Liturgy Lessons: Canticles
The Psalms are the official songbook of the Bible and part of the weekly lectionary scripture, but they are not the only songs in the Bible. Non-Psalm biblical songs, called canticles, have a long tradition of standing beside the Psalms as a lyrical witness to God’s goodness.
The Old Testament (or “lesser”) canticles include the songs of Moses (Exodus 15:1-18 and Deuteronomy 32:1-43), Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10), Isaiah (Isaiah 12:2-6), Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:10-20 and Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:2-19). The New Testament (or “greater”) canticles include the songs of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) and Simeon (Luke 2:29-32)
In the early Church, the canticles were part of the daily monastic prayer cycle. Five lesser canticles were included in the rotation of Psalms in morning prayer. The greater canticles Benedictus (Song of Zechariah), Magnificat (Song of Mary) and Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon) were a daily part of the liturgy of evening prayer. Canticles were (and still are) sung in the place of the lectionary Psalm periodically throughout the liturgical year, especially during Advent. Even Calvin, who is known for his exclusive use of Psalmody, included the Song of Simeon in the communion liturgy of the 1545 Strasbourg order. (Calvin said it, I believe it, and that settles it.)
Psalms and canticles are the song of the Church. It’s no accident that Mary’s song in Luke sounds similar to Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel. The expecting mother Mary was so steeped in the Church’s song that she naturally expressed herself in the images of another expecting mother’s song. Mary teaches us an important lesson: we don’t invent the Church’s song, we join it.
During this season in which everything seems to burst into song, may our voices join Isaiah, Mary and Simeon in their timeless song of God’s love.