from Luke), and they all reflect on the arrival of the Savior in their own particular ways. The Benedictus is the first of these in liturgical order (though second in order of biblical appearance), was first uttered from the mouth of Zechariah, and dwells especially on the pre-gospel work of God in the birth of John the Baptist. Luke 1:67 introduces this canticle as a prophecy; these words are the words of God spoken forth to his people both in that birthday celebration and ever since in the Scriptures.

In the birth of John, the Baptist, the Forerunner, we are invited to see the accomplished work of God: “he has come to his people and set them free.” The canticle then explores this proclamation in two parts, examining the soon-to-born Christ for five verses (in the Prayer Book’s versification), and examining the ministry of John for the last four. In anticipating the advent of the Christ, Zechariah focuses mainly on the fulfillment of God’s earlier promises and to raise up a mighty savior. He remembers his covenent, he keeps his oath, just as the Old Testament prophets had pleaded for God to do, and this culminates in the attainment of perfect freedom to worship God without fear, “holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” This is salvation, particularly the telos or end-goal of salvation. This emphasis on the previously-known Word of God is fitting, as John would go on to be a minister of the Word in a very forceful sense, his preaching vividly lining up with the old prophets some four centuries earlier. Thus the canticle moves on to focus on baby John himself, elucidating his future ministry. He will be a prophet, the forerunner of Christ, preaching the forgiveness of sins unto salvation. Through that ministry, “the dawn from on high shall break upon us” and many will be guided out of darkness and the shadow of death into the way of peace.

So when we pray this canticle every dawn, in daily Morning Prayer, we awaken anew to the saving work of God in Jesus Christ, and the light of his Word both in the old Prophets and in the New Testament, or Covenant, wrought by Christ our Lord. This canticle grounds us in the Gospel.

A brief history of the Te Deum

This great hymn of the Church is said to have been written by Saints Ambrose and Augustine together, though it has also been attributed to Bishop Niceta of Dacia; in either case its origins are in the late 4th or early 5th centuries. By the 6th century it had found its home in the Daily Office, in Matins (Benedictine) or Prime (Mozaribic). A set of suffrages were affixed to the Te Deum in medieval practice, which Archbishop Cranmer retained in the first Prayer Books.

The Prayer Book tradition has consistently appointed this canticle as the one following the Old Testament Lesson at Morning Prayer, usually with seasonal exceptions. Its precise translation has varied in most editions of the Prayer Book, making for a number of useful comparative-study opportunities for exploring its meaning more deeply.

In 1979 the medieval suffrages were removed from the Te Deum and placed elsewhere in the Morning Prayer liturgy, but the 2019 Book has placed them back in the traditional Prayer Book position, albeit rendering them optional.

A brief devotion on the Te Deum

One of the mainstays of the Prayer Book tradition are its canticles, the first of which is the Te Deum, appointed in Morning Prayer.  Although it is sometimes (even often) substituted for other shorter canticles, it stands as one of the most majestic hymns in all of Christian history.  Here’s a quick devotional examination of that canticle.

The Te Deum as we have it is a three-part hymn of praise.  The first part focuses on the Trinity, drawing from texts such as the “holy, holy, holy” in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4, and language of the three Persons reminiscent of John 1:14, 5:20, and 14:26. Not only is the fullness of God described, but also the fullness of creation: angels, the powers of heaven, cherubim and seraphim, apostles, prophets, martyrs, the holy Church. Familiarity with the Te Deum will reward the worshiper at Holy Communion during the Sanctus, as the majestic language of this hymn echo in the mind of the worshiper during those brief moments in the Communion liturgy.

The second part of the Te Deum is a celebration of the Son of God: his incarnation, death, ascension, and promised return to be our judge. His atonement was to “set us free”, “open the kingdom of heaven to all believers,” and help us who were “bought with the price of your own blood” such that we can be brought “to glory everlasting.” The inclusion of the words “We believe” give this ancient hymn a creedal character to it, giving us an example of just how seamless the line can and should be between theology and worship, doctrine and doxology.

The third part of the Te Deum may not be as ancient as the first first two, and thus is rendered optional in this Prayer Book. The tone changes somewhat also, moving from praise to petition. Like the Suffrages that follow in the Daily Office, this final portion of the Te Deum is drawn from a series of Psalm references (28:10, 145:2, 123:4, 33:21, 31:1). Although these verses are from disparate sources, they are woven together seamlessly: each couplet leads to the next. “Now and always” is matched in “Day by day”, everlasting praise is matched with a request to be kept from all sin, the Kyrie is repeated (or in a way, clarified) with “show us your love and mercy”, and the placing of trust in God is matched with “In you, Lord is our hope.” This pattern of linking the end of a verse to the beginning of the next is also a feature of classical Prayer Book liturgy, where, particularly in the Communion prayers, paragraphs often repeat material used just before. Thus is formed a solid chain of continuity and purpose as the worshipers proceed through the worship service.

Some history on the Invitatory

The Invitatory

The invitatory dialogue contains four couplets: two verses of Scripture (Psalm 51:15 and Psalm 70:1) the Gloria Patri (glory be to the Father), and third verse (Psalm 135:1a). In the American Prayer Book tradition, the second couplet was omitted, until 1979 when the second couplet returned in place of the first in Evening Prayer. The final couplet was omitted only in the 1979 Book. Our Prayer Book restores the full English dialogue.

The Antiphons

In the American Prayer Book of 1928, nine antiphons were added for use with the Venite on particular occasions. In 1979 that collection was expanded to thirteen antiphons. Our Prayer Book preserves those thirteen antiphons but moves the ten appointed for specific seasons or holy days to an appendix after the Morning Prayer liturgy to keep the primary text less cluttered. Only the three for general use appear here on BCP 14. Furthermore, these antiphons remain optional.

Historically, in Anglican practice, antiphons have not been a feature. They are extremely common in historic Western liturgy, however – the Roman Rite at its height of complexity having multiple antiphons for every Psalm and Canticle according to season and occasion. At their best, they provide unique “book-ends” that color the worshiper’s experience of the Psalm or Canticle according to the occasion, and enrich the Church’s life of worship. The obvious challenge, of course, is the burdensome complexity that ensues which the Preface to the 1549 Prayer Book explicitly endeavors to remedy.

By providing some antiphons on page 14 and collecting the other 10 on pages 29-30, our Prayer Book endeavors to strike a healthier balance between historical Western complexity and Anglican simplicity.


The Venite

The use of Psalm 95 as the “invitatory”, the invitation or call to worship, dates back at least to the Rule of Saint Benedict: it was to be prayed every morning at Matins. This was preserved in Archbishop Cranmer’s Prayer Book of 1549 and thereafter: it was called to be said or sung at Morning Prayer daily except for the 19th day of the month when it would be read as part of the Psalms Appointed, and on Easter Day when the Easter Anthem, Pascha Nostrum, was appointed instead. Furthermore, in the English Prayer Books the Venite included the “Glory be” at the end.

The American Prayer Book tradition diverged from this pattern. The Venite was now Psalm 95:1-7 followed by Psalm 96 verses 9 and 13. Furthermore, the Gloria Patri was rendered optional here. Again, it wasn’t until 1979 that the entirety of Psalm 95 was authorized for the invitatory psalm, and until 2019 that the entirety of Psalm 95 was printed in this place in the liturgy, albeit with verses 8-11 still labelled as optional outside of the season of Lent.


The Jubilate

In the classical Prayer Book tradition, the Jubilate Deo, or Psalm 100, was a canticle offered in place of the Benedictus, until the 1979 Prayer Book when instead it was included as an alternative to the Venite as the invitatory psalm. It was offered without rubrical directions, though one already accustomed to the Prayer Book tradition might most naturally consider the Jubilate to be a substitute for the Venite on the 19th day of the month when the Venite was formerly appointed to be omitted from the invitatory. Our Prayer Book also provides no rubrical guidance on the matter, so the same historically-minded intention may still be assumed.


Pascha Nostrum

The Pascha Nostrum, as indicated in its Scripture reference text, is an amalgamation of three New Testament texts strung together. Although this is an example from early Church history, Anglican liturgical practice has yielded several examples of collating multiple biblical texts into an eclectic but coherent whole for the purpose of worship.

This Easter Anthem has always been a part of the Prayer Book tradition, but its location has changed in modern practice. Traditionally, it was placed among the Propers (the Collects and Lessons), for Easter Day; since the 1979 Book it has been placed here within the Morning Prayer liturgy.

Originally this anthem was appointed only for Easter Day. The American 1892 Prayer Book uniquely added the Gloria Patri to it. The 1928 Prayer Book authorized the option of using this anthem throughout the Easter Octave (that is, from Easter Day through the First Sunday after Easter). The 1979 Book expanded this further still, appointing it for every day in Easter Week and making it optional every day until the Day of Pentecost. This has not changed in the 2019 Prayer Book, though the wording of the rubric has been altered.

There is also a custom in some places of using the Pascha Nostrum in place of the Gloria in excelsis Deo near the beginning of the Communion service, under the modern rubrics that allow other hymns of praise to take its place. Especially in church cultures where the Daily Office is not publicly offered, this can be an effective way of introducing elements of the Office liturgies to the congregation. Such points of contact and familiarity will prove helpful when teaching people to pray the Office.

An Exegesis of the Invitatory

The Venite, Psalm 95, is the historic standard “invitatory”, or call to worship, and even a cursory glance through its text reveals its aptness for the role.  The opening words “O come,” are followed by three “let us” statements, each giving different angles toward defining worship: singing, rejoicing, thankfulness and gladness, approaching God, and particularly using psalms.  The next verses provide reasons for worshiping God: his greatness and kingship, his ownership of all creation by virtue of being its Creator.  The result is a return to the opening verse: “O come, let us worship and fall down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker.”  The emphasis on physical posture and gesture is not only symbolic of the disposition of the true worshiper’s heart but also instructive for the postures of right worship; indeed, one of the biblical terms for worship literally means “fall down before” or “prostrate.”

The tone of the second half of Psalm 95 turns suddenly to a dire warning against ignoring God’s voice and hardening against him.  The Exodus generation is invoked as an example of those who so spurned the Lord and received punishment for their rebellion.  These verses point back specifically to Exodus 17, and are in turn picked up for further explication in Hebrews 4 & 5.  The worshiper is reminded of the obligations of worship: praise is empty when not accompanied with (or followed by) obedience to the One who is praised.  Many Old Testament Prophets had strong condemnations for those who participated in divine worship but practiced unrighteousness, and Psalm 95 is our most prominent reminder within the liturgy of the Church that we, too, must practice in our lives the same faith we profess in the congregation.

 The Jubilate, Psalm 100, is a functional substitute for Psalm 95 but does not contain all the same elements.  A few similar phrases are found – 100:2 and 95:7 are almost identical – and the same invitation to worship the Lord is extended, but Psalm 100 lacks the “warning” verses, providing instead only the briefest hint in the words “it is he that has made us, and not we ourselves.”

The Pascha Nostrum, as indicated in its Scripture reference text, is an amalgamation of three New Testament texts strung together, the word Alleluia (or “praise the Lord”) interspersed as an antiphon (a repeated word or phrase) between each section of the canticle.  Like the invitatory psalms the Pascha Nostrum invites people to worship – “let us keep the feast” – but instead of grounding the reason for this invitation in God’s kingship or ownership of the world as its Creator, it instead points to the new creation inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  The “warning” text of Psalm 95 is similarly transposed here: rather than dwelling on the danger of apostasy this canticle draws the Gospel connection between Christ’s death and the Christian’s death to sin.  This warning is not the cold hammer of the Law, but the healing embrace of the Gospel.

Ecce, Deus, it’s Trinitytide!

In the 2019 Prayer Book we’ve got a nice collection of ten Supplemental Canticles to spice up the Daily Office a bit.  I’ve written about them before, in general, and I’ve made recommendations as to when one might most appropriate use each of them.  You can find that article here.

Today let’s look at Canticle 8: Ecce, Deus, on page 85, which this Customary appoints for regular weekdays through Trinitytide.  This short canticle is taken from Isaiah 12:2-6, but if you compare the text of this Canticle to, say, the ESV translation of the Bible, you’ll find that the phraseology is quite different indeed.  Most of the differences are verb tenses (something that is honestly kind of squirrelly in Hebrew anyway) and prepositions (which also are pretty loose in Hebrew), which is already enough to give a different “feel” to a text without actually substantially changing the meaning.

As it turns out, the wording used in the Prayer Book is the same as that found in the 1979 Book, where Ecce Deus is Canticle 9 on page 86, named “The First Song of Isaiah.”  So this translation was done by the Rev. Dr. Charles Guilbert, who was heavily involved in the crafting of the 1979 Book and in particular its Psalter.

The text of the Canticle itself is actually two psalms strung together.  Isaiah 12:1-2 and 4-6 are brief songs of praise to God for his deliverance, connected by verse 3.  The first part is more directed toward God, speaking of and to him; the second has more of a human audience in mind, calling upon others to give God praise and thanks also.  Both in formal Bible translations and our liturgical translation, this pattern of praise followed by invitation can be discerned.

The rubric on page 85 indicate that it is appropriate for any time, noting that its themes and content have no specific connotation toward Easter or Advent or any other particular occasion – it is a Canticle for all seasons!  So this is as good a time as any to enjoy Ecce Deus, if you ask me.

Summarizing Eastertide

I know Eastertide is about to shift gears, or even end, depending upon how you understand the bounds of the Easter season, but it’s better late than never… here is the next video in my series on the Church Calendar.

Subject Index:

  • 00:00 Definition & Major Themes
  • 05:38 Historical Features
  • 09:06 Walk-through in the 2019 Prayer Book
  • 12:40 Daily Office & other features
  • 17:36 A Collect for Strength to Await Christ’s Return

Links for further reading:

The Canticle of Zechariah

The seasoned Anglican, or other tradition of Christianity also steeped in liturgy, will have an interesting experience this morning: the Canticle of Zechariah is in the New Testament Lesson!  On a practical lesson that means you should replace that Canticle with a different one in Morning Prayer today; prior Prayer Book tradition recommends the Jubilate, Psalm 100, which can be found a couple pages earlier in the Morning Prayer service, on page 15 of the 2019 Book of Common Prayer.  Normally the Canticle of Zechariah, or Benedictus, should not be replaced, remaining a static ingredient in the Daily Office of Morning Prayer.

Experientially, though, this is where things get interesting.  If you pray the Daily Office with any regularity, you’ll be used to the translation of the Canticle of Zechariah in the liturgy (whichever one you happen to use), and thus will be reading the awkwardly-different wording for it in your regular Bible today.  But that’s a good thing.  Every now and then it’s helpful to try a different translation of the Bible, as it can give different insights into the breadth and depth of meaning of the text.  You might want to pursue the rabbit trail of the subject of Bible translation; here are two videos:

  1. what sort of translations are there
  2. how to choose among them

Anyway, with that in mind, let’s glance at a couple examples where the English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV) and the 2019 Prayer Book give us different takes on the Canticle of Zechariah, or Benedictus.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free.

The ESV uses the word “redeemed” where our Prayer Book renders it “set them free.”  Both of these terms are, of course, helpful.  “Redeem” is a key biblical term and it’s important to note it and retain it, as the Apostles did as they appropriated Old Testament language into their own writings.  But it’s also helpful to tease out the various meanings of redemption, and being set free is one of those aspects.  It sounds rather clinical, or even businesslike, to say God redeemed us.  To say he set us free carries a lot more emotional relatability.  So it’s quite appropriate that our formal Bible translation says “redeem” while our liturgy is more poetic.

to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant,
He promised to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant.

One of the features of modern English compared to Early Modern English and many other languages (especially Koine Greek) is that we like short sentences today.  The ESV tries very hard to preserve the Greek run-on sentence, and that’s great – it helps the reader notice the connectedness of the front half of this canticle, even if it makes it harder to read at first.  But in the course of the liturgy, we want to be able to offer up this song-prayer with ease and beauty, so almost every verse is made into its own sentence.

to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,
To give his people knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness of their sin.

In both cases, this verse is connected to the previous as part of a larger sentence; this is what Zechariah’s child, John the Baptist, would go on to do as the Prophet of the Most High.  The word order of these two translations is slightly different, but the main difference is in the preposition of the second half: “in” or “by” the forgiveness of their sin(s).  Prepositions like these can be very tricky.  Sometimes we use them loosely and think little of them.  Sometimes we make Really Big Deals about the little nuanced differences between them.  Seeing two different prepositions used here, therefore, helps clue us in to how we might best handle its meaning.  In the liturgical text, people are given knowledge of salvation BY the forgiveness of their sin; and the ESV translation says knowledge of salvation comes IN the forgiveness of sins.  So the act or reality of forgiveness is something of an instrument for bring about salvation… IN and BY the cross, for example, Jesus enacts the salvation of the world, the forgiveness of sins.

Anyway, this is just a fun opportunity to experience this text in a different translation than we’re probably used to.  Plus there’s also the dynamic of reading a canticle as a Scripture Lesson rather than as a Canticle on its own.  I’ve noted something of that dynamic in a previous entry you’re welcome to look back on, too.

Learning the Daily Office – part 5 of 12

So you’ve heard about the Daily Office, specifically the Anglican tradition of daily prayer and scripture reading, and you want to enter into this beautiful and formative tradition?  Great, grab a prayer book and go!  Except, maybe someone already said that and you don’t know where to start… or worse, you did try it and it was just too much?  The length of the Office was overwhelming and the contents too complicated to navigate when you’ve got no experience with liturgy.  We understand, we’ve all been at that place before!  Some just don’t remember it as well as others.

Diving into the full Prayer Book life of worship doesn’t work for everyone; sometimes you have to work your way up toward that discipline, adding one piece at a time as you grow comfortable with each feature and learn how to “do” them all.  This post series is basically a twelve-step program to help you advance in the life of disciplined prayer from zero to super-Anglican.  The pace is up to you – the goal of this sort of spiritual discipline is consistency, not “how much” you do.

Step One: Pray a Psalm followed by the Lord’s Prayer.
Step Two: Add a Scripture Reading
Step Three: Add more Psalms and Lessons
Step Four: Add the Apostles’ Creed

Step Five: Add Canticles

In terms of content and outline, you’ve already reached a distinctly historic Christian pattern of worship.  This step adds in “Canticles”, which are occasionally Psalms but usually Psalm-like texts from other parts of the Bible, to be read after each Scripture Lesson.  This is where you really start entering into the liturgical history of the Church!

Functionally, this step does not introduce anything new; you started with learning to pray the psalms, and the Canticles work exactly the same way.  Experientially this is purely a matter of logistics: all the Psalms Appointed for the morning or evening are prayed together, then you get the Lessons, both of which are followed by a Canticle.

In Morning Prayer, find your canticles starting on page 17 – you’ll see two choices (Te Deum laudamus and Benedictus es, Domine) for the first one and the Benedictus for the second.  In Evening Prayer, find your canticles starting on page 45 – the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis.  There are also Supplemental Canticles for Worship starting on page 79 and I do have a guide to choosing among them, but it’s simplest to stick with the primary ones provided in the Morning and Evening Office liturgies and get used to them first.  The supplemental canticles are just that – supplemental.


Your Morning & Evening Offices are now looking like this:

  1. The Psalm(s) Appointed
  2. Old Testament Lesson (occasionally the first lesson is from the NT instead)
  3. First Canticle
  4. New Testament Lesson
  5. Second Canticle
  6. The Apostles’ Creed (consider standing up for this!)
  7. The Lord’s Prayer

This makes your recitation of the Daily Office about ten to fifteen minutes in length each morning and evening.  You are now also engaging with four different places in the Prayer Book: the middle of the Morning Prayer liturgy, the middle of the Evening Prayer liturgy, the Psalter, and the Daily Office Lectionary.

Once you get used to this, you’ll be well-positioned to fill out the rest of the Daily Office liturgies.  Chances are that the next couple steps will progress quickly.