Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Agnus Dei

AGNUS DEI is the name given I. To the well-known prayer which occurs both in the Litany and in the “Gloria in Excelsis” in our present Prayer Book: “O Lamb of God, that takest away way the sins of the world, have mercy upon us,” or “grant us Thy peace.” It is one of our oldest prayers, being adapted from John i. 29. It is found in the Apostolic Constitutions, Book vii. as an evening hymn, and in the Codex Alexandrinus it is described as a morning hymn; and its original use had no connection with Holy Communion. Pope Sergius I. (in A.D. 688) is said to have been the first to insert the “Agnus Dei” in the Mass. He placed it between the “Pater” and the “Communio.” The original direction was that it should be chanted by clerks and people. At the beginning of the ninth century it was chanted by the choir alone, and in some churches with the threefold repetition. After the doctrine of Transubstantiation began to be received, the place of the “Agnus Dei” in the Mass, i.e. between the consecration of the elements and their reception by the people, became fraught with danger, for the wafer itself was addressed as a living person under this title. From about the fourteenth century the “Agnus” was said in a low voice by the priest, and later the third petition was changed into “dona nobit pacem” probably on account of the then troubled condition of the Church. The present practice in the Roman Catholic Church is for the priest to strike his breast three times, pronouncing as many times the “Agnus Dei.” The practice in the Romish Church at date of the Reformation is thus described by Preb. Becon, chaplain to Archbishop Cranmer: “Then do ye say the Agnus, which Pope Sergius also commanded that it should be said at mass a little before the receiving of the host. And here again ye play the abominable idolaters. For looking upon the bread ye look yourselves and worship it, saying in Latin Agnus Dei, &c. Thrice do ye call that bread which ye hold in your hands the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world. & c; intolerable blasphemy, was there ever an idolater who worshipped a piece of broken bread for God?” “a piece of thin wafer cake for God?” (Works, iii. 278; cf. Jewel’s Works ii. 586).

By the first Prayer Book of King Edward (1549) the “Agnus Dei” was retained in the Romish position, but with a rubric directing that the clerks should sing it as a hymn “during communion time.” And in 1550 Bishop Ridley issued an injunction forbidding the minister to counterfeit the Romish Mass by saying the “Agnus” before the communion. By the second Prayer Book (1552) the “Agnus Dei” was omitted altogether from this place, no doubt on account of the difficulty there was, so long as the words remained, in preventing some ministers from counterfeiting the Romish Mass by mumbling the “Agnus” and idolatrously adoring the bread as if it were the Lamb of God. For the same purpose i.e. the prevention of idolatry “the prayer of access” and the “Gloria” were transposed, so that the former should precede the consecration while the latter
was removed from its place near the beginning of the service to its present position at the end. It is thus said after the elements have been consumed or at any rate hidden from sight. Some have thought, however (like Archbishop Benson), that the omission was simply due to the desire to prevent repetition, the “Agnus” (as we have seen) occurring also in the “Gloria.” But that would hardly have been the reason, as the repetitions in the “Gloria” were actually increased in 1552. At any rate the “Agnus” has been omitted from the Romish position since 1552. In 1661 a proposal to reinsert the “Agnus” was carefully considered and deliberately rejected. It was actually proposed and adopted by the committee, but struck out again afterwards. Therefore the courts of law held that it was illegal to sing the “Agnus” during the partaking of the Communion. In 1892, however, in their Lincoln judgment the Privy Council changed their opinion, and sanctioned the interpolation of the “Agnus Dei” as a hymn (in spite of the fact that it had been expressly omitted for good reason) on the ground that “a hymn may be sung at any convenient time” in a service, provided that such service is not thereby “let or hindered.” This would not cover the case of the “Agnus Dei” being merely said by the minister. It is just possible that the Privy Council may on some future occasion return to their earlier and in our opinion, more correct judgment! (See Smith, Dictionary of Christian Antiquities; Whitehead, Church Law, article “Singing”; and Tomlinson, Historical Grounds of the Lambeth Judgment, 6th ed. pp. 69-73.)

II. The name “Agnus” or “Agnus Dei” is also applied to the figure of the Holy Lamb, i.e. a lamb with a nimbus bearing a cross or flag with the sign of the Labarum. Wax medallions bearing such figures were anciently blessed and given to worshippers on the first Sunday after Easter. They were considered to have magical virtues and gave rise to much superstition. In modern times such medallions are still used in the Church of Rome but are blessed by the Pope only first of all on the first Sunday after Easter after his consecration and every subsequent seventh year. The number of persons to whom the distribution is made is now much restricted.(See Smith, Dict. of Christian Antiq.; and Larousse, Dict. Univ.).

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