Photo: Ash Wednesday at St Mary Magdalen’s
Stan Metheny has written a piece on the chant for this coming Sunday exclusively for this site.
Before it firmed up in its present 40 day format, Lent took many different shapes through the centuries. Even today, there are various ways to count the days over different numbers of weeks, as the brief article on Lent in Wikipedia outlines. In our present format in the Roman rite, Ash Wednesday and the days following it are, in a sense, a prelude to the ‘public’ start of Lent on the following Sunday, when the Church gathers for Sunday Mass and Office.
Psalm 90 looms large in the Mass texts of the First Sunday of Lent. It is the source for all the Gradual chants of the day, and the devil quotes it in St. Matthew’s telling of the temptation of Jesus in the desert in the gospel reading. The Tract, the longest in the current repertoire, is the entire psalm, save two verses. At first glance, it might seem a bit surprising to have such an upbeat psalm introduce the great season of penance and mortification. But the message is clear: God will deliver me from the trials and tribulations of this world, if I persist in asking for His help.
The surprisingly upbeat text is reinforced in the Introit by a surprisingly joyful melody. Yes, Lent is a season of serious purpose, a season of penance. But this does not mean ‘doom and gloom’ for God’s faithful ones. We are on a journey to joy, and we do not travel alone. We have God Himself as our support and shelter. If we call on Him, he will hear us. And moreover, he will ultimately make us sharers in His own glory. Our acts of penance are designed to help us shed those things that hold us back, that press us down, and to prepare ourselves to be raised up to a higher purpose: life with God forever. Jesus Himself is the pledge of this coming salvation. Like us in all things but sin, He was tempted, tried, and tested on his way to the cross. Lent is a time to reflect more deeply on the ultimate meaning of our own life’s journey, and that the only real support and shelter along the way to our cross is God Himself. So we deny ourselves many of the distracting comforts of this world to learn anew that these passing things cannot really satisfy us and to focus our attention on what can.
The melody of this Introit has specific parallels in its melodies that tie together some of the actions of God upon the faithful soul. In the matching eum of eripiam/adimplebo, God snatches to safety (from death & destruction) and then gives length of days. In exaudiam/glorificabo, God’s hearing of the call for help leads to giving a share of His own glory. But for God’s saving action to be effective, we must cooperate with Him. We must acknowledge our need for His grace, and allow it to have an effect in our lives. We ask for this in the Collect of today’s Mass: . . . ad intellegendum Christi proficiamus arcanum, et effectus eius digna conversatione sectemur. ( . . . may we deepen our understanding of the hidden mystery of Christ and diligently continue its effects by worthy conduct of life.)
As is so often the case, we find the central message of the day neatly summed up in the Preface:
Qui quadraginta diebus, terrenis abstinens alimentis, formam huius observantiae ieiunio dedicavit, et, omnes evertens antiqui serpentis insidias, fermentum malitiae nos docuit superare, ut, paschale mysterium dignis mentibus celebrantes, ad pascha demum perpetuum transeamus.
[Christ our Lord], abstaining from earthly food for forty days, dedicated by His fasting the form of this [Lenten] observance, and, turning aside all the snares of the ancient serpent, taught us to overcome the ferment of evil, so that, celebrating the paschal mystery with worthy minds, we might at last pass over to the everlasting Easter.