Catholic CornucopiadCheney

XI. The Agnus Dei

The Sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church

This holy amulet is a wax-cake, bearing on it the image of a lamb surmounted by a cross. It is blessed by the Pope on the first Low Sunday (First Sunday after Easter) which follows his elevation to the Papacy, and not again until that same day every seventh year. This rite may have originated in the ancient custom of distributing to the faithful on Low Sunday the remains of the Paschal candle blessed on Holy Saturday. Our pious ancestors received these precious relics with great veneration, in consideration of Him whom they represented; they used to burn them in their houses, fields, and vineyards, as preservatives against storms, tempests and the wiles of the devil. In some dioceses the fragments of the candles blessed on the festival of the Purification were put to the same holy use.

The blessing of the Agnus Dei is as ancient, at least, as the ninth century: the great Alcuin, deacon of the church of York in England, and preceptor of Charlemagne of France, and Amalarius, deacon of Metz, both writers of the ninth century, mention it. They tell us that on Holy Saturday the archdeacon used to pour wax into a clean vessel, mix it with oil, and fashion it into the shape of a lamb. On the Octave of Easter these waxen images were distributed, after Communion, to the people, in order that they might burn them in their houses, and put them in their fields and vineyards. Some authors would ascribe an earlier origin to the Agnus Dei; among them is Cardinal Lambertini, who lived in the last century, and became Pope under the title of Benedict XIV.

We have called the Agnus Dei an amulet—perhaps our expression may be misunderstood, for the word is frequently taken in a bad sense. Amulet is derived from the Latin amolior, which means I remove. According to this etymology, an amulet is something worn to remove or ward off danger, and when the thing so worn has not, of its own nature, power to produce this effect to use it, confiding in it alone, would be the sin of superstition. Thus, when the old Pagans hung around their necks certain stones, metals, or bits of parchment, with mysterious signs and figures inscribed on them, and trusted to them for protection against disease and witch craft, they only proved the stupid folly into which human nature left to itself is sure to run. Their amulets were sinful because there was no natural connection between them and the results expected from them; when these results did follow, they generally came from the devil, whose power over the corrupt heathen world, was greater than we suppose. The christian, too, has his amulets—the Crucifix, the Agnus Dei, the Scapular, Holy Medals, etc., but he does not, like the Pagan, put his trust in them, on account of any inherent virtue which he imagines them to have, nor does he look to the enemy of his soul for assistance. His hope is in the Living God, who, listening to the prayers of His beloved Spouse, the Catholic Church, blesses these material things, and bids His children keep them as memorials of Him, as tokens that His Divine Providence will ever shelter them beneath its protecting wing.

The blessings attached to the Agnus Dei are enumerated in the prayers said by the Sovereign Pontiff when consecrating the wax: “O God! Author of all Sanctity, Lord and Ruler! whose fatherly love and care we ever experience, deign to bless, sanctify, and consecrate, by the invocation of thy Holy Name, these waxen cakes, stamped with the image of the most Innocent Lamb, that, by seeing and touching them, the faithful may be invited to praise Thee; that they may escape the fury of whirlwinds and tempests, and dangers from hail and thunder; that the evil spirits may tremble and fly when they behold the standard of the Sacred Cross impressed on the wax.” He proceeds to pray that all who devoutly use the Agnus Dei may be freed from pestilence, ship-wreck, fire, from the dangers of child-birth and from a sudden death.

Now think you, Catholic reader, that the prayers of the Church, uttered by the heart and lips of her August Chief, the Vicar of our Lord on earth, are worth nothing? If we had faith, if we had but faith, we might see strange things come to pass in our souls and our bodies by a holy use of the Sacramentals!

Hesychius, an ecclesiastical writer of the seventh century, says: “Not of their own power do priests impart a blessing; but because they represent the person of Christ, they can, on account of Him who is in them, give the plenitude of benediction.” But who, among the Church’s priests, so immediately represents Jesus, the Great High Priest of our confession, as the Holy Father, successor of St. Peter, to whom, in preference to all the other Apostles, Christ entrusted the care of His flock? If ever “the plenitude of benediction” can be given on earth, surely it must come from him. Hence, he who piously uses the Agnus Dei, or any other Sacramental, associates his prayers and actions to those of the whole Church.

The Agnus Dei, as the name imports, represents Christ, the Lamb of God, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Frequently does Holy Scripture apply the beautiful word Lamb to our Lord: first, because of His great meekness, “and I was as a meek lamb that is carried to be a victim” (Jeremias, xi, 19;) secondly, because of His innocence, “knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things . . . . but with the precious Blood of Christ, as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled. (St. Peter, 1, i, 18, 19;) thirdly because of His voluntary obedience unto death, “He shall be dumb as a lamb before his shearer.” (Isaias, liii, 7.)

The Paschal Lamb of the Old Law prefigured the true Lamb of the Law of grace. The church calls Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament the Lamb of God. And truly He is a gentle Lamb in His own dear Sacrament of Love, having no will of his own, allowing Himself to be taken out of His tabernacle or put back, to be placed in the mouth of a saint or of a sinner, to be carried hither and thither as His priests may please.

The Agnus Dei, then, represents our Lord, and he who would wear it devoutly must imitate Him in His lamb-like virtues, meekness, innocence, and indifference to the world. Meekness is that Christian pliableness of character which makes us bend and suit ourselves to every class of persons, as far as duty will allow. It prevents us from standing on our imaginary dignity, it ride us of melancholy, it causes us to be patient with ourselves and others, it makes our piety amiable by shedding over it the heavenly sunlight of childlike gayety. The meek Christian, and only he, has caught the true spirit of the devotion of the Agnus Dei. If we have not meekness, let us beg St. Francis of Sales to get it for us. He used to call it one of those lowly virtues which grow close to the foot of the Cross, which are all the more fragrant for being watered with the Blood which trickled down from the Sacred Heart.

Innocence—purity, spotless purity of soul and body, is another virtue of the wearer of the Agnus Dei. Wax and the lamb have ever been the chosen emblems of the angelic virtue. When we touch or look at our holy amulet, let us remember that the breast on which it reposes must be sinless. And if the Angel of Satan is hovering round us, striving to inflict the death blow on our souls, let us press the Agnus Dei closer to our hearts, that it may be a sign to him that he has no power over us, as was the blood of the paschal lamb on the doors of the Hebrews a sign to the Angel of the Lord.

The third virtue which springs from a reverent use of the Agnus Dei is indifference to the world. The lamb is dumb before his shearer, teaching us silence when shorn of our fair name; it is shy of a stranger, that we may learn from it to be distrustful of the world and its vanities, that we may journey on, as strangers and pilgrims, till called to the marriage-feast of the Lamb in heaven.

The Agnus Dei serves to call to our minds the promises of baptism. It represents the whiteness of our souls after being washed in the saving waters of regeneration, In allusion to this symbolism, a sub-deacon brings to the Pope, after that part of the Mass called the Agnus Dei, the wax images just blessed, and chants three times, “Holy Father! these are the young lambs which have announced to you alleluia. Behold, they have just now come to the fountains: they are filled with light, alleluia.”

It would be a strange thing to see a sign on the door of a shop, and nothing inside to correspond to the sign. We wear over our hearts the Agnus Dei, as a sign that the Eucharistic Lamb frequently reposes inside those hearts. Frequent and Holy Communion is, then, a natural concomitant of devotion to the Agnus Dei. Surely the holy emblem he wears round his neck must often reproach him who keeps away from the feast of the Lamb.

The prayer to be said daily by those who wear the Agnus Dei is given in most prayer books, but perhaps some of our readers who may feel moved to adopt this holy devotion, may be at a loss to find it, and hence we insert it:

“Oh my Lord Jesus Christ! the true Lamb that takest away the sins of the world! by Thy mercy, which is infinite, pardon my iniquities, and by Thy Sacred Passion preserve me from all sin and evil. I carry about me this holy Agnus Dei in thy honor, as a preservative against my own weakness, and as an incentive to the practice of meekness, humility, and innocence which Thou hast taught. I offer myself up to Thee as an entire oblation and in memory of that sacrifice of love which Thou offeredst for me on the cross, and in satisfaction for my sins. Accept, O my God! the oblation which I make, and may it be agreeable to Thee in the odor of sweetness. Amen.”

Pope Gregory XIII. has positively prohibited the Agnus Dei to be painted or exposed for sale. The silk covering of the sacred wax may, however, have holy words and images impressed on it.