ECCE AGNUS DEI - BEHOLD THE LAMB OF GOD
Very familiar to us is the Agnus Dei/Lamb of God prayer which is said just before the Communion at Mass—so familiar to us, in fact, that its meaning might well pass us by unappreciated.
First of all, the Agnus Dei is a hymn of love to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. We may be better able to appreciate this when the Agnus Dei is sung by a choir. The chant settings, for example, in the Liber Usualis are so beautiful. Whenever we are praying the Agnus Dei at Mass we ought to be aware that this is our heartfelt expression of love, gratitude and faithfulness to Jesus our Eucharistic Lord. The Agnus Dei itself can serve as an Act of Faith in Christ’s Real Presence. The image of the Lamb of victory, usually with a halo and bearing a cross or the triangular small flag of the knight’s pennon (as we have on our free-standing altar), symbolizes the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lord as Victim. How natural to fall to one’s knees in adoration as the Agnus Dei is prayed at Mass.
Second, the Agnus Dei is bringing the whole Mystery of our Redemption before us in a moment of spiritual intensity. These words are from Dr. Pius Parsch’s The Liturgy of the Mass (A. D. 1938):
How solemn and profound the reflections which the Agnus Dei stirs within us! Here on the altar before us lies the Sacred Host, broken and mingled for the Holy Banquet. ‘This is My Body, which is given for you.’ Here is the Body and Blood of Our Lord, which He gave on the Cross in sacrifice for the salvation of mankind. On this Cross, the Divine Lamb of sacrifice took away the sins of the world. The same Divine Lamb lies upon our altar once more in sacrifice, now a mystical Victim, prepared for our reception in Holy Communion. This present sacrifice is the re-enactment of Christ’s death upon the Cross, and in the sacrificial meal we receive the fruit of this sacrifice. This fruit is the ‘taking away of sin’ and the ‘granting of peace’ to the soul. Let us reflect further that the Agnus Dei is placed here in the midst of these prayers for peace. To obtain the gift of peace for us, it was necessary for the Lamb of God to take issue in battle with the forces of evil, and give His life in sacrifice.
Third, and finally, this connection between the Agnus Dei and its location among the prayer for peace in the Mass (“mercifully grant peace in our days…”, “the Peace of the Lord be always with you.”), draws us to associate Christ’s perfect peace with the Agnus Dei prayer. Originally, the three petitions of the Agnus Dei were the same: miserere nobis….have mercy on us. Then, during a period of great tribulation for the Church at the beginning of the 13th Century, the response to the third invocation, was changed to “dona nobis pacem….grant us peace.”
It was John the Baptist who first called Christ the “Lamb of God” when he pointed Him out to his disciples: “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold Him who taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
May we be well-attuned to the Mystery signified by the Agnus Dei Mass prayer and make good use of it at every Mass we attend, this our hymn of love to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.