The Lenten Season is almost as old as the Church itself. Christians in the second century prepared for the Easter feast with a two-day fast. By the third century this fast was extended to all of Holy Week. In the year 325, the Council of Nicaea spoke of the quadragesima paschae (“forty days before Easter”), which we know today as the Season of Lent.
As today (Feb. 22) is the First Sunday in Lent, we notice some visible changes in our liturgy today: the absence of altar flowers; purple paraments on the pulpit and lectern; more penitential prayers; a simple plainsong Psalm tone; the omission of the said or sung “Alleluia” and a Solemn Prayer over the People replacing the final Blessing. Next Sunday and the remaining Sundays in Lent we will begin the liturgy with A Penitential Order, which moves the Confession of Sin to the beginning of the service.
For today’s entrance rite we sing in procession The Great Litany, which is the oldest extant piece of liturgy used in the Church. Used as early as the fifth century in Rome, the Litany was included in the first English language rite prepared by Archbishop Thomas Cramner in 1544. It was then printed as an appendix to the Eucharistic rite in the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. The Litany may be used as a separate order itself or as an entrance rite for the Eucharist. It is a beautiful and all-encompassing prayer for the whole Church and for ourselves.
On Sunday, February 15, we say and sing our last Alleluias, at least for a while, as the Last Sunday after Epiphany and the transfiguration of Christ are celebrated. The Lenten fast begins this week on Ash Wednesday, when the Alleluias will be suspended in the liturgy for the Lenten season. Today’s music, including anthems and hymnody, is filled with sung Alleluias, from the Sequence hymn’s repeating Alleluia at the end of each verse, to the numerous Alleluias in the Communion hymn texts, and finally to the Alleluia refrain of “Ye watchers and ye holy ones.”
In some years I have asked our boy and girl choristers to count the total number of Alleluias used in today’s liturgy, including each hymn verse, the Fraction Anthem, etc. (And if I’ve counted correctly this year, today’s 10:30 liturgy contains 55 individual Alleluias!) So, sing your Alleluias with gusto this morning; this is your last chance until the Alleluias return, with great fanfare and rejoicing, at the Great Vigil of Easter.
In The Hymnal 1982, our entrance hymn this Sunday morning (February 8) may, indeed, be slightly difficult to locate in the book. As it is Hymn No. 1, it is actually located almost in the service music section of the hymnal. This grand 10th-century Latin text is perfect for morning worship in a season such as Epiphany. Stanza 2 contains the most vivid images: “fit us for thy mansions; banish our weakness; health and wholeness sending; bring us to heaven.” This plea to God for “health and wholeness” speaks specifically to Sunday’s Gospel reading from Mark, in which Jesus heals numerous people with various afflictions.
The departing procession hymn may be considered the hymnal’s “all-purpose Epiphany” text. The word “manifest” is the repeating element, which is a central Epiphany season theme: Jesus manifesting himself as the Son of God in the world. The text goes on to line out the events of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, which are the Gospel lectionary readings throughout Epiphany season: his baptism in the Jordan river, the wedding miracles in Cana, the healing of the lame, the temptation in the wilderness, and finally a foreshadowing of the transfiguration, which is the Gospel lesson on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany in each lectionary cycle.
The lectionary readings for today (Feb. 1) carry the common theme of identifying Jesus Christ as the Son of God on earth, which is itself a theme found throughout Epiphany. From Deuteronomy we read, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people.” And in First Corinthians we find, “and there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” And in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is identified as “the Holy One of God” by his miracle of healing the man with the unclean spirit.
The Offertory anthem text this morning contains beautiful images of identifying Jesus. This text refers to Song of Solomon 2:3 (“As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons”), where allegorically the speaker may be identified as God expressing love for Israel, or for New Testament Christians as Christ expressing love for the Church. The Song of Solomon verse continues, “I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste,” the image of which is also found near the end of this anthem text. Sources differ upon the origins of “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” also known as “The Apple Tree Carol.” Some sources cite London’s Spiritual Magazine (1761) as its first publication, while others claim the first appearance in Divine Hymns and Spiritual Songs, published in New Hampshire in 1784.
Hear a 2009 recording from King’s College Cambridge of the Elizabeth Poston composition:
(Painting, above: Gustav Klimt, Goldener Apfelbaum 1903)