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Have You Ever Heard of the Ancient Agnus Dei Devotion?
By Angelo Stagnaro
There are many blessings and advantages to being Catholic, and sacramentals are a special part of that magnificent patrimony.
I carry them with me so that I might dispense them to those in need. After all, God helps us in all our troubles, so that we're able to help others, using the same help that we ourselves have received from Him. (2 Co 1:4)
Handing someone a Miraculous Medal or a saint card or perhaps a rosary can have a profound impact upon people including upon people you don't know.
I recall being on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage in northern Spain a few years ago and my friends and I ducked into a restaurant for dinner.
The waitress took our order and returned shortly afterwards and spilled her entire tray all over me. It was shocking, but I couldn't stop laughing. It was hilarious. I would have laughed had any of my friends had been so treated, so I was happy to join in my friend's laughter.
Unfortunately, the young lady was not in as good a mood as I was. She was perfectly mortified, even to the point of tears.
I was moved and felt sorry for her. I took out my rosary from my pocket and handed it to her to show her I wasn't even slightly angry or even put out.
She looked at rosary in her hands, and then at me, and understood that I meant it as a peace offering. She thanked me and I helped her clean up the mess.
Most readers would be surprised to find out that woman later become Prime Minister of Spain.
(Just joking. I just hope she's no longer a waitress. From what I saw, she shouldn’t handle anything hot or sharp.)
The Agnus Dei is an ancient sacramental―a sacred object, or action, which the believer uses for the purpose of obtaining spiritual favors through the Church’s intercession. It might possibly be the Church's oldest sacramental. There are historical accounts as to their existence even as far back as the sixth century. However, most people these days are completely unaware of them. In fact, some of the brightest theological minds in the Church have never even seen an Agnus Dei.
The Agnus Dei, whose name means "Lamb of God," is a blessed wax disc impressed with the figure of the Lamb of God. But just as the St. Benedict Medal is not merely blessed but also exorcised, so too is the Agnus Dei consecrated rather than merely blessed by a reigning pope.
Traditionally Agnus Deis are consecrated only during the first year of a pope's pontificate, and then again every seven years.
They are either round or oval. The lamb depicted upon them usually bears a cross or a flag. It's not uncommon that images of saints or the name and arms of the consecrating pope are embossed on the reverse. This sacramental may be worn suspended around the neck or preserved as an object of devotion.
Centuries ago, popes would consecrate these sacramentals on Holy Saturday. They were made of the reworked wax from the previous year's Paschal candles, to which chrism and balsam was added. Later, the Agnus Deis were consecrated on the Wednesday of Easter week and distributed on the Saturday of the same week.
In recent centuries, the task of preparing them was given to monks and nuns who would similarly collect the previous year's Paschal candles. Cardinals visiting the pope would be given a disk to mark their visit. The cardinals would then in turn place them in their miter—probably because they didn't have pockets back then. The Cardinals would then distribute the Agnus Deis to those in need of them.
The sacramental is rich in symbolism, mostly from the Old Testament. As in the Paschal candle, the wax symbolizes the virgin flesh of Christ. This is because medieval people believed that the bee was the only animal that reproduced without the benefit of sexual congress—thus, the fruit of their bodies, the wax, was produced "virginally."
The lamb bearing a cross embossed on the disk is to remind the Christian of the Mosaic sacrifice in which a lamb was offered to God as an expiation of sins. The lamb's shed blood would then protect Jewish households from the destroying angel (Exodus 12:1-28). Thus, the Agnus Dei emulates and reflects this blessing protecting the bearer from all malign influences. The prayers used in preparing the wax medallions make special mention of protection against storms, pestilence, fire, floods, and the dangers to which women are exposed during pregnancy and childbirth. In fact, several miracles have been attributed to these sacramentals including extinguished fires and stayed floods. In fact, Pope St. Pius V, fearing that the rising Tiber would flood Rome, threw an Agnus Dei into the river which immediately subsided.
In their writings, Popes Urban V, Paul II, Julius III, Sixtus V and Benedict XIV specifically mention some of the special virtues attributed to the Agnus Dei:
foster piety, banish tepidity, deliver from temptation, preserve from vice, preserve from eternal ruin and dispose to virtue.
cancel venial sins and purify from the stain left by grievous sin after it has been remitted in the Sacrament of Penance.
protection against sudden and spiritually unprovided death. (i.e., securing a happy death)
banish evil spirits.
dispel fears occasioned by evil spirits.
protection in combat, and the power to ensure victory.
protection against poison
protection against the snares of the wicked.
protection against false accusations.
protection against illness and an efficacious remedy against illnesses.
protection against the ravages of pestilence, epidemics and infectious diseases.
protection against bouts of epilepsy.
protection for mothers and babies against peril and provide for a safe and easy delivery.
protection against shipwrecks.
protection against lightning and floods.
protection against hailstorms, tempests, tornados, lightning and hurricanes which are circumvented or dispelled.
that at the sight or touch of the Lamb impressed on these waxen discs, the faithful should be inspired to dwell on the Mysteries of our Redemption recalled by this symbol, be moved to praise, venerate, and extol God’s goodness to us, hoping to obtain pardon for their sins, and to be cleansed from all stain of sin.
protection against poison and its effects.
through Divine Intervention, protection against the snares, wiles and frauds of Satan which should not prevail.
Like all sacramentals, this object serves to remind us of God and His place in our lives. It reminds us to serve Him and love our neighbor. It's absolutely not a charm or talisman to bring "good luck" or repel evil, as that would be blasphemy. The medal has no intrinsic "magic ability." (It should be pointed out that all power in the universe is in God's hands and doesn't reside elsewhere. In other words, people who claim to have magic powers are deluded or lying.)
To be clear, the Agnus Dei has no power in and of itself. It is, after all, only so much wax. To act as if it's magical is sacrilege and assuredly the best way to make sure you don't receive its spiritual benefits. Rather, its graces and favors are due to our faith in Jesus Christ, Our Redeemer, to the efficacious prayers of the pope who consecrated it (James 5:16) and to the abundant blessings which the Church has bestowed upon those who wear and pray with the sacramental.
This sacramental is highly esteemed by the Church and it's often given to those who are spiritually afflicted or harassed. Considering their holiness and their inherent rarity, limited to the amount of wax salvaged from the previous year's Paschal candles collected in the churches of Rome, Agnus Deis were greatly cherished by the faithful and passed down from generation to generation. Apparently, they caused so much fear and consternation among the enemies of the Church that Catholic-bashing Queen Elizabeth I of England outlawed their importation into her realm, calling them "popish trumperies."
Though the origins of the Agnus Dei are lost to history, it's most likely a Christian substitute for unenlightened pagan charms and amulets. It's not impossible to think that the Agnus Dei was meant to ween pagans from their peculiar demons and bring them into the Light of Christ. Thus, instead of believing in sympathetic magic somehow "inherent" in their amulets, they were given the Agnus Dei to save them from themselves. If such is the case, we can comfortably trace the origins of the Agnus Dei back to the fifth century, in which we can say that Rome was finally made a Christian city.
From the time of Amalarius (c. 820) onwards we find frequent mention of the use of Agnus Deis. Popes often gave them as presents to monarchs and other distinguished personages. This first historical mention of this particular sacramental describes them as having been made from the previous year's Paschal candles. Ennoldius (c. 510) specifically mentions that the fragments of the Paschal candles were used as a protection against tempests and blight.
The earliest examples of an Agnus Dei still in existence come from the reign of Pope Gregory XI (AD 1370).
After the shards of the Paschal candles are harvested from Rome's churches, melted and poured into forms, they are given to the pope and he dips them in water which had been blessed and mingled with balsam and chrism. At that, the Holy Father prays over them, asking God to impart to all those who are given the Agnus Deis true faith and sincere piety.
Once the cardinal or bishop was given an Agnus Dei, they in turn either gave it as a present to someone or, more likely, broke off small pieces of the wax disk so as to make sure as many people as possible could benefit from it. The small piece of wax was then kept in a locket or other suitable container.
Inexplicably, the practice of consecrating the Agnus Dei sacramental was abandoned following the Second Vatican Council. The last pope to consecrate them was Pope Pius XII (r. 1939-1958), who created them in 1945 and 1952.
Perhaps, one day, the Church will reinstitute this beautiful custom. Or perhaps she won't. Either way, we can still be assured of the pope's prayers for us, his spiritual children—and, of course, the blessings of Christ and His Mother and, indeed, all the angels and saints. As Christians, we don’t believe in magic. In fact, we have something by far better―salvation.
A papal bull had to be issued several centuries ago warning the Faithful not to buy these sacramental—not because of simony, which is a horrible sin in and of itself—but rather because those being sold were most likely forgeries. Thus, I urge readers to not procure them from the internet, despite the claims people make there.
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A prayer for those who carry or wear an Agnus Dei
Jesus, my Savior, true Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, by Thine infinite mercy, I beseech Thee to pardon my iniquities. By Thy sacred Passion, I beseech Thee, preserve me this day from sin and shield me from all evil. To Thine honor and glory, I carry about with me this blessed Agnus Dei as a protection to my soul and body, and as an incentive to practice the virtues which Thou hast inculcated, especially meekness, humility, purity and charity.
In memory of that sacrifice of love which Thou didst offer for me and all mankind on Calvary, I consecrate my whole being to Thee. Thou didst die on the cross for love of me; let me die to self for love of Thee! Keep me in Thy love and Thy grace to the end of my life, that I may bless Thee forever with the saints to Heaven. Amen.
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