Catholic CornucopiadCheney

XVIII. The Agnus Dei

The Sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church

There is in every rational creature an intuition of the supernatural. Different individuals or peoples manifest it in different ways, but all manifest it in some way. The polished Greek embodied it in an exquisite sculpture; the Egyptian, in a labyrinthian temple; the Druid discovered it in the forest; the Central African places it in a stick or a stone; and the American Indian who wants to shoot the rapids of the St. Lawrence in his frail bark canoe propitiates the manitou of the waters with a few leaves of the tobacco so dear to him. No man can entirely emancipate himself from the influence of this universal belief. The infidel and the scoffer at both pagan and Christian beliefs are not with out their superstitions, their lucky and unlucky days, their propitious and unpropitious omens. Deny it as they may, they cannot even conceal the fact. The Christian is the only logical person among them; for he believes in a personal God, creating, preserving, and ruling the universe in its entirety and in all its minute details with a fatherly providence for the benefit of His rational creatures—alive to the wants of the least among them, and ever ready to turn a willing ear to their every petition.

Among the consequences of this intuition of the supernatural, in the different ages of the world, is the desire to propitiate the unseen power, whether good or evil, by the use of amulets or charms worn suspended from the neck or carried about the person, as a means of warding off danger, disease, and all influence of the evil principle, and invoking the aid of the good principle. Among pagans these amulets were fashioned into different forms. Sometimes they were little images of the pagan deities; sometimes they consisted of certain drugs or herbs; again they were certain letters of the alphabet arranged in an abracadabra; and not infrequently they were of a very objectionable character. The Romans, as every classic scholar is aware, hung about the neck of infants amulets of this kind with certain mythological significations, showing to which of the pagan deities the child was consecrated. On attaining the age of fifteen years he assumed the toga virilis, or garb of manhood, and consecrated his amulet to the lares, or household gods of the family. In no part of the world does this superstition appear to have had so deep a hold as among the Romans, and great difficulty was experienced by the early preachers of the gospel in withdrawing them from the use of these relics of paganism. It was not until the lapse of centuries that it was entirely eradicated, especially in the rural districts.

Christians, too, have their amulets—the crucifix, the scapular, blessed medals, the Agnus Dei, etc.—and these are with greater propriety called amulets, for they fulfil the meaning of the term, which, being derived from the Latin word amolior, 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 in them for protection against disease and witchcraft, they only proved the stupid folly into which human nature left to itself is sure to run. . . . But the Christian 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.”1

The Agnus Dei is, then, no superstitious object, as some would fain have us believe, but one of those sacramentals by which the blessing of God is invoked upon those who wear it with proper dispositions, and one of those objects which the Church has successfully employed to abolish a real superstition. It is a remarkable fact that those claiming the name of Christians, who discard the pious articles blessed by the Catholic Church, not infrequently themselves fall into real, culpable, and foolish superstitions. A striking instance of this is furnished by Queen Elizabeth of England. In the thirteenth year of her reign it was enacted by Parliament that “if any person shall bring into the realm of England any token or tokens, thing or things, called or named by the name of Agnus Dei (which said Agnus Dei is used to be specially hallowed and consecrated, as it is termed, by the Bishop of Rome in his own person), and shall deliver the same to any subject, he shall incur the penalty of Præmunire.”2 After this it was hardly to be expected that the very sovereign who enacted such severe laws against “vain and superstitious things” should herself become guilty of gross superstition. But Parson says: “One of her privy councillors presented her with a piece of gold of the bigness of an angel,3 dimly marked with some small characters, which he said an old woman in Wales bequeathed to her on her death-bed, telling her that the said old woman, by virtue of the same, lived to the age of one hundred and odd years, and could not die as long as she wore it upon her body; but being withered, and wanting nature to nourish her body, it was taken off, and she died. The queen, upon the confidence she had thereof, took the said gold, and wore it on her ruff.”4

What, it may be asked, is the Agnus Dei, and why called by that name? It is scarcely necessary to say that Agnus Dei are Latin words signifying “Lamb of God.” The Agnus Dei has a twofold signification, the first being that it represents the Lamb of God. All the ceremonies of the blessing of it point to this primary signification, as will appear later on. The reader of both the Old and the New Testament need not be told that the lamb was, in the ceremonial law and in the writings of the prophets, the symbol of Christ. Nor need he be referred to the numerous passages in which the long-expected Messias is compared in His meekness to the lamb. In the New Testament He is frequently referred to in the same manner, and is called by John the Baptist “the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world.”5 But why are these blessed objects named the lamb, and not rather the lion, for Christ is called the “Lion of the tribe of Juda”6' And since they are to be a defence against our spiritual enemies, is it not strength, as typified by the lion, rather than gentleness, as symbolized by the lamb, that we should be endowed with? The reason for this name is found in the second signification of the Agnus Dei—its reference to the newly baptized. These, in the words of St. Paul, put on Jesus Christ, are incorporated into His mystical body, and become new lambs of His flock, and as such are bound to imitate His virtues. Now, it is a remarkable fact that, though Our Saviour illustrated every virtue in an infinitely perfect degree during His sojourn upon earth, there are but two which He bids us learn especially from Him. “Learn from Me that I am meek and humble of heart”—the characteristics of the lamb and not of the lion. In His triumph over the powers of darkness He is indeed the Lion of the tribe of Juda; but among His children, as their model, He is the meek Lamb; and, as lambs, they are to walk even as He walked. Hence the name Agnus Dei. The purity of their lives is typified by the immaculate whiteness of the wax; the meekness of their conduct by the figure of the lamb impressed upon it. Mystical writers deduce many other symbolical meanings from the part which the lamb played in the religious ceremonies of the Old Law; but they shall be passed over as not being intimately connected with our subject.

Great variety of opinion exists with regard to the origin of the Agnus Dei and the date of its introduction. Writers of the time of Charlemagne—that is, near the close of the eighth century— inform us that on the morning of Holy Saturday the archdeacon was accustomed to pour melted wax into a vessel prepared for the purpose and mix it with oil. From this admixture he formed figures in the shape of lambs, which, after being blessed, were kept in a suitable place to await the concluding ceremony, which took place on Low Sunday. On that day the lambs, which must have been quite small, were given to the people to be used in fumigating their houses, or to be placed in the fields and vineyards as a protection against the machinations of the spirit of evil, and against danger from lightning and thunder. John Albert Widmanstadius, Jurisconsult and Chancellor of Eastern Austria under Frederic I., writes that when baptism was solemnly administered—which ceremony was performed by the bishop only—if any received this sacrament at Rome, it was the custom to give them, as a holy amulet, a wax seal stamped with the figure of a lamb bearing a banner, which had been immersed in water mingled with consecrated chrism, as a symbol of baptism. Although authors are not wanting who call this statement in question, it is accepted and defended by no less a scholar than Pope Benedict XIV., in his work on the canonization of saints. He proves, further, that the use of wax is of very great antiquity, and furnishes as an evidence the fact that in the year 1544 the tomb of Maria Augusta, wife of the Emperor Honorius, who died before the middle of the fourth century, was opened, and in it was found, besides a great variety of gems, etc., a wax Agnus Dei. That the latter was in use among Christians at that early day, the learned Pontiff asserts, is in harmony with the opinion of Cardinal Augustine Valerius, who refers the origin of blessing wax Agnus Deis to the beginning of the fifth century. Molanus quotes, without, however, approving, the opinion of those who are in favor of a still more remote antiquity, placing the origin of the Agnus Dei as early as the time of the Emperor Constantine, and, therefore, near the beginning of the fourth century. The discovery of the Agnus Dei in the tomb of the pious Empress Maria Augusta is the strongest evidence of the antiquity of its introduction among Christians. The annotator of Molanus, quoting from the Cosmographie Universelle, gives the following account of it: “Among other things was a bulla—one of those which at present are called Agnus Deis—around whose circumference was the inscription, ‘Maria Florentissima.’” Two difficulties here present themselves, which have not escaped the attention of those who deny to the Agnus Dei so great an antiquity: namely, whether wax could be preserved for a thousand years; and whether this object was identical with the Agnus Dei now in use. Both sides of the question are, naturally, warmly disputed; and I shall not attempt to decide what others have found it impossible to settle.

Mabillon, while disputing the conclusions of those who argue from Prudentius that the custom of blessing the Paschal Candle existed in the fourth century, yet proves from Eunodius, a bishop who flourished before the year 520, that it certainly did exist at the beginning of the sixth century. The “Catholic Dictionary” places the beginning of the custom as early at least as the time of Pope Zosimus, who ascended the throne of Peter in the year 417. When the Paschal Candle was finally extinguished on Ascension Day, the people were accustomed, as we have seen, to procure small portions of what was left of it, and carry them home as a protection against tempests. All authors are agreed that it was from this custom of the people that the Agnus Dei derived its origin. But Molanus still maintains that the custom of blessing the Agnus Dei cannot be proved to have existed prior to the eighth or ninth century. In a number of dioceses which he names, as well as in certain others, a custom existed, especially among the inhabitants of the rural districts, of taking portions of the candles blessed on the feast of the Purification of the Mother of God, forming them into crosses, and placing them in their homes, or at the tops of their chimneys (externæ caminorum oræ), as it were in the most conspicuous place of their houses. But, evidently, this could not have been prior to the time at which the blessing of candles on the feast of the Purification was introduced into the Church, a point which will be discussed in the next essay. Baronius, no mean authority, would give the Agnus Dei a still greater antiquity than any of the writers already quoted.

In such a diversity of opinion among the learned who have made this question a matter of careful study, it is impossible to arrive at any definite conclusion, except that the Agnus Dei is of very great antiquity; but of how great no one will ever be able to determine with any degree of certainty. Perhaps the conclusion arrived at by Maurel (p. 267) is as near the truth as we can hope at this distant day to come—that “it is spoken of in the Roman Ordo, which in the opinion of the learned is anterior to the eighth century.” But setting these questions aside, it will be more instructive for us to turn to the manner in which the Agnus Dei is blessed and comes to us.

At the present day, and for some time past, the Agnus Dei is blessed only by the Pope. The ceremony takes place, according to Molanus, during Easter time, in the first year of the reign of the Sovereign Pontiff, and once every seven years thereafter. The “Catholic Dictionary” says the blessing is performed on the Thursday of Easter week, while Barry will have it on Low Sunday. This last opinion is evidently erroneous, as will be seen from the ceremony of the distribution, which takes place on the Saturday before Low Sunday. The ceremony of the blessing is as follows: The Pope first blesses water, after which he pours balsam and oil into it, in the form of a cross. He then recites a number of prayers and blessings over the masses of wax fashioned into the form of lambs. This done, the wax images are carried on silver trays with great solemnity by the attendants to the Holy Father, who immerses them in the blessed water. The prelates who are in attendance on the occasion lift them out of the water, and, having dried them, put them in a place prepared for their reception, where they remain till the following Saturday. It may be remarked in passing that at first water only was used in the blessing of the Agnus Dei, but that afterward oil and balsam were added. It may also be noted that although the masses of wax are formed into lambs, these are not all of the same size; and, further, that certain inscriptions and the images of saints, as well as the figure of a lamb, are sometimes stamped on them.

On the Saturday of Easter week during the Mass of the Holy Father a subdeacon carries the Agnus Deis to the altar on a large silver tray, before the Pope’s Communion, singing at the same time: “Holy Father, these are the young lambs which have announced to you Alleluia. Behold, they have just come from the fountains: They are filled with light, Alleluia”—words which evidently apply rather to the newly baptized than to the wax images. The Pope then distributes the Agnus Deis, with appropriate ceremony, during the singing of the Agnus Dei of the Mass—first to the cardinals, who on receiving them kiss his hand; next to the bishops, wearing their mitres, who kiss his right knee; and, finally, to the prothonotaries, who prostrate themselves and kiss the cross on his sandal. From the hands of these several persons the Agnus Deis find their way by subdivision and distribution to all parts of the world, where, with the care of pious persons, religious women for the most part, they are divided into small portions and encased in appropriate covers—generally in the form of a heart—for the use of the faithful.

After having learned something of the manner in which the Agnus Dei is blessed and reaches us, a very practical question is, What spiritual benefit may we expect to derive from the devout use of this holy amulet? But first it may be remarked, as to the manner of wearing it, that it differs from the scapular; for, while the latter must be worn so that one part hangs upon the breast and the other on the back, with one string passing over each shoulder, the latter may be worn attached to the scapular, or it may be carried in any other way about the person. The manner of wearing it is not prescribed as a condition for securing the benefits attached to it. This premised, it may be said that the benefits which the devout wearer of the Agnus Dei may expect to reap from it are well expressed in the prayers recited in the blessing which it receives at the hands of the Holy Father.

By these several benedictions the Church, the divinely appointed dispenser of the mysteries of God, causes inanimate objects to become vehicles for conveying graces and the divine protection to such of the faithful as use them with lively faith, ardent charity, and firm confidence in God ; and not only so, but the divine mercy sometimes goes, if we may be allowed the expression, to extraordinary lengths, and by means of them bestows graces upon some persons who, to all human discernment, are manifestly unworthy of them, to convince us that the Spirit breathes where He will, and to encourage sinners to repentance. Few priests but have witnessed a greater or less number of these extraordinary manifestations of the divine mercy. And if this be true, as it certainly is, of a scapular or medal blessed by the simplest priest,—though he has received in his ordination the power that whatsoever he blesses shall be blessed, and whatsoever he sanctifies shall be sanctified,—much more should it be true of the Agnus Dei, which is blessed by him who is head of the Church, who sits on the throne of the Prince of the apostles, and has received from Jesus Christ, as His vicar upon earth, the plenitude of power for binding and loosing, for enacting laws and granting privileges.

In the Agnus Dei, as an object blessed by the Church, two things are to be considered: first, the power conferred on it as a sacramental, of being an instrument of grace; and secondly, the power it possesses of awakening in the persons who use it with the proper dispositions sentiments of faith, devotion, and confidence, so efficacious in calling down the blessings of heaven.

It is unnecessary to pause to dwell upon the numerous well authenticated miracles that have been wrought by means of the Agnus Dei; for the devout Catholic is always prepared to expect and believe in such manifestations of the divine mercy, when they are for the honor and glory of God and the good of His creatures. It may be remarked, however, that there is no indulgence attached to the wearing of the Agnus Dei; and further, that the prayer to be said by those who wear it, found in some prayer-books, is not of obligation. The following is a brief and clear enumeration of the benefits to be derived from the use of this sacramental: “The Supreme Pontiff implores of God to bless, sanctify, and consecrate them in such a way that the faithful who, with a sincere and lively faith, piously use them may obtain the following graces: (1) That the sight or touch of the lamb impressed on these figures, exciting the hearts of the faithful to contemplate the mysteries of our redemption, may induce them to thank and bless and adore the divine goodness, and thus obtain for them pardon of their faults. (2) That the sign of the cross represented on these figures may remove evil spirits, hail, thunder-storms, and tempests. (3) That, through the efficacy of the divine blessing, they may escape the wiles and temptations of the dragon. (4) That women bearing children may be preserved from all harm, and favored with a happy delivery. (5) That pestilence, falling-sickness, water, or fire may have no power over them. (6) That both in prosperity and adversity these pious Christians may be fortified with the divine protection; and that through the mysteries of the life and passion of Our Lord they may be preserved from a sudden and unprovided death, from every other danger, and from every evil. . . . When we are deprived of these blessings, we are to attribute the privation to our own want of faith and piety, or to some other latent cause, which prevents Our Saviour from enriching us with such extraordinary benefits.”7

Barry (pp. 140-142) has the following very appropriate remarks on the pious sentiments with which the Agnus Dei should be worn: “The Agnus Dei represents Our Lord, and he who would wear it devoutly must imitate Him in His lamblike virtues—meekness, innocence, and indifference to the world. . . . The meek Christian, and only he, has caught the devotion of the Agnus Dei. . . . Innocence—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 around 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 the blood of the paschal lamb on the doors of the Hebrews was 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 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, the subdeacon who brings the Agnus Deis to the Pope for distribution calls them, as we have seen, young lambs just come from the fountains.

There are no decrees of the Roman Congregations with regard to the Agnus Dei; but there is one of Pope Gregory XIII. which prohibits all persons whatever, whether lay or cleric, secular or regular, under pain of excommunication, to be incurred by the very act, from painting, gilding, or in any way coloring the Agnus Dei; because, as the Pontiff remarks, it represents the pure and immaculate Lamb, who shed His most precious blood for our redemption. Barry says (p. 143) that the same Sovereign Pontiff also forbade the exposing of the Agnus Dei for sale; but, though this sale is well known to be forbidden, Molanus does not mention it in his extract from the decree of the Pope. The prohibition to paint or otherwise color the Agnus Dei refers only to the wax of which it is composed, and not to the covering in which it is encased, which may be, and generally is, very properly ornamented with various pious devices. But the notion of some persons is deserving of censure, to esteem the pretty covering more than the pious object itself. Alas for the vanity of some Christians! Others are found to value an Agnus Dei because they have received it from some particular priest or prelate. While this need not be condemned, being no more than a natural feeling, harmless in itself, it must not be forgotten that the Agnus Dei derives all its efficacy from the blessing imparted to it by the Father of the faithful, and from no one else. Other persons not well informed will inquire, on receiving an Agnus Dei, whether it is blessed or not. Such persons must be told that all Agnus Deis are blessed, and would not be Agnus Deis at all if it were not for the blessing they have received at the hands of the Sovereign Pontiff. There are two other classes of persons for whom a word may not be out of place. They are, first, those who make light of Agnus Deis, scapulars, medals, etc., and make fun of those who wear them. No true child of the Church will ever be guilty of this fault of making light of anything which the Church approves or blesses for the pious use of the faithful. We are not bound to make use of these objects, but we are strictly forbidden to jest about them. It may be, and frequently is, true that some people would seem to carry the use of these things to an extreme by wearing all the medals and other pious objects they can find, loading themselves down, it might almost be said, with them. But what matter? It can do them no harm; and their wearing of them can burden no one else. Let them alone; it is their business. The other class is composed of those who do not think themselves good enough to carry such pious objects about them. While they are mistaken, they have this at least in their favor: they are conscious of the fact that these objects are to be treated with a degree of reverence; and they do treat them so, but in an erroneous manner. Here is a point which many persons do not, and it may, in some cases at least, be said will not, understand—these things are not a reward of virtue, but a means of acquiring it.

Much more might be said of the Agnus Dei—of the esteem in which it was and is held by popes, prelates, priests, civil rulers of the highest position, and eminent lay Catholics; but it is not necessary to enlarge further on this subject. The solemnity with which this sacramental is blessed and distributed, the graces that are besought of God in the consecration it receives, the benefits derived from its pious use, the true Lamb which it represents, and the innocence of baptism which it typifies, with other considerations which will readily present themselves to the pious Catholic, will hardly fail to impress him with a correct idea of his duty in regard to the Agnus Dei. Let everyone take it and wear it devoutly, and God Himself will show what great benefits it bestows.8

1 Barry, pp. 136, 137.
2 This was a very severe punishment, entailing on the offender, in the words of Lord Coke, that he “shall be out of the king’s protection, and his lands and tenements, goods and chattels, forfeited to the king; and that his body shall remain in prison at the king’s pleasure.”
3 An ancient gold coin of England, worth about ten shillings, and so named from the figure of an angel stamped upon it.
4 “Discussions,” pp. 217, 218.
5 St. John, i. 29.
6 Apocalypse, v. 5.
7 Maurel, pp. 268, 269.
8 The authorities referred to In the preparation of this essay are Joannes Molani, in “Cursns Completus,” vol. xx vii. coll. 425, , et seq.; Barry; Maurel; the “Catholic Dictionary;” the London Tablet, April 17 and June 26. 1886; and the other authorities named.