The solemn celebration of this most holy night, in which we commemorate the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood, affords us the opportunity to recognize once again the great outpouring of love and grace which is the sacrifice of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. By participation in these sacred rites and in those of the coming days the Church invites us, her children, to enter into the mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection, in a more intense and renewed way, uniting ourselves to the perfect oblation of God the Son to God the Father in and through God the Holy Spirit. In the three days on which we have now embarked, the saving acts of the Lord are retold so that we might recognize what our God has done for us, and so strive to respond by lives oriented toward his eternal presence.
Over the past several weeks the Church’s public prayer has guided us ever closer to the events of the passion, death, and resurrection of our blessed Lord. On Septuagesima Sunday we began (as it were) our gradual breathing-in; preparing ourselves for the holy Lenten fast which, beginning on Ash Wednesday, has acted as a discipline both in the external stripping-back and simplification of the liturgical rites, and in our personal piety, through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Last Sunday, Lætare Sunday, we took a moment to lift ourselves from this rigour and prepare for the final push. Today, with the beginning of Passiontide, we enter the final moments before the events of Holy Week and the sacred triduum itself. Even more than the rest of Lent, Passiontide is marked by a character of restraint in the liturgy: the prayers at the foot of the altar are abbreviated, the Gloria Patri is not said, and the altar cross and images of the church are veiled, in order to help to us focus on the reality of the mystery which, for the rest of the year, those sacred objects assist us to understand.
As today’s collect reflects, by tradition the Friday before Holy Week is kept in honour of the seven sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These are seven ways, described in sacred scripture, in which Our Lady comes to share in the sufferings of her beloved son. Depictions of Our Lady of Sorrows (see above) often show seven swords piercing her heart, recalling the words of the prophet Simeon in the temple, ‘A sword shall pierce your own heart’ (Lk. 2:35).
This revelation of Simeon to Our Lady is the first sorrow, followed by the flight into Egypt (Mt. 2:13-14) and the finding of the Lord in the temple (Lk. 3:43-45). In these three moments, Our Lady suffers with and through her divine son because of her unflinching obedience to God’s will. The four remaining scenes: the meeting of Our Lord and the women of Jerusalem on the road to Calvary (usually understood to include Our Lady), the crucifixion, the deposition (from which we get the beautiful image of the pieta), and the burial of the Lord, each show a more obvious tie with the events of the passion itself.
As Our Lady stood by the cross of her son, so the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows now (in the ordinary form) follows that of the Holy Cross, in September. And yet, we are right to reflect in these days before Holy Week on these sufferings of the Mother of the Lord, because by them we are taught how our own lives can more closely reflect Christ’s passion, filled as they often are with disappointment, with anxiety, and with unpleasantness at the hands of others. It is for this reason that we make the Church’s hymn, Stabat Mater, our own today: ‘O thou Mother! fount of love! touch my spirit from above, make my heart with thine accord: make me feel as thou hast felt; make my soul to glow and melt with the love of Christ my Lord’.
O God, who in this season
give your Church the grace
to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary
in contemplating the Passion of Christ,
grant, we pray, through her intercession,
that we may cling more firmly each day
to your Only Begotten Son
and come at last to the fullness of his grace.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Alternative collect in the 2002 Missale Romanum.
This morning’s old testament reading from the book of Numbers (21: 4-9) describes a scenario that should resonate in the Christian mind. The children of Israel, passing through the Red Sea waters and escaping slavery in Egypt, are on their forty year pilgrimage to the Promised Land. They have been liberated from bondage by God, and yet they complain to Moses, ‘Why have you brought us from Egypt to die in this desert?’. In return the Lord sends snakes as punishment – the bites of which prove lethal to the Israelites, who in turn beg Moses, ‘Pray the Lord to take the serpents away from us’. The Lord commands Moses, ‘Make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole, and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live’. We are told, ‘Whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived’.
This homily was given at Old Saint John’s, Silver Spring, Maryland, at a Low Mass in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite:
It is difficult to believe the transformation from the joy and consolation of last Sunday’s festivities to this. Holy Mother Church now stands in solemn anticipation of the passion of her blessed Lord, as her preparation in the weeks of Septuagesima merge into those of Lent itself, and now unfold into Passiontide. The sacred liturgy today is marked by an increasingly sombre mood; each of the texts evokes the impending drama of road to Calvary. The church is draped in mournful violet – not just the Priest and the altar, but so also the figure of the crucified Lord himself. As we read in the gospel, the Lord ‘hid himself and went out of the temple’, so our representation of him is poignantly removed from our sight as we fix our eyes not simply on a sign of his sacrifice, but that sacrifice itself.
Following my post on suggested music for Advent and Christmas, here is a short guide to some appropriate works for the coming season of Lent, and for Holy Week.
The annual performance of Gregorio Allegri’s setting of Psalm 50 (51), Miserere mei Deus, is in many respects the musical opening of the season of Lent. There are many fine recordings of this work. Of all of them, the 2006 Sarum Voices recording is very enjoyable, over and above (to my mind at least) many more established groups. If you want something really special, though, it is to the 2001 Ensemble William Byrd recording with Graham O’Reilly that I would turn. This is based on a couple of late 19th-century Vatican manuscripts and makes extensive use of the highly elaborate (and much earlier) abbellimenti – the infamous Sistine Chapel ornamentation which made the work so popular, and so guarded. The recording also makes use of some beautiful renditions of the accompanying chant (the antiphon Christus factus est, for example) and contains a fine recording of Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater with the exquisite Eia mater, fons amaris, and Fac ut animæ donatur sections. You can listen to the performance of Allegri here and read more about the edition here.
The vast quantity of music for the office of Tenebræ is also a great source for music during this season. In a contemporary mould, James MacMillan’s Tenebræ responsories have recently been released by Hyperion, sung by the splendid Westminster Cathedral Choir. The recording also includes his resounding Tu es Petrus, sung in the presence of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI during his 2010 visit to the United Kingdom. A video of that can be seen here. Other settings and performances that I enjoy include those by Carlo Gesualdo sung by The Hilliard Ensemble (click here), the setting by Cristobal de Morales sung by the incomparable Doulce Memoire (click here), and Tomás Luis de Victoria’s 1585 complete set of music for Holy Week and the sacred triduum performed by La Colombina (click here).
That should get you started! At some stage I will try to post some recommendations for settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and also some more English polyphony that might aid our Lenten observance. In that vein, I will leave you with William Byrd’s heart-rending setting of Ne irascaris, Domine for five voices, found in his 1589 Cantiones Sacræ. Here is a performance of the motet by Stile Antico, an English choir who I will be fortunate to hear (thanks to a generous godmother!) at the Boston Early Music Festival in Cambridge, Mass., this coming Friday… snow permitting! If you’re used to ecclesiastical Latin, listen to the impressive percussive effect that comes from the English pronunciation of the text (Si-vi-tas Sancti, &c).