As we prepare to enter the season of Lent, you will certainly notice that the service music has changed to reflect the penitential nature of this season.
First, rather than singing a Processional Hymn and the Gloria in excelsis Deo, our service on the First Sunday of Lent will began with the Great Litany. This alternating chant setting was composed by John Merbecke (ca.1510 – ca. 1585), an early Anglican composer. Martin Luther hailed the Litany as one of the greatest prayers ever, second only to the Lord’s Prayer. For the remaining Sundays of Lent and Maundy Thursday, the liturgy will begin with a setting of the Kyrie eleison (“Lord, have mercy upon us,” #S-91) in procession; this setting was composed by Canadian composer Healey Willan in 1928 for his Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena. Both the Psalm tone and Gospel Acclamation take the form of Anglican chant settings. The response at the presentation (usually where we sing a Doxology) will be “All things are thine,” the first stanza of a beautiful hymn from the Hymnal 1940. The tune might be familiar, as it appears in the current Episcopal Hymnal to the text “Where cross the crowded ways of life.”
At the Eucharist, we again will be singing some of Merbecke’s service music for the Sanctus and Agnus Dei; his Communion Service setting dates to the second Book of Common Prayer of 1552. You’ll likely remember these settings from when we last sang them in Advent! A difference in this season is that we will sing the Benedictus (“Blessed is he…”), a line that is optional in Rite I, but we now sing it in anticipation of Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday.
Finally, the Fourth Sunday in Lent will feature a highly unconventional anthem: two movements from the American composer John Cage’s 4’33” (1954). Cage (1912-1992) is best known for his avant-garde works that pushed the boundaries of what is considered “music,” and this work is arguably his most radical. Though at first glance it would seem to be simple silence, Cage claimed quite the contrary: the work itself is made up of the sounds that occur naturally during the piece, even those as simple as the audience (or in this case, the congregation) breathing, trying to stifle a cough, fidgeting in the pews, or unwrapping a Halls. Following the premiere of the work, Cage wrote, “What we hear is determined by our own emptiness, our own receptivity; we receive to the extent that we are empty to do so.”1
As this work will take place at the Offertory, my hope is that it serves not just as a time for prayerful meditation, but as a powerful reminder of what we do immediately before the Great Thanksgiving: we offer not just our tithes and monetary offerings – the physical results of our lives and labors – but the whole of our lives and labors unto Almighty God. In the Offertory, we are invited to “ascribe to the Lord the honor due his name,” (Psalm 96:8) and so we must also pause to reflect upon all that God has given to us. As we recall from the Prologue of the Gospel according to John, “all things came into being through [God’s Word Incarnate], and without [Jesus Christ] not one thing came into being.” Since all that which surrounds us is sounding praise in this moment of 4’33” (for all that we say and do is a form of prayer to God), we may experience God’s generosity anew through an experience that might not always be readily apparent to us when the choir is singing, when we sing a hymn, or when I am playing a voluntary.2
Yours in Christ,
1 Here are links to the 1954 correspondence between Cage and Helen Wolff, the mother of one of his students: https://www.moma.org/wp/inside_out/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Helen-Wolff_Transcription1.jpg
2 If you’d like to read more about phenomenology and 4’33”, I recommend Gerald Liu’s 2017 monograph Music and the Generosity of God, which centers around the thesis that “all sounds instantiate the generosity of God.”
“Kyrie eleison” in Procession
“All things are thine” at the Presentation
“Sanctus and Benedictus” at Holy Communion
“Agnus Dei” at Holy Communion