Externals of the Catholic Church – The Agnus Dei

In every form of religion, even in the grossest paganism, it has been customary to consider certain objects as holy, and to use them as means of supposed protection from evil. Among the ancient Romans such objects were employed for children, to guard them from all malign influences. These charms were of various kinds – images of the gods, herbs, acrostics formed of letters arranged in mystic fashion, and many others.

Now, to put one’s trust in things of this sort, to imagine that inanimate objects such as these could protect against disease or other evil, was undoubtedly nothing but gross superstition. How is it, then, that we Catholics are permitted by our Church to have amulets of many kinds, such as crosses, scapulars, medals and the Agnus Dei? Is this superstition? No; because the Catholic, unlike the pagan, does not trust in them on account of any inherent virtue which he imagines them to have, or any supposed magical power. He puts his trust only in the living God, Who, through the prayers of His Church, blesses these material things and bids her children to keep and use them as memorials of Him, as symbols of His merciful providence. Through the Church’s benediction these objects become vehicles of grace; they bring the divine protection upon such of the faithful as use them with earnest faith, ardent charity and firm confidence in God.

What is the Agnus Dei?

The sacramental of our Church which is called an Agnus Dei, a “Lamb of God,” is a small flat piece of wax impressed with the figure of a lamb.

These are blessed at stated seasons by the Pope, and never by any other person. They are sometimes round, sometimes oval or oblong, and of varying diameters. The lamb generally bears a cross or a banner, and often the figure of some saint or the name and coat-of-arms of the Pope are stamped on the other side. The Agnus Dei is usually enclosed in a small leather cover, round or heart-shaped, so that it may be preserved, and is intended to be worn suspended from the neck.

History of the Agnus Dei

The origin of this sacramental is a matter of great obscurity. When the people of Italy and other countries had been converted from idolatry, they retained some of their belief in charms and amulets; and it is probable that the Agnus Dei was devised as a substitute for these relics of paganism. Instead of attempting to repress totally a practice which was misguided indeed, but which showed an instinctive reliance on higher powers, the Church in many instances took the religious customs with which the people were familiar, and made these customs Christian. She eliminated all that savored of idolatry, and substituted for the superstitious charms of paganism the emblem of our Saviour, the Lamb of God.

They were first used in Rome, and it is possible that they go back as far as the final overthrow of pagan worship in that city, about the fifth century. Indeed, there is some evidence that they were in use even a little earlier; for in the tomb of Maria Augusta, wife of the Emperor Honorius, who died in the fourth century, was found an object made of wax and much like our Agnus Deis of the present time. And we know, moreover, that it was customary in those days for the people to obtain fragments of the paschal candle after it had been extinguished on Ascension Day, and to keep them as a safeguard against tempest and pestilence. From this pious custom the use of waxen Agnus Deis probably arose. They began to come into common use at the beginning of the ninth century, and from that time we find frequent mention of them. They were often sent by Popes as presents to sovereigns or distinguished personages. The use of them spread widely, and up to the time of the Reformation they were everywhere regarded as an important sacramental of the Church. In the penal laws against Catholics in England, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, they were specified as a “popish trumpery,” and the possession of them or the importation of them into the country was a felony.

Blessed by the Pope

Centuries ago, at Rome, the Agnus Deis were made by the archdeacon of Saint Peter’s of clean wax mingled with chrism, on the morning of Holy Saturday; and on the following Saturday they were distributed to the people. After a time it became customary for the Pope himself to attend to this, and at the present day the blessing is always imparted by him. What is called the “great consecration” of Agnus Deis takes place only in the first year of each Pontiff’s reign and every seventh year thereafter. The pieces of wax are now prepared beforehand by certain monks, without the use of chrism. On the Wednesday of Easter week these are brought to the Holy Father, who dips them into water mingled with chrism and balsam, with certain appropriate prayers. On the following Saturday the distribution takes place with great solemnity, when the Pope, after the “Agnus Dei” of the Mass, puts a packet of them into the inverted mitre of each cardinal and bishop present, and the remaining ones are sent to prelates and religious communities in all parts of the world.

A Symbol of Our Lord

The meaning of the Agnus Dei is best understood from the prayers used in the solemn blessing by the Holy Father, The wax, white and pure, typifies the virgin flesh of Christ. The lamb suggests the idea of a victim offered in sacrifice. The banner signifies the victory of our Lord over sin and death. As the blood of the paschal lamb protected the Israelites from the destroying angel, so shall this emblem of the Lamb of God protect him who wears it from many kinds of evil. The mercy of God is implored for the faithful who piously use and reverence the Agnus Dei; and He is besought to give His blessing to it, so that the sight or touch of the lamb impressed on it may guard us against the spirits of evil, against sickness and pestilence, against tempest, fire and flood; that it may strengthen us against temptations; that those who use it may be preserved from a sudden and unprovided death. Also in the prayers it is especially recommended to women who are expecting motherhood.

The Agnus Dei, then, represents our Blessed Lord; and he who would derive full benefit from its use must imitate Him in His lamblike virtues – innocence, meekness, indifference to the world. The angelic virtue of innocence – spotless purity of soul and body – is symbolized both by the wax and the lamb. He who wears it should be sinless. The lamb is meek, and the Lamb of God has told us to learn of Him, because He is meek and humble of heart. The lamb is “dumb before the shearer,” teaching us contempt for the world, silence under its persecutions, and indifference to its judgments and its vanities.

How it is Worn

There is no obligation to use the Agnus Dei. There is no special manner in which it must be worn, such as we have for the scapular. The Agnus Dei may be attached to the latter, or otherwise suspended from the neck, or it may be carried in any other way about the person. Though it is an important sacramental, there are no indulgences attached to its use. Its efficacy comes from the fact that it is a symbol of our Lord, blessed by His Vicar upon earth. And we would do well to remember that it does not derive its value from the beauty of its outside covering. Whether this be plain or elaborate is of no importance whatever. Nor should any attempt be made to “Have it blessed.” All Agnus Deis are blessed; they would not be Agnus Deis if they had not received the benediction of the Holy Father.

The solemnity with which this beautiful sacramental is blessed and distributed by the Sovereign Pontiff, the graces which are besought in the prayers by which it is consecrated, the benefits derived from its pious use, and the symbolical meaning which it possesses – all these show us that in the Agnus Dei we have a very efficacious means of grace and a powerful protection against the evils that threaten our bodies and souls.