A canticle is a hymn or song of praise taken from biblical texts other than the Psalms. The term comes from the Latin word “canticulum” meaning “little song.” Canticles have been an important part of Christian liturgy and worship since the early church.
There are several canticles that appear in the Bible itself. The three most well-known are the Song of Moses (Exodus 15), the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), also known as the Magnificat, and the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), also known as the Benedictus. These scriptural canticles continue to be used in liturgical worship today.
The Song of Moses appears in Exodus 15 after the Israelites have safely crossed the Red Sea and escaped from the Egyptians. Moses leads them in a song of triumph and praise to God for delivering them from slavery and destroying their enemies. Some key verses include:
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:1)
“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11)
The Song of Moses is a jubilant celebration of God’s power and redemption, and is still sung in various church liturgies today such as Matins and Vespers.
The Magnificat or Song of Mary appears in Luke 1, after Mary has received the annunciation from the angel Gabriel that she will give birth to Jesus. Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. When Elizabeth greets Mary, John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb. In response, Mary bursts into a song of praise to God:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:46-47)
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” (Luke 1:51)
“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:54-55)
This canticle expresses Mary’s awe and wonder at being chosen by God for her role, and her joy in God’s faithfulness to Israel. The Magnificat has become a fixed part of liturgies like Vespers and Evening Prayer.
The Benedictus or Song of Zechariah is found in Luke 1 immediately after the birth of John the Baptist. When Zechariah confirms the baby’s name is John, he regains his voice which he lost during Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah utters this prophetic song of praise:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.” (Luke 1:68)
“for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” (Luke 1:76-77)
Zechariah celebrates God’s faithfulness to send a Savior through the coming Messiah, Jesus. The Benedictus is included in liturgical prayer offices like Lauds and Morning Prayer.
In addition to these biblical canticles, many other extra-biblical songs and hymns are also used as canticles in Christian worship. Some examples include:
- Te Deum – An ancient Latin hymn praising God’s glory and grace.
- Magnificat at Evensong – Alternate musical settings of the Magnificat text.
- Nunc Dimittis – Simeon’s song from Luke 2 praising God for letting him see the Savior.
- Gloria in Excelsis – A 4th century hymn similar to the angels’ song in Luke 2.
- Phos Hilaron – Ancient Greek hymn welcoming evening light and Jesus the light.
The Book of Common Prayer and other liturgical sources contain many of these traditional canticles for use in Anglican, Catholic, and other services. Their poetic biblical texts are set to music and incorporated into the rhythm of Christian worship.
In summary, canticles are scriptural songs or hymns from both the Old and New Testament that have been embedded into liturgies over centuries. The three great canticles – the Song of Moses, Song of Mary, and Song of Zechariah – appear directly in the Bible and proclaim God’s redemptive acts. But many other extra-biblical canticles have also been written over time for liturgical worship, using similar language and themes to praise God.
Singing or reciting canticles enables believers to participate in the great story of salvation through poetic prayer. The canticles’ beautiful lyrics connect worshipers both to the biblical narrative itself as well as to centuries of fellow believers who have sung these songs before them. Through canticles, churches enter into the stream of historic praise toward God for his mighty acts throughout human history and in their own day.
Beyond their use in formal liturgy, canticles can also inspire individual and family worship through meditating on their Bible-based lyrics. Recording new musical versions of ancient canticle texts allows each generation to harness creativity in service of worship toward God. Whether used corporately or individually, canticles from scripture and tradition remain a valuable spiritual heritage of the church.
Now that we have defined what a canticle is and looked at some biblical examples like the Magnificat, Benedictus, and Song of Moses, let’s explore in more depth some of the key features and themes of canticles:
Origins and History
The practice of singing canticles dates back centuries to the time of the early church. As Christians assembled for prayer and worship, they incorporated existing Jewish hymnody as well as newly written hymns into their liturgies. Over time, certain canticles emerged as favorites and became fixed parts of services like Morning and Evening Prayer.
Many canticles not directly found in the Bible were composed in the late fourth century such as Te Deum and Gloria in Excelsis. Ancient Greek hymns like Phos Hilaron were also adapted and translated for church use. The Book of Common Prayer and other prayer books helped standardize collections of canticles across various traditions and languages.
While specific canticle texts and tunes have evolved across regions and eras, the enduring tradition of singing canticles remains a defining mark of Christian liturgical worship. They form a treasured heritage and spiritual legacy for the church.
Themes and Literary Features
Though the canticles cover a range of biblical events, several key themes emerge:
- Praise to God for his deliverance, protection, justice, and mercy
- Celebration of God’s mighty acts in salvation history
- Rejoicing in the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises
- Thanksgiving for the gift of the Messiah
- Hope and trust in God’s future redemption
Many canticles take the form of Hebrew poetry with features like parallelism between lines. Repetition of key phrases or reversals allows them to be easily memorized and sung or chanted antiphonally between groups.
The canticles preserve sacred words of testimony about God’s relationship with his people across different eras. Through poetic language, they allow the soul to passionately rejoice in God’s goodness and grace.
Incorporate canticles into worship serves several purposes:
- Joins our voices to the great “communion of saints” who have sung these songs across generations
- Allows meditation on the wonderous acts of God throughout biblical history
- Provides structure around which to center corporate prayer
- Transforms individuals and the congregation into living sacrifices of praise (Hebrews 13:15)
- Binds the body of Christ together through shared liturgical heritage
Beyond communal worship, studying the canticles also benefits individual prayer life. Committing their meaningful words to memory equips believers to praise God at all times.
The canticles endure not as museum pieces but as vital expressions of authentic and artistic adoration toward God. Through them, the people of God past, present and future together bless his holy Name.
One of the beauties of canticles is their marriage of meaningful words with musical interpretation across styles. The words themselves form sacred librettos to which composers and congregations through the ages have attached tunes.
From ancient chant to the grandeur of Bach and Handel to contemporary arrangements, canticle texts have been fertile soil for musical creativity. Hearing these spiritually potent words through new melodies and harmonies allows each age to call out to God in its own voice.
Whether congregational feats like Exodus 15 or intimate like Mary’s Magnificat, canticles form a lyrical tapestry of praise knit together by many hands. Their words contain eternal power while their musical renderings provide touching color and texture.
Some Well-Known and Beloved Canticles
A few canticles stand out for their continued and widespread use within services:
- Te Deum – Latin hymn dating from at least the fourth century glorifying God’s majesty and triumph over sin and death.
- Magnificat – Mary’s hymn from Luke 1:46-55 praising God for choosing her to bear Christ and fulfilling his covenant with Israel.
- Benedictus – Zechariah’s prophetic song from Luke 1:68-79 celebrating God’s redemption through the coming Messiah.
- Nunc Dimittis – Simeon’s brief song from Luke 2:29-32 rejoicing that God’s salvation has been revealed.
- Gloria in Excelsis – Early ecstatic Easter hymn similar to the angels’ song in Luke 2:14 celebrating Christ’s resurrection.
These and other canticles are woven into the fabric of liturgies across denominations and eras. They allow generations of believers to jointly magnify the Lord with cherished words that Scripture and tradition provide.
Canticles for the Contemporary Church
While canticles provide a welcome link to the past, how can churches continue this musical heritage in our day? Ideas include:
- Learning about canticle history and origins to gain appreciation for their richness
- Incorporating known canticles into modern musical styles and instrumentation
- Composing new Scripture-based canticles to speak to contemporary issues
- Commissioning fresh musical settings of traditional canticle texts
- Recording canticles for use on YouTube and church websites
- Studying canticle lyrics as part of small groups or Bible studies
- Using select verses as inspirational readings, choral anthems or prerecorded songs
Far from being frozen museum pieces, these songs of praise can come alive within each new era. Just as past generations found ways to sing canticles in their day, so can today’s church reimagine how to harness their beauty in fresh ways.
By balancing ancient wisdom with modern expression, canticles remain a relevant spiritual resource to invigorate worship. Through technology and creativity, their spirit-filled words can continue inspiring God’s people across generations.
Canticles from Scripture and beyond remain at the heart of Christian heritage – poetic prayers that connect today’s believers with those from age to age. Though ancient in origin, their lyrics continue to voice praise and testify to God’s faithfulness. By studying, singing and sharing these songs, churches enter the great chorus of witnesses that magnify the Lord through time eternal.