Stan Metheny on ‘Oculi Mei’ the Introit for 3rd Sunday of Lent

Stan continues his series on the Introits of Lent, exclusively for this site.

In the Rome of the early Christian centuries the solemn services on the third Sunday of Lent were held in the Church of St. Lawrence, to thank God for the grace of Baptism and the sonship of God, which was attained through it. The catechumens joined the baptized for the beginning of the liturgy. At the church of the deacon St. Lawrence, their patron, they were examined today, as on seven other days of Lent, about the doctrine they had studied, and inquiry was made into their manner of life. So the present Sunday was also called the Sunday of scrutinies. Prayers were said over the catechumens and the first exorcism performed in order to destroy the power of the devil in their souls.

So the composer of this Introit was concerned in a special manner to give prominent expression to one word, the word which predominates over the rest of the antiphon: evellet—He liberates me, plucks my foot from the snare, frees me. Whatever of consolation and joy—a joy like that of Easter—this word contained, was to penetrate into the heart of the catechumens; at the same time it was to arouse a powerful longing for happiness, for the freedom of the children of God. Evellet takes the part of a leitmotif, receiving a wonderful development especially in today’s Gospel. However great Satan’s power may be, a superior power will take the field against him. Christ will conquer him, will cast him out from the souls of men and despoil him of the weapons in which he had placed his trust. Thus prays the Introit: Oculi mei—my eyes are ever fixed upon the Lord. Text and melody exhibit a pleasing, symmetric construction.

In the first part we look up to God; in the second we beg Him graciously to look down upon us. Each part, in its second phrase, adduces a reason. “My eyes are towards the Lord,” quia. . . ” for He shall pluck my feet out of the snare;” in the second part: “look Thou upon me,” quoniam. . . “for I am alone and poor.” In the first phrase, the melody, corresponding to its text, tends upward: Oculi mei…and especially evellet. In the second phrase we must regard it as more than mere coincidence that there are four descending fourths over the petition: Look Thou upon me. Oculi, setting in with an interval of a fifth, reminds us of the first word of the Introit for the third Mass of Christmas, Puer. The melody over me is also known to us from the same Introit. There it occurs over the word nobis. Similarly the close: sum ego, sounds like that of the Christmas Introit over Angelus. Then, like imperium in the Christmas melody, evellet ascends to high f. In the present Introit, however, the development is more ornate, it is drawn on a grander scale, and the accents with the frequent pressus forms are more energetic. With unflinching eye the singer gazes upward to God. This is shown not only by the protraction of the dominant, but especially by the annotated manuscript reaching back as far as the tenth century. Over semper they demand a broad rendition of all the notes—a valuable psychological indication. We meet the cadence of Dominum again at the end of the second part over unicus, and in a somewhat extended form over (miserere) mei. The unsatisfactory cadence at the close of the first part would lead us to expect a continuation. The second part, respice—”look upon me”—is melodically more tender, more fervent, more suppliant, but its range is less extended.

Respice still has a range of a sixth (g-e); the subsequent members of the phrase, however, confine themselves to a fifth (f-c). The harsh triton over pauper agrees well with the subdued feeling. In the psalm-verse a light secondary accent on the third syllable further increases the rest and the rhythmic clearness. Thus, after the introductory formula over Ad, quiet two-note groups follow. In the second half of the verse the significant little word te “(in Thee . . I put my trust”) must not be neglected; still the flow of the whole must not be interrupted by it.

If, in the first place, the Church prayed in the stead of those who are preparing for Baptism, she has to pray for many today who after Baptism have again become the prey of the devil, who have again strayed into his snares, from which they cannot or will not liberate themselves. From our own experience we know that he does not very readily resign his domination over a man; that, like a spider, he spins his webs, employing our evil propensities and the seductions of the world to ensnare us. We are well aware of the difficulty of the struggle and the extent of our weakness. This calls for much and fervent prayer; we must fix our eyes on the Lord (Oculi mei semper ad Dominum), we must implore Him to look down upon us in his mercy. And this we do eloquently in the words of the Collect:

Deus, omnium misericordiarum et totius bonitatis auctor, qui peccatorum remedia in ieiuniis, orationibus et eleemosynis demonstrasti, hanc humilitatis nostrae confessionem propitious intuere, ut, qui inclinamur conscientia nostra, tua semper misericordia sublevemur.
God, author of all mercies and all goodness, who has shown us the remedies of our sins in fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, look graciously upon this admission of our lowliness, so that we who are bowed down by the weight of our conscience might always be lifted up by your mercy.

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