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.

About the Phos Hilaron

Greek for “gladsome light”, Phos Hilaron is a hymn that was already considered a time-honored tradition over 1,600 years ago.  Functionally, it offers a word of praise while the lamps or candles are lit in a chapel or home for the evening.  Deeper, the lyrics describe the sanctification of time that good liturgy inevitably does: “as we come to the setting of the sun… we sing your praises.”  And yet, God is “worthy at all times to be praised.”  That “happy voices” are appropriate for the worship of God can be a stumbling block – what if the worshiper does not feel happy one day?  The idea of happiness in biblical literature, from which this hymn is certainly derived, is nearly identical with blessedness.  Like Psalm 1:1, “Happy/Blessed is the man…” we also ought to read here – God is worthy to be praised by the voices of God’s blessed people.  We are therefore comforted, also, that even if we do not emotionally feel happy, we know that there is a fundamental happiness, or joy, that we can derive from the blessings of God that we have already received.  This is spelled out with an example in the next line where Jesus is proclaimed as the “Giver of Life”, and celebrated with the final assertion that he is to be glorified “though all the worlds” – that is, saints in heaven and earth alike are united in the worship of the eternal God.

O gladsome light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,*
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,*
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,*
O Son of God, O Giver of Life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.

This anthem was introduced into the Prayer Book tradition in 1979.  Only one translation change has been made in this version: the “gracious light” has become a “gladsome light.”  It is a lamp-lighting hymn drawn from ancient Christian custom (especially in the Byzantine and Ambrosian rites), being referenced as far back as 379AD by St. Basil the Great.  Several metricized versions of this anthem can be found in Anglican hymnals.

The rubrics permit another hymn or Psalm to be used in its place, acknowledging the Western custom of having a variety of Office Hymns according to the season or occasion.

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.