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Musical Musings: Prayers and Liturgical Texts

The Canticles of Luke

by Gary Penkala

"The Singing Gospel"

Luke - evangelist, Gentile, doctor, painter, poet, artist, saint. On October 18 the Church commemorates one of her greatest historians and theologians. Luke's Gospel has been called the "lovliest book in the world," both for its orderly, historical precision and its poetic eloquence and sublimity of thought. Written around AD 60, this account stresses the humanity of Christ, while in no way dismissing his divinity.

Luke was a Greek and a companion of Saint Paul on his journeys. While Matthew wrote for the Jews and Mark wrote with the Romans in mind, Luke collected his narratives with an eye toward the Greeks. Distinctly Jewish sections found in the other Gospels are lacking in Luke. His method of presentation, his choice of examples, and his language point to a Gospel message that reaches beyond the Jews to all mankind, and becomes particularly appealing to the Greek predilection for culture, philosophy, wisdom, beauty and education.

The Rev. Canon Leon Morris, in his introduction to the Tyndale Commentary on Luke, writes, "Luke's is a singing Gospel. He records some of the great hymns of the Christian faith; the Magnificat, the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis." It is just these three canticles that the Church over the centuries has employed as the climax of the three major Hours: Morning Prayer (Benedictus), Evening Prayer (Magnificat) and Night Prayer (Nunc Dimittis).

The Magnificat, or Canticle of Mary, is found in Luke 1:46-55. It is Mary's great hymn of praise, perhaps composed on her journey to the hill country of Judah to visit her cousin Elisabeth, who was to give birth to John. The wording and imagery of Mary's song are similar to those found in Hannah's song of praise at the birth of Samuel (I Samuel 2:1-10), "My heart hath rejoiced in the Lord...because I have joyed in thy salvation."

William Barclay considers the text to be quite revolutionary; morally ("He scatters the proud in the plans of their hearts."), socially ("He casts down the mighty...he exalts the lowly.") and economically ("He has filled the hungry...the rich he has sent away empty."). Whether seen as a song in praise of God's mercy or a revolutionary tract, the Magnificat text has inspired numerous composers. Among them are Pergolesi, Vivaldi, Purcell, Buxtehude, Monteverdi, J.S. Bach, J.C. Bach, Mozart and contemporary composers including Peloquin, Gelineau, and Rutter (whose choral and orchestral version is absolutely charming).

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Part II: Benedictus and Nunc Dimittis

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