Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
As we begin the second week of the holy season of Lent, we might pause and notice some of the ways that the nature of the season is reflected back to us in and through the Church’s liturgy. Since Lent is a penitential season, the liturgy is meant to take on a more somber character. This is expressed in the decoration of the sanctuary, in the words spoken or not spoken, in the vestments worn, and in the music employed in the worship of God.
Last week, we reflected on the experience of Jesus in the desert. For all the beauty of the desert, it remains, generally, a stark landscape. And so the sanctuary of the Church, reflecting the starkness of the desert, has very little in the way of decoration. You will notice that flowers do not adorn the altar during these weeks. A visual fasting begins in this small, simple way. The visual fast will increase as we go further into Lent: from the fifth Sunday of Lent until the Easter Vigil, the images and statues in the church, save the Stations of the Cross, will be veiled, symbolically inviting us to focus our whole attention on the mystery of our Lord’s Passion. The veils will be purple in color, like the vestments worn throughout these forty days. The color purple is linked to penance, waiting, and mourning. And so the vestments are a visible reminder that, while we wait for the day of the Lord’s glorious Resurrection, we mourn our sin, turning back to God with penitent hearts.
During Lent, two important prayers fall silent. We do not sing or say the Gloria (“Glory to God in the highest”), save for during Mass on the Solemnity of St. Joseph (March 19), the Solemnity of the Annunciation (March 25), and at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. This hymn of the angels, sung at the birth of Christ, is celebratory in nature. As a penitential season, Lent is a time when celebration is put to the side. There will be a time for celebration, but that time will come, and for now we must enter into this time of penance and preparation. In addition to the Gloria, we do not sing “Alleluia.” In Hebrew, the word means “praise the Lord.” While we, of course, praise God at all times and in all seasons, the liturgical retiring of this song of praise helps us to remember that we are in the desert. There is a time for joyful song, and a time for somber song. Just as music can affect our mood, so liturgical music can remind us that the season we have entered is distinct from all other times of the Church’s worshiping year.
Finally, during Lent, we sing some of the Mass parts in Latin. Gregorian chant is especially suited to the liturgy, but also to a cappella singing. This was recognized by the Second Vatican Council, which taught: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116). Continuing that theme, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says “The main place should be given, all things being equal, to Gregorian chant, as being proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other kinds of sacred music, in particular, polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful. Since the faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is desirable that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Profession of Faith and the Lord’s Prayer, according to the simpler settings.” (GIRM 41). During Lent, you will also notice that organ accompaniment changes slightly, so as to be more sparing. This becomes even more apparent when, from Holy Thursday until the proclamation of the Resurrection on Easter, the organ is completely silenced. At the end of Mass, we chant the salutation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Ave Regina Caelorum (Hail, Queen of Heaven). The text and translation of all the parts of the Mass used in Latin can be found in the worship aid available at the door of the church. The procession out of the church at the end of Mass takes place in silence, a tangible reminder, again, of the penitential nature of the season.