On Canticle 6: Dignus es

This canticle, drawn from Revelation 4 and 5, was introduced in the 1979 Prayer Book, recommended to be used as the second Canticle in Morning Prayer on Tuesdays and Fridays.

The Gloria Patri is omitted, not because this is a penitential hymn like Canticle 3, but because the whole text is already purely doxological.

Splendor and honor and kingly power * are yours by right, O Lord our God,
For you created everything that is, * and by your will they were created and have their being;
And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain, * for with your blood you have redeemed for God,
From every family, language, people, and nation, * a kingdom of priests to serve our God.
And so, to him who sits upon the throne, * and to Christ the Lamb,
Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor, * for ever and for evermore. Amen.

An amalgamation of heavenly worship reported of chapters 4 and 5 of St. John’s Revelation, this Canticle focuses heavily on the accomplishments of Christ’s death and resurrection.  It praises not only God’s work of creation but particularly of his redemption of the peoples of the world by his blood.  By addressing this hymn to God “who sits upon the throne, and to Christ the Lamb”, it is rendered especially appropriate (per the rubric) for Ascensiontide, when the session of Christ at God’s right hand is a particular theological emphasis. The imagery of “every family, language, people, and nation” is well-known, and reminds the worshiper of the global universality of the Church – we praise Christ not only in our own congregation but with untold multitudes in all times and places.  And we are united together under one king, to whom “worship and praise, dominion and splendor” belongs forevermore.

On Canticle 5: Cantemus Domino

Exodus 15 is one of the classical Prayer Book lessons for Easter Day.  Although its shortened form has been a Canticle for the Daily Office since only 1979, it has served as a Canticle for the Great Vigil of Easter since the early centuries of the Church.  The Song of Moses has also been appointed for several similar roles over time – Sundays in the Ambrosian rite, Lauds in Easter Week in the Mozaribic rite, and in Lauds on Thursdays in the Roman rite.  The 1979 Book, thus, suggested a combination of those ancient uses: the first Canticle in Morning Prayer on Thursdays, as well as on Sundays during Eastertide.

I will sing to the Lord, for he is lofty and uplifted; * the horse and its rider has he hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my refuge; * the Lord has become my Savior.
This is my God and I will praise him, * the God of my people and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a mighty warrior; * The Lord is his Name.
The chariots of Pharaoh and his army has he hurled into the sea; * the finest of those who bear armor have been drowned in the Red Sea.
The fathomless deep has overwhelmed them; * they sank into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in might; * your right hand, O Lord, has overthrown the enemy. 
Who can be compared with you, O Lord, among the gods? * who is like you, glorious in holiness, awesome in renown, and worker of wonders?
You stretched forth your right hand; * the earth swallowed them up.
With your constant love you led the people you redeemed; * you brought them in safety to your holy dwelling.
You will bring them in and plant them * on the mount of your possession,
The resting-place you have made for yourself, O Lord, * the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hand has established.
The Lord shall reign * for ever and for ever.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

One who is new to the liturgical tradition may not recognize this immediately, but this Canticle screams “Easter” in every way possible.  Exodus 15 was a Lesson for Easter Day in the classical Prayer Books, the Exodus has always been interpreted by the Church as a type of Christ’s deliverance on the Cross, and the crossing of the Red Sea a type of Holy Baptism.  The celebration of God’s people following their deliverance from Egypt becomes our celebration following our deliverance from sin and death.  Christ is a mighty warrior, the Lord is his name; the chariots of Satan and his army has he hurled into the sea!  He will lead the people he redeemed to a place of safety, to his holy dwelling where he has gone to prepare a place for us; he will plant us on his holy mountain, the eternal sanctuary where he shall reign for ever and ever.

On Canticle 4: Quaerite Dominum

This canticle was introduced in the 1979 Prayer Book and recommended to be used as the first Canticle in Morning Prayer on Fridays outside of Lent, and the first Canticle in Evening Prayer on Tuesdays.

Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; * call upon him when he draws near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways * and the evil ones their thoughts;
And let them turn to the Lord, and he will have compassion, * and to our God, for he will richly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, * nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, * so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as rain and snow fall from the heavens * and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth, * seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; * it will not return to me empty;
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, * and prosper in that for which I sent it.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Taken from Isaiah 55, this canticle starts off with a penitential tone: “Seek the Lord while he wills to be found… Let the wicked forsake their ways… let them turn to the Lord.”  But this penitential aspect doesn’t overpower the Canticle; the bulk of Quaerite Dominum focuses on God’s redemptive work, especially with images of creation.  God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours, the water cycle is a picture of God’s providence, the harvest cycle is a picture of God’s providence, the cycle of God’s Word is a picture of God’s providence.  Furthermore, the accomplishment of God’s purpose and the prospering of his Word at the end of the Canticle together suggest eschatological themes, pictures of the End of the Age, making Quaerite Dominum appropriate not only for Lent but also Advent.

On Canticle 3: Kyrie Pantokrator

The Prayer of Manasseh is from the Ecclesiastical books (or Apocrypha).  It serves as an appendix to 2 Chronicles, elaborating on the reference to King Manasseh’s prayer of repentance in chapter 33, and has been used in Byzantine and Mozaribic liturgies during Lent.  It was shortened for use as a Canticle in the 1979 Book, recommended as the first Canticle in Morning Prayer for Sundays and Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent, and the first Canticle in Evening Prayer on Mondays in Lent.

This Canticle omits the Gloria Patri, as it did in 1979.  There was a practice in Western liturgy, before the Reformation, of omitting the Gloria Patri during Holy Week or at other penitential times.  Because Kyrie Patokrator is a penitential Canticle, it is appropriate not to append it with the Gloria Patri.

O Lord and Ruler of the hosts of heaven,* God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,  and of all their righteous offspring:
You made the heavens and the earth, * with all their vast array.
All things quake with fear at your presence; * they tremble because of your power.
But your merciful promise is beyond all measure; * it surpasses all that our minds can fathom.
O Lord, you are full of compassion, *     long-suffering, and abounding in mercy.
You hold back your hand; * you do not punish as we deserve.
In your great goodness, Lord, you have promised forgiveness to sinners, * that they may repent of their sin and be saved.
And now, O Lord, I bend the knee of my heart, * and make my appeal, sure of your gracious goodness.
I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, * and I know my wickedness only too well.
Therefore I make this prayer to you: * Forgive me, Lord, forgive me.
Do not let me perish in my sin, * nor condemn me to the depths of the earth.
For you, O Lord, are the God of those who repent, * and in me you will show forth your goodness.
Unworthy as I am, you will save me, in accordance with your great mercy, * and I will praise you without ceasing all the days of my life.
For all the powers of heaven sing your praises, * and yours is the glory to ages of ages. Amen.

As with Canticle 2 , this Canticle is shortened from its original chapter form.  Also some of the hyperbolic language of the Prayer of Manasseh is toned down so as not to confuse the worshiper unfamiliar with the context of the original text.  Kyrie Pantokrator in particular, among all the Canticles in this Prayer Book, is a marvelous offering of penitential worship.  In this age where so many run fast and loose with sin, the strong language of condemnation and here do us a world of spiritual good.  We deserve punishment, but God is a merciful God who promises forgiveness.  We must bent the knee of our hearts, making our appeal, knowing our wickedness only too well.  Although we don’t deserve it, God is the God of those who repent, and thus the penitent is set upon a trajectory of eternal gratitude, to praise God without ceasing for ever.

On Canticle 2: Surge, illuminare

This canticle was introduced in the Canadian Prayer Books as an Additional Canticle, and adopted in the 1979 Prayer Book to be used as the first Canticle in Morning Prayer on Sundays in Advent and Wednesdays outside of Lent, and the first Canticle on Thursdays in Evening Prayer.  It was also appointed for Lauds on the feast of the Epiphany in the Mozaribic rite.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, * and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.
For behold, darkness covers the land; * deep gloom enshrouds the peoples.
But over you the Lord will rise, * and his glory will appear upon you.
Nations will stream to your light, * and kings to the brightness of your dawning.
Your gates will always be open; * by day or night they will never be shut.
They will call you, The City of the Lord, * the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.
Violence will no more be heard in your land,* ruin or destruction within your borders.
You will call your walls, Salvation,* and all your portals, Praise.
The sun will no more be your light by day; * by night you will not need the brightness of the moon.
The Lord will be your everlasting light, * and your God will be your glory.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,world without end. Amen.

Isaiah 60 is one of the iconic lectionary appointments for the feast of the Epiphany.  This Canticle, being a distillation of that chapter, provides an excellent meditation on the great themes of Epiphanytide: the dawning of the light of Christ over a dark world, nations and kings streaming to the Lord, the openness of the City of God to all the world, peace between Gentile and Jew and neighbor, and all because of the perpetual light of God made visible in the face of Jesus Christ.

On Canticle 1: Magna et mirabilia

This Canticle was introduced in the Roman Breviary in 1970, and adopted by the 1979 Prayer Book to be used as the second Canticle in Morning Prayer on Tuesdays, Thursdays in Advent and Lent, and Saturdays.

O ruler of the universe, Lord God, great deeds are they that you have done, *
surpassing human understanding.
Your ways are ways of righteousness and truth,*

O King of all the ages.
Who can fail to do you homage, Lord, and sing the praises of your Name? *

for you only are the Holy One.
All nations will draw near and fall down before you, *

because your just and holy works have been revealed.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; *

as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Taken from Revelation 15, this brief canticle praises God as the great King of all creation.  Its emphasis on God’s rule, and the falling down of the nations before him after his “just and holy works have been revealed” makes it especially suitable for use both in Advent (where its eschatological tone can stand out) and Easter (with its glorious emphasis on the divine victory).

On the Canticle “Benedictus es”

Among the Ecclesiastical Books (or Apocrypha) is The Song of the Three Young Men, sometimes translated “Three Boys”, which contains two hymns of praise – the first attributed to Azariah and the second to all three.  The second, longer, hymn is Benedicite, omnia opera Domini, and was the alternative to the Te Deum in the classical Prayer Books.  In 1928 the shorter of these hymns, Benedictus es, Domine, was added as an additional choice of Canticle in this place.  In the 1979 Prayer Book it was recommended to be used as the first Canticle in Morning Prayer on Tuesdays, and the first Canticle in Evening Prayer on Fridays.  Eastern, Mozaribic, and Roman breviaries also appointed the Benedictus es in their liturgies.

This Canticle ends with a modified Gloria Patri, edited to fit the formula of the preceding verses.  Although the 1928 Prayer Book ended this Canticle without an extra doxological verse, it did end the Song of the Three Young Men (our Canticle 10) with a modified Gloria much like this one.

Glory to you, Lord God of our fathers; * you are worthy of praise; glory to you.
Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name; * we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.
Glory to you in the splendor of your temple; * on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.
Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim; *    we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.
Glory to you, beholding the depths; * in the high vault of heaven, glory to you.
Glory to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; * we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

The words of this Canticle praise God for his power and eternality – his Name and his resplendent Temple and throne in the high vault of heaven – which anyone can acknowledge to God even in the worst of personal circumstances, making it an excellent hymn of praise for penitential times like Lent, as the rubric indicates.

Finishing Compline

Although in the classical Anglican Prayer Books the Nunc Dimittis is resident in Evening Prayer, its place in the spirituality of liturgical time most fully comes into its own here in Compline.  The language of “let your servant depart in peace” is an integral part of this office’s devotional emphases on sleep as an image of death, and the light of Christ transforming both the worshiper and the world.  For further notes, see Evening Prayer.

This Canticle has been a part of the service of Compline since at least the Rule of Saint Benedict, and the antiphon is also of ancient use in the Church.  The positioning has shifted in different breviaries – some before the Prayers (such as the Sarum) and some after the Prayers (such as in modern Prayer Books and the Roman Rite).  Precise translation of the antiphon into English varies among different sources; ours retains the wording of the 1979 Prayer Book.

The addition of three Alleluias during Eastertide is also a pre-Reformation tradition, marking one of the heightened features of praise during that festal season.

The call and response, Benedicamus in Latin, is a common closure for many offices.

Retained from the 1979 Prayer Book, the final benediction said by the officiant is drawn from the Roman Rite.

The almighty and merciful Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
bless us and keep us, this night and evermore. Amen.

In the monastic setting where most of the daily office tradition was developed, these prayers would be the worshipers’ last words before going (back) to sleep. The benediction is not a formal blessing in the sense of a priest’s role, and thus is proper for an officiant of any order to say.  It draws from part of the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24) but is made explicitly Trinitarian and occasioned for Compline in the adding of “this night and evermore.”  Although it is a traditional benediction for this office, it is an appropriate final bedtime prayer to use in family settings and other late-evening occasions.

The Nunc Dimittis in the Prayer Book

The use of the Song of Simeon as a daily canticle is as ancient as the other two Gospel Canticles, but its placement in the Anglican tradition is different.  Before the Reformation, the Nunc Dimittis was the canticle for Compline, and when Archbishop Cranmer reduced the several monastic hours to two offices, this canticle found a new home in Evening Prayer, just as various morning offices were combined into Morning Prayer.

Psalm 67 was soon added as an alternative to the Nunc Dimittis, provided it was not the twelfth day of the month (when that Psalm was one of the Psalms Appointed).  The first American Prayer Book replaced the Nunc with either Psalm 67 or 103:1-4,20-22.  The 1892 Prayer Book restored the Nunc Dimittis alongside those psalms, which was maintained in the 1928.  The 1979 and 2019 Prayer Books both present the Nunc Dimittis, with the Magnificat, as the default canticles of Evening Prayer, though other canticles and psalms are permitted in their place.

Like the other two Gospel Canticles, the Nunc Dimittis is from early in St. Luke’s Gospel and looks at the birth of Christ.  This one stands out, however, as it takes place after the birth of Jesus, and beholds the child.  The use of the present tense is no longer prophetic but narrative: God’s promises have been fulfilled, Jesus has been seen.  While the Nunc Dimittis shares the Benedictus’ focus on the Gospel of salvation, it is here applied to the Gentiles, the nations or peoples beyond Israel.  Jesus is Israel’s glory, and the light for the Gentiles.

The wording of this canticle has been substantially edited since its previous modernization in 1979, such that it now more closely resembles the classical Prayer Book language.  God is letting his servant “depart in peace” (correcting the unfortunate connotations of “have set your servant free” ) according to his word. Simeon’s eyes have seen “your salvation” – an important distinction as Jesus is not only “the Savior” but salvation incarnate.  The distinction between “to enlighten” (1979) and “lighten” (classical and 2019) is subtle yet still significant: the light Christ brings is not only the internal wisdom and knowledge of enlightenment but also an external source of light that lightens us from without.  Thus the work and Spirit of God is proclaimed more clearly as a divine work and can not be reduced to a merely human spiritual breakthrough.

the Magnificat in the Prayer Book

Like the Benedictus, this is a Gospel Canticle drawn from Luke 1.  Where that canticle focuses on the work of salvation by Jesus Christ, especially as to be preached by John, this canticle focuses on the experience of salvation to be wrought by Jesus, particularly in line with the language of the Old Testament prophets.

Comments on the Text

In the text of this canticle, the Blessed Virgin Mary “magnifies” or “proclaims the greatness” of God, rejoicing in a litany of wonderful accomplishments that have been brought about by his hand.  The first five verses (as the Prayer Book prints it) are more personal.  She is a lowly handmaiden, regarded by the Lord, all generations will called her blessed for the great honor bestowed on her in becoming the mother of Jesus, God-in-the-flesh.  This special role granted to her in the course of salvation history magnifies her name, akin to how she magnifies God in her prayer.

Her observation “his mercy is on those who fear him” forms a transition from the first to the second half of the canticle.  With what comes before, she includes herself as one who fears God and been shown great mercy and grace, but her inclusion of “all generations” indicates that the entire world shall be blessed by the Son she then carried.

In the second half, Mary’s several “He has…” statements are easier to pray in the context of the Church’s worship after the fact, but form very much a groundbreaking text.  Worshipers can look back to the Cross and easily proclaim that God has shown his strength, scattered the proud, brought down the mighty, exalted the humble, and so forth.  And, although we can rightly celebrate this through Mary’s Canticle, the placement of these words before the birth of Jesus indicate that there is a Gospel to celebrate even then.  In the incarnation itself, God has begun the several reversals that these verses describe.  As the final verses sums them up, it is a matter of God bringing his ancient promises to fruition.  As far back as Abraham, the course of salvation history has been driving relentlessly toward the appearance of God’s Anointed One (or Messiah, or Christ) who finally appears in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Thus, in the evening, the worshiper celebrates the faithfulness of God who keeps his promises and has initiated a great reversal of worldly values and powers in the provision of his Son.

On a secondary note, this Canticle also provides the worshiper with the primary biblical example of what it is to venerate Mary.  All generations will call her blessed, God has regarded her lowliness, he has magnified her.  And all this is celebrated in the context of her role in God’s work of redemption: his ancient promises see their answer in her womb, in accordance with her faithfulness.  Where, with most Saints, the Church remembers their faith and works that point backwards in time to Christ, Mary’s faith and actions point to a present Christ.  She “received Jesus” in a more literal sense than anyone else – this is a blessed magnification that God has bestowed upon her, and the Church celebrates the work of the Lord in her.

History in the Prayer Books

This canticle has been a part of the Evening Prayer of the Church (or Vespers) at least since the 5th century Rule of Saint Benedict.  The Prayer Book tradition has maintained its position as the first canticle – the one read after the Old Testament lesson – excepting only the first American Prayer Book.  Although the Additional Directions for the Daily Office in the 1979 Book suggested more variable use of it, the primary text of the liturgy still held the Magnificat in its traditional place.

The classical Prayer Books appointed Psalm 98 as an alternative.  The first American Prayer Book appointed Psalm 98 and 92 instead of the Magnificat, and those two Psalms remained as options alongside the Magnificat in the subsequent two Prayer Books.