From the Rector: What is a Canticle?

April 21, 2020


Dear friends,

Now that we are praying Morning Prayer together each Sunday, a few questions have popped up. For old-timers, Morning Prayer may be quite familiar. In the early modern era, the practice of sharing the Eucharist every Sunday died out (only clergy received, so it got pretty clericalist). Thus, when my parents were going to church in the 1950s and ’60s,  Morning Prayer was the main service on Sundays. The liturgical reform of the 1960s and 70s brought back Sunday Eucharist and restored Morning Prayer to its original position of being a weekday service, but older folks will remember Morning Prayer as Redeemer’s regular Sunday worship.

Now that we can’t share the Eucharist together, we’re getting to know Morning Prayer all over again! Those who pray it on their own every day (and there are many in our parish!) know all the ins and outs, but for many, it may be somewhat new.

My Dad always laments that we don’t celebrate Morning Prayer anymore, and what he misses most is that it was always a very musical service. This is because the Venite and Canticles (which we’ve just been reciting in our online worship) are meant to be sung as songs. There are many settings for them in the Blue Hymnal (you can find most in the front “S” section), but most are in chant so not our typical Redeemer type of music.

These Canticles are usually known by the first couple of words of their first line, translated into Latin (or sometimes Greek). The Venite beings “Come, let us sing to the Lord”. The Latin word for “Come” is “Venite”, so that’s why we call it that. I always know I’ve found a cradle Episcopalian when they pronounce it “Vah-nighty”. Definitely not how they pronounced it in ancient Rome, but certainly how Episcopalians used to say it back in the day! The Venite functions a lot like the Gloria or Song of Praise in the Eucharist service, something we recite or sing to help to center ourselves at the beginning of worship and get ready to hear scripture. For the Easter season, we follow the Prayer Book instructions to replace the Venite with the Christ our Passover/Pascha Nostrum to celebrate this special season.

Canticle means “little song.” The Canticles follow each scripture reading, and are a way of responding to that reading and letting it sink in.  They are always drawn from the Bible (but are not from the Book of Psalms). Many books of the Bible have songs in them, like the Song of Mary (Luke 2) or Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2) that may at one time have been set to music, or function in the text like a poem. These are what are selected to use as Canticles. Like the Venite, they are named by the first couple of words of that canticle in Latin. So for example the Song of Mary is the Magnificat (My soul magnifies..). There are one or two Canticles that are not from the Bible, but from the early church in Roman times (like the Te Deum which we’re saying on Sunday).

There are lots of Canticles in the Prayer Book! How do we decide which ones to use each Sunday? Well, we follow the Table of Canticles in the Book of Common Prayer on p. 144 (or online here: https://www.bcponline.org/DailyOffice/canticle.html). That means we’ll be saying the Song of Moses or Cantemus Domino and the Te Deum (You are God) for the Easter Season.

If you are interested, there’s a good description of each Canticle on this informative blog by Derek Olsen: http://www.stbedeproductions.com/on-the-canticles/

Although the Canticles might seem new and confusing, there is one Canticle that most Redeemer members know well: The First Song of Isaiah or Ecce Deus. We sing it often on Sundays, and it’s a good one to keep in mind in these trying times:

Surely, it is God who saves me; *
    I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *
    and he will be my Savior.

Peace,
Kate

P.S. Keep the Morning Prayer questions coming! Let me know what else you’d like to know about.

One Reply to “From the Rector: What is a Canticle?”

  1. Debbie LeBlanc

    Thank you so much, Kate for this great information!! It gives us a description and history of when and where the canticle is used! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!!

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