This Sunday is the First Sunday in Lent, and each year offers us an opportunity to regroup.
Some people take on a specific Lenten discipline – giving up something like chocolate or taking on something like a book study – which is fine but can begin to feel burdensome. I like to think of the Lenten season as a time to pare away the excesses, allowing more time for God.
Lent is a great gift to those of us who love worshipping God with liturgical practice. I confess that I had to gain some spiritual knowledge and maturity to be able to fully appreciate Lent, but I now realize that your Easter resurrection can be only as good as your Lenten discipline is.
Liturgical observances throughout the Christian year were not necessarily handed down “from on high” but result from a combination of Church documents, traditions, and customs. Each parish has its own particular practices, and Church of the Holy Communion is no different.
On Sundays, worshippers will notice a few changes for the Lenten season:
The color purple is significant for Lent for two reasons. First, it is the color historically associated with mourning, which anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion. Secondly, purple is the color for royalty, signifying Christ’s resurrection and sovereignty. The color is also mention in scripture: “They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns, and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’” (Mark 15:17-18)
Flowers on the re-table behind the altar will be replaced with arrangements of branches for the Lenten season. These arrangements will, Sunday by Sunday, grow with the subtle adding of greenery and small buds, which will morph into resplendent lilies and colorful spring flowers for the Great Vigil of Easter and the Easter Day celebrations.
The Great Litany
Based upon a prayer used as early as the 5th century in Rome, The Great Litany is the oldest piece of original-English liturgy that we have, prepared by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and first published in 1544. Cranmer included it as an appendix in the first 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and it has been published in each successive prayer book. It is the Church’s greatest, all-encompassing prayer and may be used before services or as a complete liturgy in itself.
The word Alleluia is based upon the Hebrew word for “Praise the Lord.” Because of the penitential nature of the Lenten season, the Western Church has traditionally suspended the use of the word for Lent. The omission of the Alleluia goes back to at least the 5th century. The rubrics of our Book of Common Prayer is consistent with, “In Lent, Alleluia is omitted.” On the other hand, the rubrics say that the Alleluia may be omitted at other times “except during Easter Season.”
If the ringing of bells symbolizes joy, taking the bells out of our Eucharistic celebrations for Lent might be likened to using the Kyrie rather than the Gloria in excelsis, which is the Church’s great hymn of praise. The Sanctus Bell is another one of those practical practices from the Middle Ages, when the Mass was said in Latin: the Sanctus Bell denoted the moment at which the worshippers would look to the altar to see the elevations of the sacraments.
I am personally quite proud of the manner in which this parish sings psalmody, and we use all manner of forms of Psalm singing: Anglican chant, plainsong chant, responsorial between cantor/people, congregational refrains with choir or cantor singing the verses, and metrical (hymn) settings. Throughout the year we alternate between all of the above, but in Advent and Lent our local parish tradition is to sing plainsong settings, which sound simpler and somewhat austere. I believe the simplicity of the plainsong tones allow the singer to pay careful attention to the text.
Kyrie rather than Gloria in excelsis
Our parish practice is to use the Gloria in excelsis canticle, or some other joyful, spirit-filled canticle, as the Song of Praise in our 10:30 Sunday Eucharistic celebrations. For Lent, we sing the Kyrie eleison, using either the Greek (not Latin, as some think it is) text or the “Lord, have mercy” English translation. This year we are using the old, beloved Healey Willian mass settings for the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, which is allowed even in Rite Two by the rubric, “Any prior approved forms of texts may be used.”
Solemn Prayer over the People
An option in our Anglican tradition is for the Celebrant to say a Solemn Prayer over the People rather than give the Blessing in Lent. These solemn prayers, which are printed in a supplement to the Book of Common Prayer, use beautiful, penitential images that send us out into the world at the end of our liturgy. Before the priest says this prayer, you will hear the ancient admonition, “Bow down before the Lord,” followed by the solemn prayer. These beautiful solemn prayers are in stark contrast to the triumphant blessings that will return at the Easter celebrations.
Perhaps one of the “new” Lenten hymns in The Hymnal 1982 says it best:
Eternal Lord of love, behold your Church, walking once more the pilgrim way of Lent.
—Hymn 149, stanza 1, Thomas H. Cain (1931-2003)
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