Season after Pentecost, 2023
Quite a different service this year. It does not open with the C. F. Alexander hymn "There is a green hill far away", which I think was a nod to the popularity of "Once in royal David's city" at Christmas, also by Alexander.
Note that the Lotti is performed with organ.
The long march of the Easter cycle is an ever-tightening spiral.
In the period leading up to Easter, the Church's holiest day, time circles in on itself. Intensity increases over time.
First there is the long, patient sweep of Lent.
Towards its end comes the looping back of Holy Week.
The spiral tightens at the Triduum.
The cadences come quicker–faster and faster as we near the dawn of Easter.
Even in the Easter Vigil, as near as we can get in our liturgy to the Resurrection moment without quite arriving yet, we continue to spin toward the central mystery of the Christian faith.
As we come careening toward Resurrection through a series of readings that give the whole history of our faith, the final turn in the liturgy takes our very lives.
“Through the Paschal mystery, dear friends, we are buried with Christ by Baptism into his death, and raised with him to newness of life.”
It is here, through baptism, that the Resurrection is finally revealed. That it finally makes sense.
In this final turn, the spiral finally reaches back on itself and explodes outward in every dimension it can find.
The liturgy may be man-made, but its pattern helps us encounter God-made mystery and meaning.
The whole shape of this season points to its center.
Happy spiralling, friends.
This year brings a special moment that I've been waiting for since... well, for years.
That is the confluence of Good Friday and the Feast of the Annunciation (Mar. 25).
Now, before you get all huffy, yes, I know this feast is transferred.
In Holy Week (the week from Palm Sunday to Easter) and in Easter Week (the week from Easter to the following Sunday) all "lesser feasts" are transferred to later in the calendar. This makes sense. This is the holiest time of the church year, and our focus should rightly be on our Lord's passion, death, and resurrection. This year the Episcopal Church will formally celebrate this feast on April 4 (Jesus needing a shorter than usual gestation period this year).
But still, the fact remains that in many circumstances Mar. 25 would be the day that the Church remembers the announcement to a young girl, a virgin, that she was pregnant with God.
So for Anglicans, who are Christians who do theology with a heavy dose of big-I Incarnation, there is at least a unique opportunity for theological exploration here. And it's one that was written beautifully 408 years ago by John Donne.
What happened in 1608? Please note that the date that I have for this poem is 1608. But Easter was on April 6 that year, so maybe Donne was actually writing about something else? Oh, no, have I been waiting for the wrong day?! I don't think so.
How often is Good Friday on March 25? This last occurred in 2005, which is when I drafted this article (thanks, Internet!). When does it happen again? Well, I can't find it on my calendar for a while...
Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608 Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away. She sees Him man, so like God made in this, That of them both a circle emblem is, Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away; She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all; She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall, Her Maker put to making, and the head Of life at once not yet alive yet dead; She sees at once the virgin mother stay Reclused at home, public at Golgotha; Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen; At once a Son is promised her, and gone; Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John; Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity, At once receiver and the legacy; All this, and all between, this day hath shown, The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one (As in plain maps, the furthest west is east) Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est. How well the Church, God’s court of faculties, Deals in some times and seldom joining these! As by the self-fixed Pole we never do Direct our course, but the next star thereto, Which shows where the other is and which we say (Because it strays not far) doth never stray, So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know And stand firm, if we by her motion go; His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both. This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown Death and conception in mankind is one: Or ‘twas in Him the same humility That He would be a man and leave to be: Or as creation He had made, as God, With the last judgment but one period, His imitating Spouse would join in one Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone: Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words, Would busy a life, she all this day affords; This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay, And in my life retail it every day. – John Donne
This evening I had the good fortune to be able to attend the "Passion Vespers: Meditations on the Passion of Christ" at the Church of St. Michael & St. George, St. Louis. It was billed as "service of the spoken word and music featuring readings selected from Scripture, the ancient Church Fathers, and modern-day poets interspersed with seasonal music, sung by the Choir, to illuminate the texts."
There is something compelling about the idea of worship on the Evening of Palm Sunday. The festivity of the morning being ended, Holy Week has entered its dark, preparatory intensity. A service on this day, or early in Holy Week, can draw is further in to the mystery and simply allow us a place to reflect, pray, and praise.
The service at St. Michael's was splendid and well appointed. It followed a pattern of non-biblical reading, anthem, versicle and response, collect. Two hymns were included.
The only comparison I have for this type of liturgy is the "Meditation on the Passion of Christ" service at St. John's, Cambridge. By comparison, I found this service to be much less noisy (the John's service begins with "All glory, laud, and honor" in procession) and more focused. The procession in and out of the church was done in silence.
I was concerned about the readings being entirely non-biblical, but they were so well chosen, and so compelling, I have to say I didn't mind at all.
Having been to the service, and with my leaflet still in hand, I can amend the published music list with a few more details. Most of the music was new to me, and all of it perfectly chosen for this liturgy. The cumulative effect was one of true meditation.
It was interesting that the mention of Jesus' triumphal entry appeared at the end of this liturgy, but in the words of Henry Millman, it is not Jesus' entry into Jerusalem that is ultimately the focus of Passiontide, but his entry into battle–"Thy last and fiercest strife"–which causes us to plead "Then take, O God, thy power and reign."
It's easy to see a service like this abbreviated on a music list and think that it must be a slapdash "Lenten Lessons and Carols". This service was nothing of the sort. This year the start of my Holy Week has been immeasurably enriched by the very thoughtful, carefully prepared liturgy held at St. Michael's.
O Lord, Christ, Lamb of God, Lord of Lords, call us, who are called to be saints, along the way of Thy cross: Draw us, who would draw nearer our King to the foot of Thy cross: Cleanse us, who are not worthy of approach, with the pardon of Thy cross: Instruct us, the ignorant and blind, in the school of Thy cross: Arm us, for the battles of holiness by the might of Thy cross: Bring us, in fellowship of Thy sufferings to the victory of Thy cross: And seal us in the Kingdom of Thy glory among the servants of Thy cross, O crucified Lord; who with the Father and Holy Ghost livest and reignest one God almighty, eternal, world without end. Amen. –Eric Milner-White
American composer Samuel Barber was born on this date in 1910. One of my favorite pieces of his is Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which, in a way, celebrated a kind of centennial last summer (even more so if you happened to be in Knoxville then).
Here's a (slightly revised) excerpt of a piece I wrote for the St. Paul's, Richmond June/July 2015 edition of The Epistle, the parish newsletter.
Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24 by American composer Samuel Barber isn’t a piece of sacred music, and you won’t hear it in church any time soon (at least, not that we have planned!), but there is a deep sense of sacredness within.
The piece, scored for voice (usually sung by soprano) and full orchestra, sets an excerpt of prose by James Agee. What I love about how this all comes together—the words, the voice, the orchestra—is that Barber creates the summer in Tennessee 100 years ago. You can hear the passing cars: the “loud auto” and “a quiet auto.” You sense the still, humid summer air. You feel the presence of many people lingering, on their stoops, on their porches, on their lawns at “that time of evening”—all of them trying to escape the heat.
Halfway through the piece, it draws inward. The soprano, who sings from the perspective of a small boy, tells of the people in his life, lying on quilts in their backyard: “All my people are larger bodies than mine.” And these people talk “of nothing in particular.” I am chagrinned to note that among the people in this gathering “one is an artist” and “one is a musician” both of whom are “living at home.” But then the bottom drops out of the music for a moment of great emotional intensity, as the soloist declaims with great love “one is my mother, who is good to me.” And the music contracts again to give the inevitable resolution to this melody as the soprano affirms “one is my father, who is good to me.” And then Barber pivots the music, this time with unsettled harmonies, and the boy realizes the cosmic implications of human existence itself.
“By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night.”
There is, to my ear, a deep kind of sacredness that I don’t think we often encounter in our typical church music.
Evensong is on the rise in Britain, especially with young people.
College chaplains have seen a steady but noticeable increase in attendances at the early evening services which combine contemplative music with the 16th Century language of the Book of Common Prayer.
It's a good example of how not adopting the popular culture wholesale can set the church apart as a sacred space.
Chaplains say the mix of music, silence and centuries-old language appears to have taken on a new appeal for a generation more used to instant and constant communications, often conducted in 140 characters rather than the phrases of Cranmer.
“The era of jaded folk worship is coming to an end”
The conclusion reached by some (which has also been borne out by surveys in the U.S.) is that the younger generation is largely rejecting the "popular" or "folk" idioms that were propagated in many churches in the 1970s.
“The era of jaded folk worship is coming to an end,” [Neil McCleery] said.
“Indeed I think the people who want that sort of thing are the older generation now and the young are coming back to traditional worship and the choral tradition.”
Read the article: Bingham, John. "Looking for Britain’s future leaders? Try evensong". The Telegraph 1 March 2016
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Full daintily it is dight.
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