March 23, 2018

Agnus Dei, Lamb of God


Agnus Dei, Lamb of God

 

The definition of Agnus Dei, Lamb of God, is quite straightforward. It designates the liturgical texts sung or said at the fraction rite in the Catholic Church, when the eucharistic species of the bread, now the Body of Christ, is broken, and a small portion is added to the chalice. After this comes the Invitation to Communion, which begins, “Behold the lamb…”

Lamb of God as sacrifice

But what does it all mean? In an upcoming commentary in Today’s Liturgy on the chapter of the Catechism of the Catholic Church related to Jesus, I made a particularly graphic reference to the Agnus Dei in the Duruflé Requiem Mass:

“I have often talked about the desire to tame Jesus; this composition will help you to remember that the image of the Lamb of God has nothing to do with a petting zoo and a lot to do with a butcher.”

I wanted to start here because this acclamation of the people is sung during the fraction rite, and if we don’t understand the eucharistic theology behind the rite, we won’t understand the fraction, or indeed how the Eucharist is related to the sacrificial nature of every meal that we eat. The problem comes that when most people, unfamiliar with raising sheep, think about a lamb, we think of a gentle, young animal, beginning its life. Nothing could be further from the usage of the word in the expression Lamb of God, Agnus Dei.

Once, when I was travelling in Italy with friends, we decided to cook lamb for supper one night. The local grocer asked for a day to procure the lamb, and when people saw the leg of lamb, it dawned on them that it had been scampering around the hillsides of Tuscany only the previous day. It came as such a shock that some could not even bring themselves to eat it. There is an unfortunate distance that now exists between many of us and the sources of our food — be it animals that are butchered or crops or gardens that are harvested — and this gives us an impoverished understanding of the Mass. In order for us to live, some other living thing must be sacrificed. The Agnus Dei in liturgy is that stark and that real. Except it is the paschal lamb, Jesus, who is sacrificed to feed us, body and soul.

A text and its meaning

The text of the Lamb of God is quite straight forward:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,
grant us peace.

It is to accompany the fraction rite, and so the first two lines can be repeated for as long as the fraction takes. The first part of the invocation is essentially a quote from John 1:29, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” These are the words spoken by Saint John the Baptist when he spies Christ, while baptizing repentant sinners at the Jordan River. This liturgical prayer is one of many examples in the Roman Rite where a Scripture text is essentially copied directly into a liturgical book. In the Scriptures, the terminology of the lamb also refers to the People of God, at least in Saint John’s Gospel, Chapter 21, where Jesus tells Saint Peter to feed the Lord’s lambs and sheep. The sacrificial nature of this lamb is reinforced by a text from the Book of Revelation in the passage from Chapter 5, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.” So it is not just any lamb, or the lambs of Christmas carols, but Christ, the lamb who was slain, whom we honor in the fraction rite.

Music and the Agnus Dei

The structure of the prayer is that of an abbreviated litany, where a cantor sings the invocation, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,” and the people respond, “Have mercy on us.” Pastoral musicians need to keep this structure and eucharistic theology in mind. There is a tendency among some composers and musicians to make this moment sound a bit like liturgical lounge music. Yet, it is reminiscent of what Jesus taught in the Bread of Life discourse, which caused some of the followers of Jesus to say, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” And so while an upbeat melody is probably not called for, this should be a moment of awe, when we profess that the real presence of Christ in the sacramental bread and the sacramental wine is made available to us only when the host is broken for us. The Agnus Dei lyrics need to be supported by music that communicates the power of this moment. After all, this is a truly important moment, in the earliest days of the Church, it was this moment that gave the entire celebration its name, The Breaking of the Bread.

It might also help to reflect on the phrase “Lamb of God” as it shows up in other parts of the liturgy, and in the history of the Mass. Almost the same exact phrase turns up in the Glory to God (Gloria in Excelsis), where it is used as a title for Jesus. The image of the Lamb also shows up in the Easter Proclamation (Exsultet), which is sung in the light of the paschal candle, where Jesus is acclaimed as the Lamb that is slain for our Passover. The image of the Lamb shows up in over 35 other places in the Roman Missal, but perhaps the most interesting is that it is part of the Entrance Antiphon on the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Christ rules as king because he feeds us all; he is true king because he serves us all.

Variations and similar texts

In the recent history of the liturgy, one of the most popular texts for funeral or requiem masses was a variant of this text with a similar structure that went as follows:

Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem. (×2)

Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem sempiternam.

Pious Lord Jesus,
Give them rest.

Pious Lord Jesus,
Give them everlasting rest.

Now while this looks very similar, it was used in a different part of the Mass, surprisingly at the end of the sequence before the Gospel — part of a text with the fearsome title, Dies iræ (Day of Wrath), which is a text about the wrath of God, the last judgment, and our unworthiness. It is only after 18(!) verses of woe that this text of hope arrives. And while liturgically it has nothing to do with the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) it may explain why the Lamb of God became something of a consoling text. Historically the first indication of the Lamb of God in the Roman Rite comes from the Liber Pontificalis, which credits a pope of the 7th century, a certain Sergius I, for introducing the Lamb of God at all celebrations except the Easter Vigil. Pope Sergius was from the Eastern branch of the then more or less unified Catholic Church. Historically, it was around this time that there was a large influx of Greek and Syrian Christians into Rome due to religious and political turmoil in the Near and Middle East.

Agnus Dei in the Eastern tradition

It was also about this same time that the third Mass for Christmas (the Mass at Dawn) was added to the liturgical schedule. Why did this happen? Because of the influx of Greek-speaking Catholics to Rome, a Church was assigned to their community, that of Saint Anastasia, just off the Circus Maximus. The feast day for Saint Anastasia happened to be December 25, and the church building happened to be between Santa Maria Maggiore, which was the site of Midnight Mass, and Saint Peter in the Vatican, which was the site of the Mass during the day. And so the Pope, after Midnight Mass, to honor the Greek community, would stop at Saint Anastasia to celebrate her feast. This would be at about dawn.

With this influx of Greeks and their particular spirituality, Sergius I brought with him a strong devotion to this image of Christ as the Lamb of God; one that can still be seen in many Eastern traditions today. Additionally, in many Eastern traditions the bread for the Eucharist is prepared before the Divine Liturgy by being cut from a larger loaf. This select central portion is called the Lamb, and it has a variety of symbolic dimensions. First, it is cut out and eventually lanced with a liturgical implement called (and often shaped like) a spear. The linkage to the lamb that was slain from the Book of Revelation and the sacrifice of Christ is hard to miss. But there is so much more. The prayers preparation before the lancing of the bread refers to a second theme, that of Bethlehem and the birth of Christ, and so those Christmas carol lambs do make an appearance after all. Finally, once the Lamb is cut and speared, other smaller pieces of bread are broken off. First comes the piece in the Virgin Mary’s honor, then others as a prayer to saint N., but equally important are the pieces in intercession for the various people the priest wishes to remember in the liturgy. These smaller pieces are part of what is consecrated, but they also serve in the liturgy as a kind of votive candle, to remind the priest of those for whom he wishes to pray. This intercessory dimension reminds us that the Eucharist is always, at some level, an intercessory prayer to, “advance the peace and salvation of all the world,” as Eucharistic Prayer III would have it. This is, in part, the same reason Paul VI reinstituted the sign of peace as a gesture for us all to make at Mass. And it should impact how we treat the Lamb of God in our celebrations.

Compare this to the Roman Missal, where the prayer for the preparation of the gifts comes at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The prayer here is shorter and is much more practical, less symbolic. It refers to the truth that the bread comes from the living plants of the earth and work of human hands. Thank goodness that we have the Lamb of God, to remind us of this broader vision of what the elements, and (ultimately) what Christ means for us when he comes to our altars as the Blessed Sacrament. The Catholic Encyclopedia might give more specific historical details, but for the pastoral musician, a more theological vision of this important rite can help in planning the music and preparing their participation in the liturgy.

A recap of the series

This completes my series of brief reflections — from the entrance of the processional cross, through the Penitential rite, the Gospel Acclamation and the Eucharistic Prayer, and the Mysterium Fidei. After this comes Communion, a short Thanksgiving after Communion, and then, strengthened by the power of Christ, and ultimately by the Lord God almighty, we are ready to face the world, until we can once again dip our fingers in the holy water, be welcomed by the light of the altar candles, and celebrate the mystery of faith.

Glenn CJ Byer
Glenn CJ Byer

Glenn CJ Byer has written widely on the liturgy, including articles on the meaning of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, marriage preparation, the renovation of churches and the anointing of the sick. He speaks widely on the role of lay ministers in the Mass.

This blog series is intended to provide a more in-depth look at the various sung parts of the Mass—their origin, history, current usage, etc. Explore more from this series:

 

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