Singing for the Dead: Pie Jesu

Van der Weyden Descent from the Cross
Rogier Van der Weyden (1399-1464), Descent from the Cross, detail

Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem (sempiternam).

Merciful Jesus,
Who takes away the sins of the world,
Give them rest (eternal).

For All Souls Day this year, at the seminary we’ll be singing a setting of John Rutter’s “Pie Jesu” as part of the day’s liturgies. Having grown up listening to my mother’s beloved Cambridge Singers as the backdrop to cooking and dinnertime, I’ve sung along to the piece more than once. This year, though, the text feels particularly poignant. Just to be able to sing at all is a privilege to be stewarded carefully. To sing for so many who have died, many of whom died isolated from loved ones, without the full dignity of our usual Christian burial rituals, feels like a solemn duty. 

These prayers from the requiem mass ultimately ask that Jesus give our beloved dead peace, a place of rest. We pray for the dead. We sing these prayers also for the living, for those who are stretched beyond the bearable, for the grieving, for those looking for closure, for healing. Soul-searing beauty has the power to permeate the places we so often guard, to allow the grace of God’s love to enter.

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