Musical Offerings In Holy Week Services

The careful observance of Holy Week rituals, from Palm Sunday through Easter, is one of the beautiful experiences offered by Mariners’ Church to our regular worshippers, to our many visitors, and to the life of the greater Detroit metropolitan area. I was asked to prepare this brief description of the four principal days on which we have musical services in Holy Week.

The Palm Sunday Liturgy begins with the organ sounding forth Bach’s Fantasia on All glory, laud and honour. The Choir sings Thomas Weelkes’ (1576-1623) six-part anthem, Hosanna to the Son of David. The Palms are blessed, the Gospel account of the Triumphal Entry is read, and the Processional Hymn, All glory, laud and honor is sung by all. Clergy, Acolytes, Choir and Church School Students circle the Nave of the Church, carrying their palm branches as they sing.

Our attention then moves to the coming events of Holy Week, with the reading of the Prayer Book’s Propers of the Day (pp. 134-137). The Gospel lesson, the Passion of our Lord According to St. Matthew, is read responsively by clergy and people. At the Offertory, the Choir sings Kenneth Leighton’s (1929-1988) deeply moving anthem, Solus ad victimam, the 11 century text of which is a meditation on the journey upon which the Saviour is about to embark, “alone to sacrifice thou goest, Lord, giving thyself to death, whom thou hast slain….”

As the assembled worshippers receive Holy Communion, the Choir sings a motet by Felice Anerio (1560-1614), a setting of a portion of the Epistle of the Day, “Christ…humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross….” The service concludes with the singing of the hymn, Ride on, ride on in majesty, and the organ plays the first movement of Vierne’s First Symphony, a fittingly somber prelude to the continued contemplations of the events of Holy Week.

On Maundy Thursday, before and after the Liturgy which commemorates the Institution of the Holy Communion, the organ plays chorale preludes by Bach and Brahms, based upon the Eucharistic hymn, Deck thy self, my soul, with gladness, Hymnal no. 210. A member of the choir sings settings of poetic meditations on the Lord’s sacrifice. The Epistle of the Day recalls the Lord’s Institution of the Sacrament, and the Gospel recounts his assuming the role of the Servant in the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet.

The Three Hour Service on Good Friday is a truly moving “waiting and watching with our Lord” during the time he hung and suffered on the Cross. At the stroke of Noon, the Choir chants Psalm 51, “Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness….” Prayers are said before the bare Altar, and the Seven Last Words of our Saviour are recounted and Psalms are read in the light of those Words. Hymns interspersed with the readings include In the Cross of Christ I glory, There is a green hill far away, and The King of Love my Shepherd is. The Choir sings Antonio Lotti’s (1667-1740) 8-part setting of the phrase from the Creed, “He was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried.” Further prayers conclude this portion of the service.

The ancient form of disciplined meditation known as the Stations of the Cross follows . The hymn, When I survey the wondrous cross, is followed by the ancient plainsong hymn, Stabat mater. Choir, Clergy and Acolytes make the journey to each station, led by the Crucifix veiled in black. Prayers, scripture quotations, brief meditations and a sung response, “Holy God….have mercy upon us,” take place at each of the Fourteen Stations which surround the Nave. After the Seventh Station, the hymn, Ah, Holy Jesus is sung (Hymnal no. 71). After the Fourteenth Station, the ancient Act of Contrition is recited, and the Choir sings words from the Book of Common Prayer, “O Saviour of the world, who by thy Cross and precious Blood hast redeemed us; Save us, and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord,” to music which I composed in 1991 for this service. The hymn, We sing the praise of him who died, concludes this portion of the service.

The organ sounds forth Bach’s Chorale Prelude on O Sacred Head, sore wounded, and the Good Friday Communion Liturgy follows. For the Epistle, a passage from the prophet Isaiah is read, in which the suffering of the Saviour is foretold. The Choir sings Tomas Victoria’s (1548-1611) beautiful setting of words from the book of Lamentations, “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Behold and see if there by any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” The Passion of our Lord according to St. J ohn is read responsively by clergy and people. The hymn, Were you there when they crucified my Lord, is sung as the Cross is brought into the Sanctuary and displayed near the Altar. The Choir sings the ancient Reproaches, (“O my people, what have I done unto you?”) as the clergy and people venerate the Cross, culminating in the singing of the plainsong hymn, Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle.

The Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s church follows, and the Confession is followed by the Absolution, as in all services of Holy Communion. According to ancient tradition, the sacred Bread and Wine are from the Reserved Sacrament, thus the Consecration is omitted on Good Friday. As the people receive the Sacrament at the altar rails, the Choir sings Leighton’s setting of Phineas Fletcher’s 1633 hymn, Drop, drop, slow tears.

After the Communion, Psalm 22 is read in unison; the first verse of this Psalm was quoted by Christ from the Cross, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? The Prayer of Thanksgiving after Communion is recited by all. The Passion Chorale, O sacred head, sore wounded, is sung by all, including a powerful stanza expressing gratitude to Christ for His dying sorrow, pledging our undying love as our grateful response to his Great Gift. Concluding prayers are recited in unison, and the service concludes as it began, with the words of Psalm 51, set to music by William Byrd (1543-1623). As the worshippers remain to meditate and pray in silence, the Bell tolls 33 times, concluding at exactly Three O’clock.

On Easter Day, the Liturgy celebrating our Lord’s Resurrection opens with Buxtehude’s jubilant Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne. The great Easter Hymn, Jesus Christ is risen today, is sung in procession, with a festive descant on the final stanza. Before the reading of Gospel account of the Resurrection from St. John’s 20th chapter, the great hymn of Christ’s triumph over death, Jesus lives! Thy terrors now Can no more O death enthrall us, is sung, again with a rousing descant. After the Creed is recited, an ancient response is proclaimed by the Choir, “Alleluia! The Lord is Risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!”

At the Offertory, the Choir sings Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s (1810-1876) extended setting of words from St. Peter’s First Epistle: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy, hath begotten us again unto a lively hope, by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

After the Consecration of the sacred Elements of the Communion, the Choir chants selected verses from St. Paul’s Epistles collectively known as The Easter Anthems: “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the Feast….” As the congregation receives the Sacrament, the Choir sings John Taverner’s (1490-1545) setting of words from St. Mark’s account of the Resurrection, Dum transisset Sabbatum, with its thrice-repeated Alleluia! Hallelujah, from Handel’s Messiah, follows the Prayer of Thanksgiving, and Arthur Sullivan’s great hymn-tune for “Welcome, happy morning” is our collective joyous response to the Easter Liturgy. The justly famous Toccata from Widor’s Fifth Symphony, with its joyous bell-like cascading arpeggios, is played on the Organ as we go out to spread the joyful news of the Lord’s triumph to the world so very much in need of this saving Word.