There is nothing more beautiful than the musical heritage of the church on "Laetare" Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Lent. It is also known as "Refreshment" Sunday, coming as it does half-way through Lent. It is also, according to the Episcopal Musicians' Handbook known as "Mid-Lent", but I've never seen this name used outside of that handy spiral-bound reference.
But I want to focus on that initial name, "Laetare". Like it's counterpart in Advent, "Gaudete" Sunday, "Laetare" (Lay-TAH-ray) takes its name from the proper Introit chant of the day, "Laetare Jerusalem".
The Sundays "Gaudete" and "Laetare" both come just past the halfway point in their respective "purple" seasons. Both words mean rejoice. And the liturgical color for both days (if you can manage it) is pink, the liturgical color of joy.
Color tangent: Most churches, if they see any pink at all, only see it in Advent when the third candle on the wreath is pink. There is yet no mechanism to deploy a pink cue to the masses in Lent, but perhaps a type of Lenten wreath could be devised? Thorns would have to be involved. And we could use six or seven candles to lead us in to Holy Week? And perhaps it could take the shape of the Tenebrae hearse. No, this is a bad idea.
But enough with the semantics. On to the music.
At the parish where I serve, we have instituted the tradition of singing the Introit text itself to the traditional plainsong, though we sing it in English as adapted by Bruce Ford in The American Gradual [link to large PDF].
The words of the Introit come from Isaiah 66:10-11. Jerusalem is to be loved, praised. She is a woman. She provides nourishing milk. (In the parallelism in 66:11, omitted in the Introit, we get "that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom".) We are to rejoice, be glad, and "sing out in exultation".
It doesn't sound much like Lent so far, which is why this is such a wonderful tradition to keep.
The only thing that smacks of Lent here is the quick "all you who mourn for her" . But it's an interesting imperative that precedes: rejoice with her.
Even in our penitential season, we can be joyful.
Even though we have stripped out our "Alleluias" from the liturgy we can still have joy. Remember: we have only done this so they will perhaps sparkle a bit more at the Easter Vigil. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters actually say Alleluia more in Lent, a joyful approach. "Laetare" can give us Westerners a sense of this joy.
The Psalm verse here from 122 is also worth noting. It's not often in Lent that we hear "I was glad when they said to me * let us go to the house of the Lord".
Psalm 23 makes it's first appearance of the year on this day. It will quickly resurface on "Good Shepherd" Sunday (another great Sunday nickname!) in Eastertide. This beloved psalm of the church is worth singing twice, and we gladly receive this tradition of the church. To my ear, the word shepherd rings more prominently in Lent. It is, in this context, a psalm of guidance, of pilgrimage. We are refreshed at the stream even as we journey onward.
Church musicians can't get enough of this psalm, it seems. I suspect that I'm not the only one who also tends to put down a version of this at the Offertory. This year, the neo-pastoral setting by Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) fit the bill.
The final bit of refreshment on this day comes in the form of the hymn "Jerusalem the golden", a beautiful hymn by Bernard of Cluny. It well-known to the tune EWING, and this is how it is printed in the Hymnal 1982.
Closing the service with this hymn bookends everything nicely. Here, as at the introit, we get images of nourishment "Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest...".
The hymn tune helps make the midpoint of the third phrase of every stanza stand out nicely.
have conquered in the fight
to that dear land of rest
That particular pairing of text and tune always makes me tear up a bit in the final stanza.
One of the reasons I'm so particularly fond of this hymn is that my introduction to it at Christ Church, Indianapolis, was accompanied by great festivity.
The men of the parish adopted the tradition of "Mothering Sunday" and prepared a rather lavish breakfast for everyone to enjoy between services. It was refreshment indeed, and all sang EWING with that much more vigor, having enjoyed such splendid milk and honey beforehand.
Whatever our traditions on this day, they come from the Church, our Mother. We are encouraged and refreshed in the midst of Lent.
Two final thoughts about two innovations:
A further innovation this year at the parish where I serve, the opening hymn was "Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness". We should not squander any opportunity for joy on this day.
A further innovation for next year: I think the choir should sell Simnel Cake and sherry at coffee hour.
“If we consider what sort of music we should want to hear on entering a church we should surely, in describing our ideal, say first of all that it must be something different from what is heard elsewhere; that it should be a sacred music devoted to its purpose, a music whose peace should still passion; whose dignity should strengthen our faith; whose unquestioned beauty should find a home in our hearts to cheer us in life and death. What a powerful good such music would have”.
Quoted by Spicer, Paul. Address given at Choral Evensong in Celebration of Herbert Howells, Sunday 6 Nov 2011. St. Mary's, Barnes, London, England.
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