Music for Holy Week and Easter

My recent forays into Liturgical music op-ed writing aside, the real purpose of this blog is to provide some ideas and suggestions for Lectionary-appropriate songs each Sunday.

But (and I know this will disappoint my faithful readers) I’m not going to provide a handy list for Holy Week. Here’s why:
Mostly, you need to do whatever you did last year.

Part of what makes the liturgical cycle of seasons work is familiarity. Once again we come back to the familiar customs of Advent, the old Christmas songs from childhood, that Taize piece we always do on Good Friday. Music from last year (and the year before, and the year before, and the year before) is what makes Palm Sunday feel like Palm Sunday. That’s the whole point (and power) of traditions.

So- Holy Week is not the time to be innovative. If you tried to be innovative last year, hopefully you learned your lesson- go back to the music they were doing before they hired you.

Should you do anything different at all?
Yes, but tread carefully. Don’t replace too many things. And if you’re going to spend your social capital on changes, make sure it’s worth it, and that you’re changing to something that will last (which probably means replacing the habitual piece with the more traditional piece, not with some cool, new piece).

In case you feel like the habitual Holy Week music in your parish is lacking, here are a few ideas for (mostly) traditional, imminently Catholic pieces you really should think about incorporating into your existing Holy Week repertoire, along with some thoughts about each day…

Palm Sunday

First of all, if anyone suggests doing “Hosanna, hey-sanna” from Jesus Christ Superstar, report him to this guy.

Other than that, nothing in particular for Palm Sunday, except a list of things I’ve experienced which I don’t like. But I try to stay positive here.

Holy Thursday

Please, please, please do a traditional procession of the Blessed Sacrament and sing “Pange Lingua.” In Latin. This is a “Catholic DNA” moment, and it should not be denied to anyone. It’s lovely. And important.

And if anyone complains that it’s long and boring, I have two words for them. “Jesus wept.”

Moreover- most parishes are not all Solemn High Mass with copes and veils and long vested processions most of the time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that fact. But we need to see it at least a few times a year so that we understand where we came from and what we’re about. The procession, the exposition, the ritual stripping of the altar- all these things help us remember that millions of the faithful have done them before us. More than remember- when we do them we come to understand that we are not just repeating their actions but directly participating in them. This is the “Hermeneutic of Continuity” alive and well in even the most modern parish.

And by the way, while we’re on Holy Thursday. Don’t get too creative with the Washing of the Feet. There are several excellent options in use around the country. Having the priest wash the feet of the Elect or a cross-sample of the parish is probably the easiest. Having everyone wash everyone else’s feet is really wonderful, if quite long and logistically taxing.

Turning the foot washing into a mini-play, complete with a newly written text that highlights the meaning of these simple gestures is not one of the excellent options. Don’t do it.

Good Friday

I know it takes longer to get everyone through the veneration line, but please- only have one cross. When you have three crosses (to save time), you’re asking everyone who sits in those sections to come and venerate the thieves’ crosses. Not good.

Unless your Bishop has told you not to (apparently they do that sometimes) I’d recommend reinstating the Reproaches (unless you’re already doing them, then no need to reinstate).

If you’re not familiar, the Reproaches are a series of statements (spoken, chanted, or sung) in the voice of Jesus, asking us, his people, why we have treated him so poorly. “Oh my people, what have I done to you? Or how have I offended you?”

They act as a ritualistic examination of conscience. For a number of poor reasons they have fallen out of use, even though they are still part of the ritual of Good Friday. For more information on the Reproaches, check out the excellent article on them from my traditionalist friend, Jeffrey Tucker.

Because of the mistaken notion that the Reproaches are anti-Semitic (they’re not- but I don’t want to get into right now), the kinds of people who write contemporary church music tend to not do them, or even know about them. So I can point to no contemporary settings of this text. While I’m considering writing just such a setting for next year, it really is okay- the Good Friday service is a time for solemn chanting if there ever was one. (And heck- if you do the reproaches in Latin, no one will be able to think they’re anti-Semitic, since the most sensitive liberals in the room won’t know what you’re singing).

The Easter Vigil

First of all, sing the Exsultet. The chant version in the Sacramentary is really nice.

If your priest can sing, have him sing David Haas’ setting of the Blessing over the water, from the Who Calls You by Name collection. It’s fantastic.

Beyond that- I encourage you to get boisterous, get excited, get riled up… but don’t get too liturgically creative. Spend your energy practicing your songs and making them awesome. Spend your energy getting instrumentalists to come and rehearse. Spend your energy building a huge bonfire outside. Do not spend your energy trying to figure out where, other than the ambo, you can read the Genesis reading from. Or how to break up the Exodus reading into several parts. Or how to incorporate dancers into the invented Water Processional.

I’m not even saying any of those things are inherently bad or anti-good liturgy… if you had infinite time and resources. But you don’t. And every minute you spend over there trying to figure out how to move lectors around or getting the timing right with the lights and the dancers, is one less minute you can spend making sure that your choir full of white people claps on beats 2 and 4, sings in tune, and keeps up with the harpist. (You did hire a harpist, didn’t you?)

Back to music- I have to say that, for me, the music of Easter will always be the music of David Haas. Because of his love of, and deep involvement with, the RCIA process, David has written a number of incredible pieces of music for Easter. Especially check out “God is Alive,” “Christ is Risen, Shout Hosanna,” and “Alleluia! Let Us Rejoice!” His litany of Saints is pretty good, too, although there are better ones.

I’m not going to suggest any particular Mass setting. I suggest you do the one that is most familiar to the crowd of people who don’t come the rest of the year.

Easter Sunday

Do not omit the sequence.

That is all.

Easter Vespers

The celebration of the Triduum rightfully concludes with Solemn Vespers Sunday evening. Not many people are going to come, but you should do it anyway. I would chant the whole thing, given the option, with a liberal dose of Latin. Break out your Breviaries and have at it.


Fifth Sunday of Lent

The lectionary readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year C) tell us very plainly that God is “doing something new!” What a refreshing thing to hear from sacred scripture- perhaps our music for the Fifth Sunday of Lent can pickup that theme.

So what is the new thing? Mercy, apparently. Jesus does not condemn the adulterous woman, but rather admonishes her to sin no more. Obviously, the adulterous woman is us- we who are unfaithful to the covenant God has made with us. Like the animals in the Abrahamic ritual a few weeks ago, we ought to be torn in two for our infidelity. But God, in Christ Jesus, reaches out to us in forgiveness and mercy.

And Paul makes sure we understand something else- while we are admonished to “sin no longer,” it is not our own self-improvement that is our salvation from the wages of our own sin, but rather our “sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death.” That is, when we participate in his death through baptism (we’ll hear all about this from Paul at the Easter Vigil), we take hold of the righteousness of the resurrection.

But it doesn’t end there for Paul, nor should it for us. We are not simply absolved of our duty to “sin no longer.” Baptism may be a one time event, but conformity to the sufferings of Christ, is a lifelong process- even for someone with as miraculously spectacular a conversion experience as Paul.

Fourth Sunday of Lent

The readings for Lent have a wonderful rhythm that swings between “you need to repent, you terrible sinner” and “God loves you so incredibly much and will forgive everything.” The Fourth Sunday of Lent is overflowing with God’s abundant love and grace.

While planning music for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, focusing on God’s love and grace is the order of the day, but we don’t want to stray too far from the need for repentance, either. It is only in recognizing his own debasement that the prodigal finally returns to his father.

Third Sunday of Lent

Selecting music for the Third Sunday of Lent (Year C) was pretty tough, only because I couldn’t get a handle on what the Exodus reading had to do with Gospel. When choosing music for Mass, I try to figure out what the connection is between the readings, and then find songs and hymns that illustrate, illuminate, or expand on those ideas.

But the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent were a bit tough this time. I’m still not sure I see a parallel. I decided to focus on the calling of Moses, maybe because of my personal taste in specific songs. Obviously, knowing more about what the homily might focus on would be a big help in this case.

Second Sunday of Lent

The first reading for the Second Sunday of Lent finds Abraham (Abram) enveloped in a “deep, terrifying darkness.” Sometimes finding yourself under the shadow of God’s wing is a frightening ordeal. So much so, that we do not often talk about the darkness of God- but the darkness and the light are both part of the same divine phenomenon: God’s all-surrounding, over-whelming love.

Perhaps foreshadowing our experience at the Easter Vigil, we go from deep darkness into a twilight illuminated by a “smoking fire pot and flaming torch,” and finally to a transfigured, “dazzling” Christ.

Just as Christ’s death and resurrection become our own death and resurrection, so to is this our transfiguration. We are led to the mountain top, and shown the promised land of what we could be… what we will be… what we are already, in Christ.

The songs for the Second Sunday of Lent need to do two things. We must do our best to help our congregations experience the mountaintop. Through the words and the music (what is written, and how we play/sing it), we can give people a sense of God’s great loving promise, and Christ’s transcendent light.

But we cannot lull people into a complacent sense of “isn’t this inspiring.” We cannot let ourselves or our congregations build a tent up there or tarry long- there is much work to be done for the kingdom. There is a long way to walk before the Promised Land of our ultimate Easter.

First Sunday of Lent

The readings for the First Sunday of Lent brings us into the desert. Indeed, Lent is a desert season- a time when we find ourselves in that place of reflection, purification, testing, and enlightenment. Our ancestor in faith was in the desert, a “wandering Aramean.” Jesus, too, our brother as much as our Lord, is tempted and tested in the desert.

Just as Christ’s death and resurrection remove our need for such a sacrifice on our parts, His temptation in the desert stands in for us, relieving us from the need to go toe-to-toe with the Adversary. Jesus leads us through the desert of temptation, toward the promised land of Calvary.

Ash Wednesday

Every year I find myself asking, “What is the date for Ash Wednesday?”

Upon hearing the answer (February 17, by the way), my response (every year) is, “Wow- that’s early!”

I don’t know why I’m surprised every year. While the date of Ash Wednesday does float, it should never really be that surprising. I guess coming off the high of Christmas (and Advent, and Epiphany, and the Feast of the Theotokos, and the Baptism of the Lord, and, and…) it’s hard to start thinking about planning music for Ash Wednesday, let alone planning music for Lent in general.

But this year, I sat down a few Sundays ago and read through all of the readings for Lent (through the Triduum readings and everything) in one long sitting. It was glorious.

But then, like the disciples coming down from the mount of the Transfiguration, the work begins again in earnest. The reality of the firm, dirty ground hits, and we have to start trying to figure out how we, as musicians, ministers, teachers, and leaders, bring the good news to other people. It’s part of our job to sit down and spend hours filling ourselves with Scripture and Song, feasting on the abundance of God’s mysteries. For almost everyone else, it’s (at best) a hobby, and (at worst) a tedious obligation. We need to find ways to bring people “up to speed” on the mysteries, help them find a way to experience what we experience, and we need to do it efficiently and effectively, before they wander off, too bored or too busy.

Music is the best way I know how. An exotic beat on a hand drum transports us to a Middle Eastern desert. A minor seventh played with the right touch on a grand piano, and we’re suddenly in communion with the African-American congregations who know the true meaning of “Let my people go.” Yes- music gives us the ability to move post-haste into the mysteries of our faith. The right hymn can hurtle us headlong into the struggles of ancient people or the glorious triumphs of our future selves.

As Lent begins this year, and you find yourself planning your Ash Wednesday service, push yourself to expand your musical choices. Find the right songs (some familiar, some new) and find the right styles. Consider instrumentation- think beyond your usual piano, organ, or guitar accompaniment. Consider voicing- do the sopranos need to always sing the melody? Consider speed- there’s more than fast and slow. Consider
style- there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of distinct ethno-music cultures, each one with a wealth of spiritual opportunities for us. Consider Christian musical traditions outside of American/Catholic/Folk- when was the last time you sang acapella shape-notes, or Byzantine chant, or British sacred choral music, or…?
Consider the amateur composers within your own community, and even the dormant songwriter that dwells in yourself.

Special seasons call for special music, and there are no seasons more special than the massive liturgical gauntlet of Lent and Easter. Take full advantage. I’ll be here with ideas, encouragement, and maybe a few songs you haven’t heard of.

Here are my picks for Ash Wednesday…