Agnus Dei (“Jesus, Lamb of God”)

Agnus Dei (“Jesus, Lamb of God”)

Liturgy Lesson: January 17, 2021
Call to Worship: Ps. 116:5-9, 12-19
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: Creation Sings
Confession: Phil 2:5-11 and Agnus Dei (“Jesus, Lamb of God”)
Words of Assurance: Is. 53:4-6, Ps. 116:1-2
Hymns of Assurance: There is a Fountain; Be Unto Your Name
Reading of the Word: Luke 22:14-23
Doxology: #731
Sermon: “The Passover Lamb”, Rev. Eric Irwin
Tithes and Offerings
The Lord’s Supper: My Shepherd Will Supply My Need; We Will Feast in the House of Zion

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis
(Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy)
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem
(Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace)

In the middle of his sermon last week, Eric—in typical nonchalant fashion—delivered this seismic statement:

“The cross is the central fact and the dominant truth of every Christian life.
The cross is the center of everything that ever happened.
It is the center of all human history.”

Boom! Mic drop! Let’s close in prayer.

Jesus said, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto myself” (Jn. 12:32). That is the thrust of every sermon I’ve ever heard from Eric. Preaching Christ and Him crucified is a not only Pauline doctrine, it is Irwinian! The exaltation of Christ is also the telos (goal or aim) of our liturgies. To rephrase our pastor, the cross is the center of our worship. Biblical, historic Christian worship is a beautiful combination of word and table, and the cross is the fulcrum.

The front end of our service (everything up to and including the sermon) is traditionally called the liturgy of the word. The emphasis here is on the proclamation of the living, active word of God as witness to the incarnate Word in Jesus Christ. We hear from God through his word and we respond with adoration, confession, and thanksgiving. The liturgy of the word is dialogic and relational. It is not a meeting about God, it is an encounter with God. We understand the prayers (singing is a form of prayer) and preaching of the word to be ordinary means of grace—essentially, means by which the Holy Spirit enables us to receive Christ and the benefits of redemption. Put simply, means of grace are the practices by which our faith is strengthened.

The post-sermon portion of our services is the liturgy of the table (communion to Protestants, Eucharist to Catholics). This practice has its roots in the Passover meal (Exodus 12) which was celebrated by Jesus and his disciples on the night he was betrayed. We are commanded to “do this in remembrance” of him, but it is so much more than a ritual observance. It is an expression of the fundamental aspect of our worship (indeed our very lives)—union with Christ. The Lord’s supper is also a means of grace. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we imbibe the benefits of God made manifest in bread and wine. Here at the table our faith is once again fortified as we experience intimacy with Christ. He is the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. We can taste and see that He is good.

It is also at the table where we celebrate, renew, affirm, and seal our new covenant with Christ. Furthermore, our humble communion meal is a foretaste of the eternal feast to come. It is a liturgical depiction of Christ’s sacrifice that beckons us toward the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-9). What a privilege! For all these reasons and more, the Christian can say every Sunday, “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Ps. 122:1)

Since about the late 7th century, Christian worship has commonly included a prayer called the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”). The use of this prayer in liturgy is based on the moment when John the Baptist, upon seeing Jesus, proclaimed “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29). For centuries it was a common element in the Mass Ordinary (basically the elements repeated every Sunday) for Catholic Mass. After the Reformation, the prayer was adapted from Latin and assumed into many Protestant liturgies. Luther included it just after the prayers of institution during communion. Cranmer, who adapted it to English in The Book of Common Prayer (the version we commonly use), included it twice toward the end of his worship services. The text of this prayer has been set by countless musicians down through the centuries—everyone from Machaut (14th c.) to Beethoven (18th c.) to Vaughan Williams (20th c.).

There are two settings of the Agnus Dei that I’d love to share with you, and they comprise the bulk of this week’s liturgy lesson. I figure you are better off meditating on this wonderful music than reading more of my ramblings. However, before I give you those recordings, let me say a word about the use of the Agnus Dei (the “Agn” sound is pronounced like the beginning of “Onion,” not like the old lady’s name).

Several years back I wrote a simple antiphonal musical setting of this text, adapting it from The Book of Common Prayer (Anglican). The men sing and the women echo on the verses, and then we all join in unison on the refrains.

Jesus Lamb of God (Jesus Lamb of God),
Have mercy on us.

Bearer of our sins (Bearer of our sins),
Have mercy on us.

Jesus Lamb of God (Jesus Lamb of God),
Redeemer, grant us your peace.

At CPC we use this sung prayer during our time of confession and not during communion. This is intentional. Reformed worship considers the Lord’s supper as a celebration and NOT an oblation. This was a point of sharp distinction for the Reformers. When we take the bread and wine, we are giving thanks for the accomplished work of Christ. We are not re-enacting the Passover meal as an effectual sacrifice. We commune around the table. We do not approach an altar. In Irwinian terms, “communion is not a second confession.” For this reason, the liturgical Lord’s supper is marked by joy and thanksgiving. It may at times be solemn, but it should not be somber. Upon the cross, Christ said, “It is Finished.” We would do well to take Him at His word.

OK, here are the music samples for this week. Each one is around 10 minutes long. The first sample is by the twentieth-century American composer Samuel Barber. He adapted his famous “Adagio for Strings” for choir, using the original Latin version of Agnus Dei as his text. I actually prefer this adapted work to the original instrumental-only version. The main theme sounds reminiscent of an ancient chant. It is traded from voice to voice, and it is sustained through a gorgeous texture of aching dissonance that resolves in moments only to stretch and moan again in the next phrase. Only at the end, when the choir sings the word “pacem” (peace), is there a sense of release. The overall effect is a breathtaking meditation on Christ who was stricken, afflicted…like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent” (Is. 53:7). In fact, I recommend you read all of Isaiah 53 prior to listening. The translation of the Latin is quoted at the top of this liturgy lesson. You can find the recording here. As a bonus, the sheet music is included in the video for all you music geeks.

The second excerpt is quite different in tone and style. It is by Michael W. Smith, a contemporary artist who probably needs no introduction. His setting (which many of you may already know) is really an Agnus Dei in title only. It is actually more of a direct quote from Revelation 5:12, that rhapsodic scene where all living creatures and “myriads upon myriads” of angels sing together:

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Before you listen to this excerpt, I suggest you read all of Revelation 5. The chapter gives the whole redemptive context to the heavenly scene and shows how it builds to the awesome climactic final chorus. There are many recordings of Smith’s Agnus Dei, but I chose a live recording from a concert in what appears to be a small stadium. After the opening musical segment, the relatively short refrain is repeated over and over again. It is this part that takes up the bulk of the video. Sometimes repeated musical choruses in worship can try too hard to work up an emotional frenzy, as if ecstasy was the goal. However, the repetition on display here never feels mindless or manipulative. It comes across as a groundswell of continual praise. As I listened and watched, I saw an image of paradise. All those people singing together (so close together and without masks!) the exact song that John heard from the heavenly throng is indeed a glimpse of glory. That video can be seen here.

Brothers and Sisters, now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now we know in part; then we shall know fully, even as we have been fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). All this is made possible by the cross, the center of all human history. And the end of history? Well, that is Christ himself, the Lamb of God willingly offered up for our sake. He is now exalted high and seated on the throne. He forever and always has mercy upon us, and He will bring us to himself. We have this as strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf (Heb. 6:19-20).

All hail King Jesus! Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!

Agnus Dei Recordings:
Samuel Barber (adapted from Adagio for Strings)
Michael W. Smith (Rev. 5:11-14)