Saturday, April 04, 2009

Agnus Dei

I have to admit that I have a special fondness for the Agnus Dei. I think it was probably the first prayer in Latin that I learned (because it was one of the rare ones actually sung in Latin frequently at mass.)

I'm also quite partial to it because it reminds me of Scott Hahn's account of his first mass, which was a major point of transition for me, even before I ever attended my first mass. Reading his book, The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth was a huge eye-opener for me. It made me realize just how scriptural the mass is (and how liturgy itself is mostly taken straight from scripture, as seen throughout this series of posts), and most importantly, it explained that crazy book of Revelation to me for the first time in a way that made sense, lol. All of it is centered around the Lamb of God, and His Supper.

Here is an excerpt that touches on some of what he writes about in more detail in the book:

My most vivid memory of the first Mass I attended was that powerful moment in the Communion Rite where the people say, "Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us." "Lamb of God." "Lamb of God." Then they knelt, and the priest held up the host and said, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world"—that was "Lamb of God" four times in less than a minute.

I was sitting in the back pew as simply an observer. But suddenly I knew where I was: I was back in the Book of Revelation where Jesus is called the Lamb of God no less than 28 times in 22 chapters. He’s only called "Lamb" in one other book in the entire New Testament: the Gospel of John, and there just twice. But in the Apocalypse, that’s his main title, more than all the other titles: Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Alpha and Omega, and all the rest. He’s the Lamb of God.

I went back to Mass the next day. I had my pad and pencil, and I had my Bible. This time I had it open to Revelation and I saw things I’d never seen before. I saw a connection in these liturgical actions. Not just one or two. Not even just eight or ten. I made a list of 30 elements: white-robed priests, an altar, a congregation chanting "Holy, holy, holy," the alleluias, the amen, the golden chalices, the book, the invocation of angels and saints. I hardly knew which way to turn—toward the actions on the pages of the Apocalypse, or the action up at the altar. After about 15 or 20 minutes of the second Mass, suddenly I realized they were one and the same action. What I was reading on the page was exactly what I was watching up there at the altar.
Looking back, I truly think this prayer helped me to make an important transition in my life. Up until then, the Bible had been the focus in my spiritual life, the center of my faith. But seeing all this liturgical action centered on the Lamb in the scriptures, in the very last book of the Bible, it was like a launching pad for growth in understanding beyond the words on the page. This allowed me to venture past the scriptures alone, and let go a bit of the skepticism for all this Catholic nonsense I had been clinging to and to feel a sense of surprising confidence in the actions I saw around me at mass, because they were actions I saw in The Book I trusted completely. And the words on the page and the actions around me all pointed to one thing...the Lamb of God.

And it is He who is now the focus of my spiritual life, the center of my faith, and the reason I'm a Catholic.

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.
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.

Here's a beautiful Agnus Dei from the wonderful Palestrina.

Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, While we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; But the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all. Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth. (Is 53:4-7)

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
The next day John was there again with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said, "Behold, the Lamb of God."
(John 1:29, 35-6)

Now if you invoke as Father him who judges impartially according to each one's works, conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb. (1 Pet 1:17-19)

I looked again and heard the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne and the living creatures and the elders. They were countless in number, and they cried out in a loud voice: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing."
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: "To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever." The four living creatures answered, "Amen," and the elders fell down and worshiped.
(Rev 5:11-14)

They cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb." (Rev 7:10)

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