The Canticles of Christmas: Singing the songs of Zechariah, Mary, the angels, and Simeon.

We've all heard them—those words that strike fear in the hearts of choir directors everywhere: "And what are you doing for Christmas?" Each year, toward the end of the summer, we start struggling with the annual problem. Our minds begin sorting through sundry ideas and possibilities, recalling the successes of Christmases past, searching for just the right combination of music and the Word.

One fall I struggled even harder than usual with the dilemma. I was starting in a new position with an eager but inexperienced choir. My usual choice in this situation would have been a service of lessons and carols. But although that would have been an excellent option, I was ready for a change.

Inspiration came from Randall Thompson's musical drama The Nativity According to Saint Luke, based primarily on Luke 1:5-2:40. The demands of Thompson's work made it out of reach for our choir; yet the concept—a musical-dramatic presentation of Luke's account— grabbed my attention. Particularly attractive was the potential for exposing the choir and congregation to musical settings of canticles—the songs or lyrical passages found in these verses: Mary's song {Magnificat), Zechariah's song (Bene-dictus), the angels' song {Gloria in excelsis Deo) and Simeon's song (Nunc dimittis).

The singing of canticles has been a part of Christian worship for centuries and is still an integral part of Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran rites. In Presbyterian and Reformed churches, however, canticle singing is a rare occurrence. That's what made the opportunity of drawing attention to these "scriptural Christmas songs" all the more exciting. I had the opportunity to reacquaint God's people with some powerful and beautiful lyrics that have so often been given over to the "liturgical" church. And what better way than to hear them sung?

With the concept in place, my next challenge was to select choral settings in English to fit my choir's ability. This substantially narrowed the field, yet I discovered several good prospects (see repertoire recommendations). My final choices included a unison setting of Zechariah's song ("Blessed Be the Lord") by Ronald Arnatt and a SATB setting of Mary's song and Simeon's song ("Magnificat" and "Nunc Dimittis in A") by Herbert Sumsion. For the angels' song, I selected Randall Thompson's "Glory to God in the Highest," since it is a setting of Luke 2:14 alone (note: this is difficult to find since most Glorias are settings of the traditional Mass text).

We then prepared Luke 1:5-2:40 as a script for narrator, six characters (Gabriel, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, an angel, Simeon) and choir (representing friends, relatives and shepherds). All the readers were choir members and read from their places in the choir. To heighten the drama, however, one could have actors play the characters in costume.

The congregation was encouraged to enter into the drama by following the canticle texts, which were printed in the program. They also helped to embellish the narrative through their singing of carols at designated points throughout the service. In the event that no choir is available to sing the canticles, they could be sung as congregational hymns. (See repertoire recommendations.) If some of the tunes are unfamiliar, substitutions can easily be made, since many of the meters are common.

We found that "The Canticles of Christmas" was a refreshing departure from our own tired traditions as well as an excellent alternative to today's trendy musicals. The songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon became for us, as they were for them, rich songs of worship.



Processional Hymn: "O Come, O Come, Immanuel"
[PH 8 PsH 328, EL 184, TH 194]

Welcome and Opening Prayer

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold

Narrator: In the time of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

Once when Zechariah's division was on duty, and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him:

Gabriel: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of this birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

Zechariah: "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."

Gabriel: "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this

happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time."

Narrator: Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.

Elizabeth: "The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people."

The Birth of Jesus Foretold

Narrator: In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said,

Gabriel: "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."

Narrator: Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her,

Gabriel: "Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

Mary: "How will this be, since I am a virgin?"

Gabriel: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."

Mary: "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said."

Mary Visits Elizabeth

Narrator: At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judah, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed:

Elizabeth: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished."

Choir: (stand)

Narrator: And Mary said:

The Song of Mary (Magnificat)
[setting by Herbert Sumsion (Novello 29 0290 07)]

The Birth of John the Baptist

Narrator: When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said,

Elizabeth: "No! He is to be called John."

Narrator: They said to her,

Choir: "There is no one among your relatives who has that name."

Narrator: They made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone's astonishment he wrote, "His name is John." Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking,

Choir: "What then is this child going to be?"

Choir: (stand)

Narrator: For the Lord's hand was with him. His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

The Song of Zechariah (Blessed Be the Lord)
[setting by Ronald Arnatt (Walton)]

Narrator: And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.

The Birth of Jesus

Narrator: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Congregational Hymn: "Once in Royal David's City"
[PH 49, PsH 346, RL 201, TH 225]

The Shepherds

Narrator: And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them,

Angel: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Choir: (stand)

Narrator: Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

The Song of the Angels (Glory to God in the Highest)
[setting by Randall Thompson (E.C. Schirmer 2470)]

Narrator: When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another,

Choir: "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

Narrator: So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had been told.

Congregational Hymn: "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing"
[PH 31-32, PsH 345, RL 196, TH 203]

Jesus Is Presented in the Temple

Narrator: On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord"), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: "a pair of doves and two young pigeons."

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ.

Choir: (stand)

Narrator: Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

The Song of Simeon (Nunc dimittis)
[setting by Herbert Sumsion (Novello 29 0290 07)]

Narrator: The child's father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother:

Simeon: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."

Narrator: There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

Closing Prayer and Benediction

Recessional Hymn: "Joy to the World"
[PH 40, PsH 337, RL 198, TH 195]


Repertoire Recommendations for the Canticles of Christmas

Hymn Settings (metrical paraphrases)

Mary's Song (Magnificat)

"Song of Mary" MORNING SONG (CM)
[PR 600]

"Song of Mary" PENTECOST (LM)
[PsH 212]

"Tell Out, My Soul" WOODLANDS (10 10 10 10)
[PsH 478, RL 182,TH 26]

"Magnify the Lord"
[PsH 622]

Choral Settings

"A New Magnificat" Carolyn Jennings (responsorial)
[Augsburg 11-2098]

"Magnificat," Joseph Bonnet (responsorial)
[Concordia 98-2425]

"Magnificat," John Folkening
[Morning Star 80-002]

"Magnificat," Mendelssohn
[Augsburg 11-2176]

"My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord," Hank Beebe
[Hinshaw HPC-7011]

"My Soul Proclaims the Greatness," Gieseke
[Concordia 98-2770]

"My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord," Jeremiah Dencke (solo)
[in Ten Sacral Songs (Carl Fischer)]

"My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord," Randall Thompson (solo)

[in The Natkrih/ According to St Lake (RC. Schirmer)]

"Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in Bb" (Collegium Regale), Herbert Howells. SATB di-visi, tenor solo with organ.

[Novello 29 0289 03]

"Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G," Herbert Howells. SATB with organ. (Sublime, soaring lines are a trademark of Howells. The strength needed to spin them out makes these a challenge worth the effort!)

Level: Moderately difficult.
[Stainer & Bell 216]

"Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G," Herbert Sumsion. SATB with organ.
[Novello 29 0290 07]

"Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A," Herbert Sumsion. SATB with organ. (Elegant, lyrical lines and interesting, fresh harmonies—all this and singable tool Imitative and chordal writing creates contrasting textures Sumsion is a composer worth discovering)

Level: Moderate.
[Royal School of Church Music 115]

"Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in C," Ralph Vaughan Williams. SATB or SAB or unison with organ. (A simple, strong, no-nonsense setting that is very approachable)

Level: Easy.

[G. Schirmer 8813]


Zechariah's Song (Benedictus Dominus Deus)

"Song of Zechariah" AN WASSERFLUSSEN BABYLON (87 87 887 887)
[PSH 213]

"Song of Zechariah" KINGSFOLD (CMD)
[PH 601]

"Song of Zechariah" MERLE'S TUNE (7676D)

[PH 602]

"Benedictus in G" (paired with a Te Deum),

Herbert Sumsion. SATB divisi with organ.
(Lyric Unes contrasted with homophonic writing in quasi- "Anglican chant" style.)
Level: Moderate.
[Oxford 466]

"Blessed Be the Lord," Ronald Arnatt. Unison, organ/piano. (A delightfully simple setting that expresses the text dramatically.)
Level: Easy.


Simeon's Song (Nunc dimittis)

"Song of Simeon" LAND OF REST (CM)
[PH 603]

"Song of Simeon" NUNC DIMLTTIS (667D)
[PH 605, PsH 216]

"Faithful Vigil Ended" PASTOR (6565)
[RL 235]

"Song of Simeon" SONG 1 (10 10 10 10 10 10)
[PH 604]

[see last five Magnificat settings]

"Nunc Dimittis," Felix Mendelssohn, ed. Robert Kendall. SATB with organ. (Imitative and homophonic writing creates a rich setting in three sections)

Level: Moderate.

[Augsburg, 11-2177]

The hymns in this service were selected from the most recent editions of the following hymnals: The Presbyterian Hymnal (PH), Psalter Hymnal (PsH), Rejoice in the Lord (RL), and the Trinity Hymnal (TH).



A canticle is a song in Scripture that is not a psalm. Early in the history of the Christian church, many canticles found their way into a regular schedule of Christian worship. The best-known were the Christmas canticles found in Luke (also called the "Lukan canticles"): the Songs of Zechariah, Mary, the angels, and Simeon (also know by their opening Latin words: Benedic-tus, Magnificat, Gloria in excelsis deo, and Nunc dimittis). The word "canticle" comes from the Latin word for song, canticum. Other words with the same root are cantata, cantor, and precentor.

Timothy D. Wilds is Director of Worship for Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA), Asheville, North Carolina.


Reformed Worship 25 © September 1992 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.