Non-Psalm biblical songs, called canticles, have a long tradition of standing beside the Psalms as a lyrical witness to God’s goodness. These are generally known as “canticles,” a word which comes from the Latin term “canticulum” , a diminutive meaning “song.”
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). In the early Church, the canticles were part of the daily monastic prayer cycle.
There are 4 Advent songs in Luke. We can see a progression in these stories as we approach the last one. Each has a scripture passage, a key character(s) and a key quality it imparts:
1. Magnficat -Mary – Praise and adoration (Luke 1:39-56).
2. Benedictus – Zechariah – Mercy and compassion (Luke 1:57-79).
3. Gloria – Shepherds – Greatness of God (Luke 2:1-20).
4. Nunc Dimittis – Simeon – Freedom (Luke 2:25-35 ).
These passages are known by traditional Latin titles that reflect their opening lines: the Magnificat (Mary, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” 1:46–55), the Benedictus (Zacharias, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” 1:68–79), the Gloria in Excelsis (the angels, “Glory to God in the Highest,” 2:14), and the Nunc Demittis (Simeon, “Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace,” 2:29–32, emphasis added).
As Paul-Gordon Chandler emphasizes in “Songs in Waiting”, these canticles are middle eastern origin like our faith. Christians today can trace its origins to 4 different Christian families in the Middle East:
1. Oriental Orthodox church – Coptic Orthodox. Coptic is probably oldest church in world. The heritage goes back to St. Mark who wrote the Gospel . Coptic is an ancient word for Egyptian – indigenous Egyptian Christian. Today they are a minority –about 10% of Egypt,
They see singing is highest form of praise between humanity and Creator and they have a reverence for Advent
2. Byzantine – Eastern or Greek Churches.
3. Catholic – not Latin – Melkites, Maronites, Caledians, Syrian Cathoic, Armenian
Melike is the largest Christian church in Palestine in Israel
4. Syrian Church of East. They used to be called Nestorians. Many Syrian refugees come to Eqypt since it has a Christian population.
In form and content, these four psalms or canticles are patterned on the “hymns of praise” in Israel’s Psalter. In structure, these songs reflect the compositions of pre-Christian contemporary Jewish hymnology. These canticles illustrate how the Christ came from the beautiful nature of God. They express the wide range of emotions.
Luke understands, as did the Psalmists of Israel, that songs are powerful. Laments express our grief and fear so as to honor these deep and difficult emotions and simultaneously strip them of their power to incapacitate us. Songs of praise and thanksgiving unite us with the One to whom we lift our voices. And canticles of courage and promise not only name our hopes but also contribute to bringing them into being.
350 year later after the canticles St. Augustine wrote with a music treatise in North Africa. Music is a prompt to have us to transport to eternal numbers where God is found -“when we sing we pray twice”
The Songs have had universal appeal.
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.
They are used in daily services and inspired other music settings of its text or have been sung themselves.
Songs are power, especially Mary’s song, the Magnificat. Mary recognizes that she has been drawn into relationship with the God of Israel, the one who has been siding with the oppressed and downtrodden since the days of Egypt, the one who has been making and keeping promises since the time of Abraham. The past tense in this case, we should be clear, does not signify that all Mary sings of has been accomplished, but rather describes God’s characteristic activity and acknowledges that Mary is now included in God’s history of redemption.
Luke’s infancy narratives are suffused with singing. After Mary, Zechariah will take the stage to praise God’s fidelity to Israel through the birth of John the Baptist; the angels will offer their canticle of peace and good will at the birth of Jesus; and Simeon will croon of God’s mercy being extended to all the world.
Origin of the Canticles – Who composed them?
There are several possibilities:
1 Composed by those they are attributed to in the narrative. However, unless edited it is unlikely that they would speak in poetry. Other writers counter this by saying that the speakers are all righteous Israelites, would have known the same scriptural passages and had those same aspirations and hopes.
2. Composed by Luke as he wrote the rest of the infancy narratives. Canticles fit in awkwardly with the narrative. In fact, the narrative reads more smoothly without the canticles
3. Luke composed the canticles later and went back and grafted them in the narrative. However, we would expect more uniformity among the canticles if Luke composed them all.
4. Raymond Brown (The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) and other scholars believe the canticles pre-date Luke and Luke grafted them into the infancy narrative, adding a few modifications. The canticles conform to Jewish hymnic style (a mosaic of lines from earlier poetry) and thought (a complete dependence upon God for victory) from the period 200 BC to 100 AD
For example: the opening of the Benedictus:
- Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel
- because He has visited
- and accomplished the redemption of His people
- and raised up for us a horn of salvation in the house of David His servant.
Is a mosaic of earlier poetry of Israel:
- Psalms 41:14 (13), Psalm 72:18, Psalm 106:48 (the endings of the three books of the psalter): “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel”
- Psalm 111:9: “He sent redemption to His people.”
- Judges 3:9: “And the Lord raised up a savior for Israel.”
- Psalm 132:16-17: “I shall clothe her priests with salvation… I shall make a horn to sprout for David.”