In Radiant Light: Alleluia!

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Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church, and let your holy courts, in radiant light, resound with the praises of your people..
-The Exsultet, The Great Vigil of Easter, The Book of Common Prayer, page 286

The Exsultet (Latin, Praeconium Paschale, “Easter Proclamation”) is the ancient prayer that begins the Great Vigil of Easter. After the kindling of the new fire (regeneration, rebirth, resurrection) and the lighting of the Paschal Candle (“the pillar of cloud by and the pillar of fire by night” that led the Hebrews in the Exodus), this great prayer, dating from various fifth-century Gallican sacramentaries, is sung.

Baptism is a sacramental rite central to the Great Vigil of Easter. From the earliest of Christian worship practices as recorded by the third-century theologian Hippolytus of Rome (170-235), we know that, after an entire Lenten season of specific preparation, early Christian baptism candidates were brought before the Bishop during the night and wee hours of Easter morning for confession, baptism by immersion and anointing with chrism (perfumed oil, “the oil of thanksgiving”).

When no baptism candidates are present, the congregation may renew their own baptismal vows, which is what we will observe at the Easter Vigil this year. To also mark the remembrance of our own baptisms, the celebrant will asperse (sprinkle) the people with baptismal water that has been blessed according to ancient rite.

As we marked the beginning of Lent by the Ash Wednesday words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” as ashes were imposed on our foreheads, may we all triumphantly end our Lenten journeys this year by renewing our own baptisms and the sprinkling of baptismal water, a mark of our own resurrection in Jesus Christ Our Lord. Rejoice and be glad, Mother Church: in radiant light… the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

The Easter Vigil will feature the White Station High School Chorale singing spirituals and music by Alice Parker and Pavel Tschesnokoff; it will take place Saturday, April 4 at 8:00 in the Nave.

Easter Day services are at 6:30, 9:00, 11:00 and 5:30. 

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Palm Sunday to the Passion: The Week Begins

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The reenactment of Jesus’ last days on earth began yesterday (Mar. 29), known in our Book of Common Prayer as the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. The liturgy began with the Liturgy of the Palms, in which we recreate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The opening joyful acclamations of “Hosanna to the King” stand in stark contrast to the cries of “Crucify him” in the Passion Gospel narrative later in the liturgy. To mark the beginning of Holy Week, the departing procession takes place in complete silence.

Holy Week marks the end of the solemn season of Lent, culminating in perhaps the most significant collection of days in the liturgical year. “The Great Three Days,” also known as the Triduum (literally “three days” in Latin) consists of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

After the dramatic events of Maundy Thursday (ceremonial washing of feet, institution of the Eucharist, and stripping of the altar) and the sorrowful events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday is the commemoration of the day that Jesus lay in the tomb. However, following the Judeo-Christian tradition of beginning feast days at sundown the evening before, we celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter as the commemoration of the resurrection and the First Eucharist of Easter.

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Psalm and Penitence

In preparation for Our Lord’s passion next week, the lectionary readings today (Mar. 22) include a portion of that great penitential psalm, Psalm 51, which is also the specially appointed psalm for Ash Wednesday each year. This psalm is often called the Miserere, referring to its first line in Latin, Miserere mei, Deus (“Have mercy on me, O God”).

Not surprisingly, composers throughout the ages have latched onto this most penitential psalm. From Josquin des Prez (1503) to Gregorio Allegri’s setting for the Sistine Chapel Choir (ca. 1630) to 20th-century minimalist Arvo Part (1989), the depth of humility and repentance of this text has drawn composers to it. Nineteenth-century composer Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876) chose to begin with Psalm 51:2 for his setting, which is the Offertory anthem for this morning. The musical texture of this setting ranges from a high, pleading “Wash me throughly” to the melodic depths of “For I acknowledge my faults.” After beautiful counterpoint and four-part choral textures, the anthem’s ending, with the full choir singing sotto voce and in unison, is quite spell-binding.

Samuel Sebastian Wesley.

Samuel Sebastian Wesley.

For God So Loved the World

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Part of today’s Gospel reading, John 3:16 is most certainly the best known verse of scripture from the Holy Bible. In addition to children memorizing this verse in Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, John 3:16 is found today even in popular culture. Businesses print the scripture citation on the bottoms of shopping bags, shipping boxes and other product packaging. One California-based hamburger restaurant chain even prints “John 3:16” in small red print on the inside rims of the bottoms of their paper cups.

The departing procession hymn this morning (Mar. 15) highlights this verse: “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim.” Composers throughout the centuries have set these important words to music, and the anthem at Choral Evensong this afternoon is a beautiful, sublime setting by contemporary British composer Bob Chilcott (b. 1955). This setting gently rocks back and forth, setting up and ultimately ending with an ethereal soprano solo line on top of the choral harmonies of the anthem.

May the words of our mouths…

The last verse of March 8’s psalm is beloved favorite and heard often, if not weekly, in Jewish and Christian worship. In the Anglican tradition, many preachers begin each sermon with “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts…” In temples and synagogues this psalm prayer is heard weekly in the Shabbat (“Sabbath”) Evening Service as part of the Amidah (“The Standing Prayer”), a series of prayers that close the service.

In 1930 Swiss-born American composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) wrote a choral setting of the Jewish liturgy, Avodath Hakodesh (The Sacred Service), which took some four years to complete and is now probably the most famous musical setting of the Jewish service. Bloch composed an instrumental “Silent Devotion” to be played just before his choral setting of “May the words” (“Response”). This sublime choral piece is the Communion anthem sung by the Parish Choir this morning.

Crux fidelis

1200px-20060824_034Today Gospel reading (Mar. 1) includes an image and commandment of Jesus that is actually found verbatim in three of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke): “Take up your cross and follow me.” Of sung texts that extol the cross, none is better than the ancient verse Crux fidelis (“Faithful cross above all other”), a portion of St. Fortunatus’ (c. 530-c. 609) larger hymn Pange lingua (“Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle.”) This magnificent text is found in its entirety at Hymn 166 in our hymnal. It begins with the actual account of the Crucifixion, then extols the cross using various “wood” images, and ends with a Trinitarian doxological stanza, as do most Medieval hymns from this period.

As a liturgist I was trained (instructed, commanded, directed, et. al.) to follow the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer to the letter and space. After all, what is the point or privilege of truly common worship if we do not worship as both a collective voice and as individual voices? In our Prayer Book the rubrics often say may or shall, and there is a vast difference between the two. The rubrics usually instruct, “A hymn, psalm, or anthem may be sung,” but rarely do they specifically say, “The hymn, ‘Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,’ or some other hymn extolling the glory of the cross, is then sung” (BCP page 282, Good Friday Liturgy). Indeed, this Good Friday rubric has always caught my attention; it points up Fortunatus’ great hymn, a portion of which is sung as the Anthem at the Offertory this morning. The music of this anthem is attributed to King John IV of Portugal (1604-1656).

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Photo credit, top: “20060824 034” by Riwnodennyk – self-made. Also [1]. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:20060824_034.jpg#mediaviewer/File:20060824_034.jpg