On the Canticles

I got an email from a reader asking about the canticles. I realized that there were some sections of my chapters on the Office that didn’t make it onto the blog, and the canticle section was one of them. So—here’s a bit on the canticles…


Following each biblical reading is a canticle. When I first experienced Episcopal Morning Prayer, I was completely baffled by the canticles. The priest leading the group would call out a number; she never had any hesitation about what to pick. Some were often said, but others were never said. Too, several of the other people in the group seemed to know in advance what she was going to say. I had a hard enough time just finding the right number, since the first canticle that I saw was numbered “8”! Eventually, I got it all figured out, but I’ve never forgotten my initial confusion.

What I didn’t know was that the canticles numbered 1 through 7 are located in Morning Prayer: Rite I. Canticles 8 through 21 are in Morning Prayer: Rite II. All of the canticles in Rite I appear in contemporary language in Rite II, but not vice-versa. Furthermore, there is no inherent or logical connection between the Rite I numbers and their Rite II counterparts! So—your first challenge in negotiating the canticles is navigating through them.

There is a basic principle at work here… In each block, the one in Rite I and in the one in Rite II, the canticles appear in canonical/chronological order. Thus, the Rite I block starts with material from the Apocrypha, goes through the canticles from Luke in canonical order, then moves to the two compositions from the Early Church. In a corresponding fashion, the Rite II block starts with the material from Exodus, then goes to the canticles from Isaiah before moving to the Apocrypha but adds an additional one in before moving to the Luke material, and items from Revelation, ending with the Early Church compositions.

As with the invitatory psalms, the names of the canticles are given both in English and in a classical language, usually Latin. People and reference works may use either name, so it never hurts to be familiar with both.

Canticles 1 and 12 are “A Song of Creation” (Benedicite, omnia opera Domini). The Benedicite comes from one of the additions to the book of Daniel that is found in the Greek Old Testament, but not in the Hebrew version. It’s best understood as an expansion of the content and theme of Psalm 148 where all creation is called upon to worship and give glory to God. In the narrative, this is a song put into the mouth of Daniel’s three companions which they sang in the midst of the fiery furnace. As a result, sometimes this will be referred to as “the song of the three young men.” In the former prayer books, this canticle was used as the first canticle during penitential seasons when the Te Deum was suppressed. That’s not because there’s anything penitential about it—it’s one of the most joyful canticles around! Rather it’s because this was the second canticle found in the pre-Reformation prymers and Books of Hours; if the Te Deum—which was the first canticle in them—was dropped, this one was next in line. Hence, the tradition grew that the Benedicite should replace the Te Deum, and it subsequently entered and formed the prayer book tradition.

Canticles 2 and 13 are “A Song of Praise” (Benedictus es, Domine). This song comes from the same place as the previous canticle and, actually, comes right before it in the text. While the first one calls all creation to bless God, this is an example of such a blessing. It praises God, envisioning him enthroned within a grand temple having aspects of the Temple in Jerusalem (dwelling “between the Cherubim” is a reference to the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant which was kept in the Holy of Holiest, the inmost part of the Jerusalem Temple”) but being located “in the firmament of heaven.”

Canticles 3 and 15 are “The Song of Mary” (Magnificat). This is one of the most beautiful songs in all of Scripture and is Mary’s response to the dual greeting from her cousin Elizabeth and the yet-unborn John the Baptist. Based in part on the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and with echoes of Psalm 138 and 146, it admirably anticipates Luke’s Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26)—and, indeed, they are well worth studying together. In the pre-Reformation system, Evening Prayer (their Vespers) only had one canticle—and this was it. As a result, it became the standard third canticle, the one after the first reading of Evening Prayer. It still holds this first place in both Rite I and Rite II services of Evening Prayer.

Canticles 4 and 16 are “The Song of Zechariah” (Benedictus Dominus Deus). This song was sung by Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and father of John the Baptist, at the prophet’s birth. This was the standard second canticle of Morning Prayer and was the chief canticle of the pre-Reformation version. I’ve always found the second part of this song, in particular, especially meaningful. Through the voice of Zechariah, we who pray this are commissioned and reminded of our duty to spread the Gospel—and are given a convenient summary of it focusing on forgiveness, mercy, light, and walking in the paths of peace.

Canticles 5 and 17 are “The Song of Simeon” (Nunc dimittis). Simeon, having waited all his life to see the Messiah, holds the infant Jesus in his arms at the end of his days and sings this song. With its themes of ending and new beginning, a growing light and a coming peace, it was used in the pre-Reformation system at Compline, the Office just before sleep. Adapted into the prayer book system, it became the fixed fourth canticle, following the second reading of Evening Prayer.

Canticles 6 and 20 are the “Glory (be) to God” (Gloria in excelsis). While it begins with the song of the angels at the birth of Christ, the rest of the canticle is a composition from the Early Church. Familiar to most of the Western Church from its use at the beginning of the Eucharist, its appearance here is an Eastern element; this was the standard morning canticle for the Eastern Churches.

Canticles 7 and 21 are the “We Praise Thee/You” (Te Deum laudamus). Another composition of the Early Church, the Te Deum was sung at Matins on Sundays and festivals. At the Reformation, the prayer book appointed this as the first canticle of Morning Prayer every day of the year except for the 40 days of Lent. Its connection with festivals was strong enough that, by the early medieval period, the Te Deum was sometimes used with some additional suffrages as a celebratory liturgy.

Canticle 8—the first of the canticles only found in Rite II’s contemporary language—is “The Song of Moses” (Cantemus Domino). It is “especially suitable in Easter Season” because this is the song sung by Moses and the Israelites after their deliverance from Egypt through the Red Sea. The Red Sea passage has long been understood as a symbol of Baptism and resurrection, and this connection is stated explicitly in the Easter Vigil’s own victory song, the Exultet.

Canticle 9 is “The First Song of Isaiah” (Ecce, Deus). Coming from the prophet Isaiah, this song concludes his vision of the messianic age to come. This song is to be sung in celebration of the recognition of what God has accomplished and the salvation wrought through his messiah. For us, it ought to be a reminder that we stand in the midst of the “already/not yet”; God’s promises have been fulfilled in the person of Jesus, yet we do not always perceive the fulfilment of these promises. The use of this canticle is a sign of hope.

Canticle 10 is “The Second Song of Isaiah” (Quaerite Dominum). This song comes from a place towards the latter part of Isaiah. It closes out a section that encourages the people, exiled in Babylon, to return and rebuild Jerusalem again to its former glory. It urges them to seek the Lord and to trust in the fulfillment of the divine word at a point when many doubted that the city would ever be rebuilt and the land reclaimed. The language of repentance makes it particular suitable in penitential seasons.

Canticle 11 is “The Third Song of Isaiah” (Surge, Illuminare). This song from the end of Isaiah, also from the time at the end of the Exile (around 520 BC or so), exhorts the people with a vision of the rebuilt Jerusalem. This vision of a preternaturally brilliant city that calls the nations to it influenced Revelation’s vision of the New Jerusalem as the Bride of the Lamb and, subsequently, the theology of the Church as a New Jerusalem. The images of light connect it strongly to the themes of both Advent and Epiphany.

Canticle 14 is “A Song of Penitence” (Kyrie Pantokrator). This canticle comes from the brief apocryphal book, the Prayer of Manasseh. Manasseh was crowned as king of Judah at the age of twelve somewhere around 700 BC and reigned for 55 years. He has the dubious honor of being the most evil king to hold the throne of Judah. The narrative of his reign in 2 Kings 21 is a catalogue of idolatry and slaughter. The retelling of it in 2 Chronicles 33, however, includes a scene of his repentance and makes mention of a prayer where he humbled himself before God and received forgiveness of his sin. Although our composition is likely not this prayer itself, it certainly represents what the prayer could have been! It is, as the prayer book note suggests, the perfect canticle for Lent and for other penitential circumstances.

Canticle 18 is “A Song to the Lamb” (Dignus es). While the Book of Revelation is known for its apocalyptic imagery and its abuse by those who would read modern political events through it, it should be better known as the book of the New Testament that contains the most songs! This one comes from the description of the heavenly throne room. We are treated in Revelation 4 through 6 to a vision of the throne room of God, where a set of concentric circles of worshipers arrays the whole created order in a ceaseless song of praise to God and to the Lamb. This is the celebration of the saints and angels and all creation in thanksgiving for creation and redemption.

Canticle 19 is “The Song of the Redeemed” (Magna et mirabilia). In an interlude between acts of judgment and the seven last plagues, the seer John sees  the martyrs singing a song described as “the song of Moses, the servant of God and the song of the Lamb” (Rev 15:3). This canticle is that song. From the introduction, then, the author of Revelation intended this song to be in conscious continuity with our Canticle 8, the Song of Moses.

Alright… Now that we’ve gotten through all of these—how do we go about using them and what’s the best way to arrange them? What canticle should you use when—and why?

There are several ways of answering this question. Like so much about the prayer book, it depends on your tradition—and that, in turn, gives us the simplest answer. Does your parish pray the Office together? If so, it’s best to find out what pattern they go with and use it.

If not, there are a variety of choices. I’ll talk you through three of them.

The simplest is a traditional pattern that has the least amount of variation. As I mentioned in discussing the canticles, the prayer books up until the present one had a fairly fixed order. There were four readings, two at each Office, and a canticle after each reading. The first canticle was either the Te Deum or the Benedicite—depending on the season. The three Gospel Canticles, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis were the second, third, and fourth canticles respectively. The reason why these canticles appear in these positions is based on how Cranmer consolidated the eight hours of prayer down into two: Morning Prayer received the Te Deum from Matins and the Benedictus from Lauds; Evening Prayer received the Magnificat from Vespers and the Nunc Dimittis from Compline. Thus, the simplest way to arrange the canticles is to use this basic pattern.

One of the more complex options is the way that the prayer book recommends. After the Offices themselves, a means of deploying all of the canticles appears on pages 144 and 145. We’ll start with the suggestions for Morning Prayer on page 144. The basic idea here is that the Old Testament lesson receives an Old Testament canticle, the New Testament lesson receives a New Testament/Early Church canticle.  Sunday and Feast days retain the traditional canticles, though not in the traditional order; Wednesday and Friday—the traditional fasting days—receive the more penitential materials, especially in Lent. Additionally, in Lent and Advent the Te Deum and Gloria are replaced by other options. The easiest way to use this chart is to write it in where you intend to use it. As a result, in several of my prayer books I’ve copied it into the blank space at the bottom of page 84, and have also written the appropriate days and seasons at the top of the canticles themselves. (Don’t be afraid of writing in your prayer book if it’ll help you use it!)

The suggestions for Evening Prayer on page 145 assume the use of two lessons at Evening Prayer. If you are only using one lesson, use the second column and alternate between the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. Otherwise, it alternates between the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis for the second canticle except on Sundays and Feast Days when both are used. On weekdays the first canticle rotates through a set of Old Testament options.

A third way to proceed is by a blend of these two. For those who want to retain the classical use of the Benedictus and the Magnificat but still experience the variety of new canticles that this prayer book offers, the Old Testament option for Morning Prayer can be followed with the Benedictus after the second lesson; the New Testament option for Morning Prayer can be used to follow the first lesson at Evening Prayer and the Magnificat used after the second lesson.

7 thoughts on “On the Canticles

  1. Chuck Till

    I prefer a seasonal pattern for MP, using different canticles throughout respective seasons. For example, I use 9 and 18 throughout Advent. This isn’t sanctioned by the BCP, but neither is it prohibited — and it works for me.

    If one reads both EP and Compline, the Nunc Dimittis is used at the end of Compline so the EP choice is the Magnificat to avoid repetition.

  2. Scott Knitter

    At Ascension, Chicago, at Morning Prayer the first canticle is the suggested one in the table on p. 144, and the second canticle is always Canticle 16. On Sundays and holy days the canticles are 16 and 21. At Evening Prayer they’re always the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. So at Morning Prayer we never use canticles 18, 19, or 20, as it happens.

  3. Robert E. Armidon

    For what it’s worth, that’s pretty much how I do it in my personal recitation of the Office (albeit using the canticles in the forms provided in the Anglican Service Book). On Sundays and holy days, however, I do use the Te Deum and Benedictus in their traditional order, and on Sundays in Advent and Lent I use the Benedicite rather than the Te Deum.

  4. Finn Froding

    Thank you for your explanation and suggestions!
    I’ve long regarded the Canticles as a place where the 1979 BCP may provide a confusing array of too many options. In many years experience singing the daily office alone and with others, I’ve made a complete office book for chanting, (I’d like to find a way to typeset it an digitize it, but that’s another story). The arrangement of the canticles follows traditional lines. At Evensong I use Rite I exclusively, with no invitatory,and the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, with seasonal antiphons. For the morning canticles, as you wrote, previous Anglican rites have used the Te Deum and Benedictus, with Benedicite or some other substitute for the Te Deum in Lent, and other substitutions allowed in various national rites. My arrangement calls for the gospel canticle Benedictus (Song of Zechariah) at every service, much as the Magnificat is prescribed at every Evensong. The position of the Benedictus, however, varies, reflecting its role as a bridge between the Old Covenant and the New. When Old Testament canticles are used, Benedictus comes after the New Testament lesson. When Christian texts are used, such as Te Deum and Dignus es, Benedictus comes earlier, after the Old Testament lesson. I would be happy to supply all the canticles, with melodies and antiphons, to those who may be interested.

    The Invitatory at Matins, with seasonal antiphons
    Lent: Venite exultemus (Psalm 95 complete)
    Easter Week: Pascha nostrum
    Otherwise: Venite exultemus (short version)

    Canticles, with seasonal antiphons (except Te Deum and Dignus es):
    First Canticle, Sundays and feasts:
    First Canticle, daily:
    Surge illuminare
    Second Canticle: Benedictus

    First Canticle: Benedictus
    Second Canticle: Te Deum laudamus

    After Epiphany and Pentecost
    First Canticle: Benedictus
    Second Canticle, Sundays and feasts: Te Deum laudamus
    Second Canticle, daily: Dignus es

    First Canticle, Sundays and feasts:
    First Canticle, daily:
    Quaerite Dominum
    Second Canticle: Benedictus

    First Canticle: Benedictus
    Second Canticle: Te Deum laudamus

  5. Ben

    Hi Derek,
    I’m honored that you would respond to my e-mail. This is a very helpful post.
    Is it out of the question to use three canticles if three readings are used?

  6. dcnpatience


    I like using the pattern on BCP 144 for assigning canticles, but instead of writing in my prayer book I made bookmark-sized tables to print out. You can find them at http://dailyofficeanchorsociety.com/resources/

    To keep them from fluttering out of my book, I now tape the tables into the seam between BCP 84/85 for Morning Prayer and between BCP 118/119 for Evening Prayer. That way, before I turn to the psalm I can mark the first canticle, making it easier to resume my place in the Office following the first reading.

    I really appreciate this extensive post on the canticles — you’ve reminded me of a couple things I want to mention at a Daily Office Basics workshop at my church tomorrow.


Comments are closed.