Non Solum: What Does Baptism and Penitence Sound Like in Lent?

How is your music going at the Sunday liturgies of Lent? What styles and genres of music are you using for the service music, antiphons, and hymns and songs?

Article 27 of the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar of 1969 says this about Lent:

27. Lent is a preparation for the celebration of Easter. For the Lenten liturgy disposes both catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery: catechumens, through the several stages of Christian initiation; the faithful, through reminders of their own baptism and through penitential practices.

The emphasis is on baptism and penitence – more of the former than the latter, in fact.

In various communities where I have been music minister, and now in the abbey, I typically program more English chant during Lent, perhaps more Latin chant, and avoidance of overly ‘bright,’ ‘glorious,’ ‘triumphalistic’ music that will be coming at Easter. I try to get all the musicians on board with no instrumental solos. When the prep hymn or chant is done, for example, there can be silence rather than organ improv or literature.

What I intend to capture in musical imagery is the simplicity and seriousness of the invitation to repent, be converted, and live out ones baptism. This is not the time for distraction, excess, sentimentality, comfort, or frivolity. It’s the time to focus on what is essential.

But this doesn’t mean it should hurt. There is deep joy in living according to one’s real priorities. There is true delight in hearing God’s Word and responding to it.

I’ve sometimes made the mistake of programming too much simple, unaccompanied music, thinking it would be serious and stunning. But it wasn’t – it was just dull and depressing. I certainly don’t want to use more Latin chant in Lent, or use it only in Lent, on the misguided notion that chant is penitential. (If you program a simple Latin Agnus Dei in Lent, consider using it throughout the Great 50 Days until Pentecost).

Finding the right balance is the key. We use only proper introits in the abbey, no hymns or songs, at the entrance in Lent. They are in English and congregational. If the congregational introit is in chant style, then perhaps the Responsorial Psalm could be a metered setting. Or vice versa. If there is much chant in English and Latin – I’m all in favor of this, of course! – then there might be some congregational music accompanied by organ that fits well within a context of chant but has the right kind of energy about it. In some contexts, spirituals can say “Lenten conversion” even if, or precisely if, they are rhythmically upbeat. “Somebody’s Knockin’ at Your Door,” anyone?

How do you think about and put into practice the music in Lent?

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10 comments

  1. Your comment reminds me of a practice of our parish, now abandoned. For many years we began our Lenten liturgies by having all turn to face the Font, where the Presider would begin with the sign of the cross and opening prayer, (no hymn) followed by singing Marty Haugen’s “Lord Have Mercy” in three stages: with Presider at Font, Sanctuary, and Presidential chair. It was quite solemn yet simple, and gave reflection time as he walked between stations, and avoided overloading the opening rites. In Easter, again we began at the Font, this time with the Asperges. This bridged Lent and Easter pivoted around the Baptismal Font.

  2. I’m in complete agreement that using Latin/chant only during Lent promotes the fallacies that 1) chant is penitential; 2) Latin is somehow “holier” than the vernaculars.

    The other error I think people make is to just remove music (instrumental preludes/postludes, or during preparation of the gifts) without finding a way to replace it with a truly intentional silence. Sonic fasting, like physical fasting, accomplishes its purpose by being coupled with some sort of positive focus.

    A few times in the past, I’ve also used a sprinkling rite at the beginning of the Lenten Sundays – the first of the antiphons in the Missal comes from Psalm 51, after all!

  3. For our parish we use Latin chant during Lent, primarily because of all the settings we utilize to mark the seasons it is the most appropriate (Renewal, Christ the Savior and St. Ann being the others). We also recite the Lord’s prayer during Lent rather than sing the Stephen Warner version as usual. We also eliminate a prelude piece. Our parish is blessed to have 24/7 adoration, and during the year the 9am Mass (the one I’m responsible for) we chant the Tantum Ergo during transfer. This year during Lent we are transferring in silence at 9am.

  4. Your thoughts are welcome, Father. Since my retirement I no longer pay the annual subscriptions for all the music and liturgy journals I used to. So a couple of reactions to what you have stated: 1) We need more liturgical music that expresses Lenten/baptismal JOY. 2) Why penitential? Whenever I have made a resolve to improve my physical, mental, or emotional health, I approach it with determination, optimism that I will succeed, upbeat to keep myself enthused and energized, etc. I believe that penitential is the wrong mood in the renewed Liturgy. Your comment about upbeat spirituals is more what I think would be better. 3) I personally love Latin, and I believe that it should retain a “pride of place” among our music repertoire. Couldn’t we submit for consensus several pieces that every community should know? Examples might include: Missa Cunctipotens Genitor Deus, Missa De Angelis, Creator alme siderum in Latin (now that they know it in English), the Spanish Chant “Tantum ergo,” Ave verum, several Marian chants including the “Sub Tuum,” the Advent “Rorate caeli desuper,” the Easter “O dilii et filiae” (again, now that they know it in English), and, likewise, the “Ubi caritas et amor.” These chants have survived in English because they are inexpressibly beautiful melodies.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      I’m not. But I think a sense of penitence as something for which we don’t receive forgiveness until Easter seems a bit misplaced. So I can understand that once one has gone through a penitential examination (sacramental, daily examen, or otherwise) one could connect more deeply to the commonality between baptism and penance, namely an encounter with Jesus and a commitment to the Gospel way. I suspect what many are eager to avoid is a sense of a juvenile approach to Lent and penance.

      More to the point: no preludes at my parish. Not so much chant–it’s not as well-received as at the student parish I last served. O well. I would prefer a chant ordinary in ordinary time rather than Lent. I’ve tried to program music that relates directly to Jesus. I don’t think I’m always successful with that, but it is a thought. Failing that, settings of psalms for Communion. In addition to the common psalms 51, 91, and 130, I like settings of 16, 40, and 103. I wish I had more serviceable settings of more of the Christological New Testament canticles.

      I find the propers to be an improvement over every other season. They just need them harmonized to the B and C Lectionary, not just A. So I pay attention to settings of Ps 25, 27, 84, etc.. But I don’t feel the need to drop them in where the antiphonary says to do so.

      The friction over genre is of no interest to me. Good texts are the thing. Contemporary composers are doing the best work with psalms, and they have for the past half-century. So I use them.

    2. Karl, I also wonder why the traditional interpretation of jejunium has receded in recent years. This is no fault of the reform — indeed, the beautiful Lenten prefaces of restraint and self-sacrifice have remained. Pope Francis’s keen recasting of “the fast” away from food and drink towards the cultivation of sympathy, empathy, and the renovation of the moral-ethical self remains a scandalon when cruise ships pitch pounds of uneaten food into the depths.

      The oppressive hegemony of the therapeutic culture (per Rieff) calls out not for abstaining from that porterhouse Friday evening just because it’s a slab of meat, but the replacement of the roadsigns for civilized society through the channeling of the intellect into commonweal. We cannot fruitfully restrain ourselves without place-markers of altruism, humility, and the humanism of the cross.

  5. I have pondered this question for years. I hear many liturgists argue their opinions and positions and if they seem well founded, I tend to give it a shot. I am always fascinated by how many different ideas either don’t work or fall flat. Pulling together many years of openness and, yes, even experimentation back in the day, I have settled on what I think works best. Lent is a penitential season – I have no doubt of that. It is an expression of spring because that is when it occurs. I also think the season screams for simplicity. Penitence can be solemn without being depressing or dry. I always go for thoughtful selections that speak to the Gospel of the day or the season in general. I love using spirituals and Sacred Harp style hymns during lent but I present them a little more low key (a cappella works best). We start with a traditional hymn (our group is not yet ready for the propers). We have used Latin chant for the EP acclamations and Agnus Dei – but the Mortem Tuam has been a dismal failure – no one would sing. We have changed to one of the English chants from RM3 for the mystery of faith. Now everyone is singing. We use a contemporary hymn/song for communion because they seem to support the rhythm of a procession better and people tend to participate more during communion. We bag any closing song and instead select something congregational as a Song of Thankgiving after communion. We process out in silence. The one thing I have noticed always works during lent is an extended Penitential Act. It sets the mood and establishes a mind set for the rest of the liturgy. For years I used the Kyrie from No Greater Love by Michael Joncas (Lordy – did the assembly love that one!) we now use the Orbis Factor Kyrie XI.

  6. Let me add that earlier today I meditated for some time on clementissime Pater. The loving-compassion of the Sacrifice is bidirectional. The only person who reciprocated this loving compassion calls for us to attempt the challenge, though we will necessarily fall short. The stress is on process, not a implausible demand for completion or even perfection.

  7. No instrumental music except on Lent IV and the two Solemnities. And I tend to stay away from the Great mixtures and feeds. We sing Mass XVII – which is not very stereotypically “Lent” sounding.

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