Lenten avant-garde meets the traditional

Episcopalians are nothing if not traditional. Even when we deviate, we have the structure of our liturgy upon which to fall back. Indeed, our most innovative, experimental, trial liturgies throughout the years always include the basic elements.

Within that framework, new, avant-garde music often meets the traditional as well. As this Sunday (March 5) is the First Sunday in Lent, we will observe a number of traditions for this parish: The Great Litany sung in procession, “all those forty-day hymns” (as I frequently hear said) and stark contrasts at the high altar, with lifeless branches in place of flowers, crosses veiled and an array of purple paraments.

At the Offertory this Sunday, the Parish Choir will sing one of our most unusual pieces in the music library, one that is quite effective for this Sunday’s Gospel and one from which we always “get a kick” out of rehearsing.

“The Serpent” by Thomas Pavlechko is an anthem that was written for the Sewanee Composers Project in 2006. He specifically named the tune The Serpent as well, a wonderful descriptor for this tune’s half-step movement up and down the scale. Pavlechko formerly served as organist and choirmaster of Calvary Church, Memphis, and now is cantor of St. Martin’s Lutheran in Austin, Texas.

The author of this text, Richard Leach, is a prolific writer of hymns and poetry whose work is found in Scottish, Canadian and American hymnals of many denominations. A graduate of Princeton Seminary, he was a United Church of Christ minister but is now a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

This text juxtaposes the temptation in the Garden of Eden with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the latter being the traditional Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent. And do not miss the alliteration of the hissing snake present in most of the text’s phrases.

“What do you ssee?” the sserpent ssaid.
The woman answered “Death.”
“It is not death,” the sserpent ssaid,
“It surely is not death.”

“I see what God told us to see,”
The woman quickly said.
“Ssee what I ssay,” the sserpent ssaid.
“Ssee what I ssay,” it ssaid.

“What do you ssee?” the tempter ssaid,
The Savior answered, “Stone.”
“Must it be sstone?” the tempter ssaid,
“It surely could be bread.”

“Let it be stone,” the Savior said,
“For life is more than bread.
See what the scripture says,” he said,
“See what the scripture says.”

We see what we are told to see
Whom shall we listen to?
Give us the grace, O God, to see
What we are told by you.

(Words by Richard Leach, ©2006 Selah Publishing Co. Used by permission.)

Posted by Dr. David Ouzts at 14:25