Passion of Christ: March 2007 Archives

Ecce Agnus Dei

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For Sidney

Some time ago, a remarkable young man named Sidney wrote me from Brazil to ask for a blessed Agnus Dei. I promised him that I would post something about the Agnus Dei here. It is fitting to do so as we prepare to enter Holy Week and, through the glory of the Paschal rites, the mystery of the immolated Lamb.

An Agnus Dei, so called from the image of the Lamb of God impressed on the face of it, is made of virgin wax, balsam, and chrism, blessed according to the form prescribed by the Roman Ritual.

An old Irish prayerbook (Dublin 1860) gives a prayer to be said daily by those who wear an Agnus Dei. Following the impulse given by this prayer, one who wears an Agnus Dei is compelled to “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Ap 14:4) in a spirit of Eucharistic victimhood, that is, of sacrificial love and oblation.

Prayer of One Who Wears an Agnus Dei

O my Lord Jesus Christ,
the true Lamb who takes away the sins of the world;
by Thy mercy which is infinite, pardon my inquities,
and by Thy Sacred Passion, preserve me this day
from all sin and evil.

I carry about me this holy Agnus Dei in Thy honour,
as a preservative against my own weakness,
and as an incentive to the practice of that meekness, humility, and innocence
which Thou hast taught us.

I offer myself up to Thee as an entire oblation,
and in memory of that Sacrifice of Love
which Thou didst offer for me on the Cross,
and in satisfaction for my sins.
Accept this oblation, I beseech Thee, O my God,
and may it be acceptable to Thee
in the odour of sweetness. Amen.

A Paschal Sacramental

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This peculiarly Roman sacramental, goes back at least as far as the ninth century. Amalarius and the Pseudo–Alcuin refer to it. The blessing of the Agnus Dei medallions used to take place at the Lateran Basilica on Holy Saturday. The archdeacon vested in a dalmatic would receive from the Pope a silver phial containing Sacred Chrism. He would pour the Sacred Chrism into a cauldron of liquid wax. The Agnus Dei medallions would be made from this blessed wax and distributed on the Sunday In Albis after the singing of the Agnus Dei at the Papal Mass.

The Cistercian Privilege

The oldest extant Agnus Dei medallions date from the pontificates of John XXIII (1316–34) and Gregory IX (1227–41). Later on, the Roman Pontiffs reserved the blessing of the medallions to themselves, and assigned the privilege of preparing them to the Benedictine–Cistercian monks of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

At the Banquet of the Lamb

The sixteenth century rite for the blessing of the Agnus Dei medallions makes use of holy water, chrism, and balsam. It was the custom for the Supreme Pontiff to bless the medallions in the first year of his pontificate during the Octave of Holy Pascha, and to bless them every seven years thereafter. The ceremony consisted of three orations addressed to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Thus would he bless the medallions themselves and the water mixed with chrism and balsam into which they would be plunged. When the medallions were removed from the water the Paschaltide Vespers hymn, Ad Cenam Agni Providi would be sung. The same blessing was repeated as often as necessary according to need, and also on special solemnities or anniversaries. Every element of the confection and blessing of the Agnus Dei contributes to its mystical significance.

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Recover the Agnus Dei

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the Agnus Dei was one of those treasured sacramentals that fell into disuse. It is, I think, time to restore the solemn blessing of the Agnus Dei and recover the use of so precious a sacramental. The Church stands in need of “friends of the Lamb,” and of Eucharistic victim souls who will follow the Lamb in purity, in humility, in silence, and in the oblation of themselves.

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Recently a dear friend here in Rome gave me a booklet by Dr. Philip Boyce, O.C.D., Bishop of Raphoe, Ireland, entitled At Prayer with John Henry Newman. The booklet is available from the International Centre of Newman Friends. The Carmelite bishop calls prayer "the texture of Newman's life." He presents some of Newman's own magnificent prayers. All his life the famous Oxford convert sought to pray in spirit and in truth. When I pray using Cardinal Newman' words, I savour in them the same humility and confidence that I have tasted in the prayers of Saint Aelred, William of St–Thierry, and Saint Claude La Colombière.

I was struck in this prayer by the petition, "soothe me with the beauty of Thy countenance":

O mighty God, strengthen me with Thy strength,
console me with Thy everlasting peace,
soothe me with the beauty of the Thy countenance;
enlighten me with Thy uncreated brightness;
purify me with the fragrance of Thy ineffable holiness.
Bathe me in Thyself, and give me to drink,
as far as mortal man may ask, of the rivers of grace which flow
from the Father and the Son,
the grace of Thy consubstantial, co–eternal Love.

And I find this one very close in spirit to Claude La Colombière's Act of Confidence:

O my God, my whole life has been a course of mercies and blessings shown to one who has been most unworthy of them.
I require no faith, for I have a long experience,
as to Thy providence towards me.
Year after year Thou hast carried me on —
removed dangers from my path —
recovered me, recruited me, refreshed me,
borne with me, directed me, sustained me.
O forsake me not when my strength faileth me.
And Thou never wilt forsake me.
I may securely repose upon Thee.
Sinner as I am, nevertheless, while I am true to Thee,
Thou wilt still and to the end,
be superabundantly true to me.

The booklet's sections on intercessory prayer, on Newman's love for the Roman Breviary, and on his devotion to the Rosary are enlightening and inspiring. In conclusion, Dr. Boyce explains the three kinds of divine presence in which Newman's prayer unfolded: the presence of the indwelling Trinity, the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and the presence of Christ in Sacred Scripture.

The Bishop of Raphoe describes Newman's life of prayer as "a persevering effort in the weakness and darkness of our human condition." One recognizes there the experience of the author of Lead, Kindly Light.

Today being the liturgical commemoration of the Compassion of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I decided to turn once again to Cardinal Newman for his Litany of the Seven Dolours. Newman was fond of litanies. I am too. They address a persistent need of the heart for a prayer that is rich in images, yet simple and rythmed by repetition. Unlike the excessively didactic and heavy preces given for Lauds and Vespers in the current Liturgia Horarum, litanies in their classic form allow "heart to speak to heart," and foster the actuosa participatio recommended by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. Here then, is John Henry Newman's Litany of the Seven Dolours.

A Litany for Passiontide

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Litany of the Passion
by the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman

Cardinal Newman's Litany of the Passion reveals the tenderness and compunction of his Christocentric piety. It also demonstrates that Newman was a humble man, capable of entering into the mainstream of Catholic devotion and of learning from it, even while adapting it somewhat to his own sensibility.

To illustrate Newman's Litany I chose a painting by a French contemporary of his, William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905). The position of Jesus attached to the column already suggests the torments of the crucifixion: his arms are extended, his feet lie one upon the other as they will be on the cross. No blood is visible on His sacred body; it appears white and host–like. His face is turned upward, suggesting the mystery of His victimal priesthood. The flesh of Jesus appears luminous — almost transfigured — while, all around Him, are shadows. All the light in the painting seems to emanate from the body of Jesus. I see already the Lumen Christi of the Paschal Vigil. Is this Bouguereau's way of expressing the whole mystery of Redemption?

Passiontide Prayer

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A number of years ago, while visiting the Augustinian Monastery of Malestroit in France, I was introduced to a prayer cherished by the incomparable Mère Yvonne–Aimée de Jésus:


O grande Passion!
O profondes plaies!
O effusion de Sang!
O suprême douleur!
O mort soufferte dans toutes les amertumes!
Donnez–nous la vie.

O great Passion!
O profound Wounds!
O outpouring of blood!
O highest Sorrow!
O Death suffered in every bitterness!
Be to us healing and eternal life.

Those who have prayed the prayer know that it is full of compunction and sweetness. I have discovered the prayer in several languages and with many variants. It has been variously attributed to Saint Bridget of Sweden, Saint Bernard, Saint Bonaventure, Blessed Angelo of Foligno, and Blessed Julian of Norwich, but I have never been able to confirm its origin.

I ask readers familiar with the prayer to share anything they may know about its authorship. Thank you.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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