Carols and the Passion: Drawing on Many Traditions for a Modern Meditation
I am delighted to invite you to a new offering at St. Peter’s this year. As part of our Evensong series on the second Sunday of every month, the St. Peter’s Singers will lead A Meditation on the Passion of Christ on Palm Sunday, April 9 at 5:30 p.m.
What is this service? It is a compelling synthesis of ancient and modern. And, like Evensong, I hope that it can be a space for real contemplation and prayer, especially at the start of the holiest week of the liturgical year.
This past weekend St. Louisans had the good fortune to be able to hear a performance of The Gospel According to the Other Mary by American composer John Adams, which is a rare modern setting of the Passion. In the program notes Paul Schiavo notes “because its inherent pain was at odds with Western culture’s increasingly determined pursuit of happiness, the Passion story lost popular standing among Christian chronicles to the more comforting Nativity tale during the 19th century and beyond.”
One of the benefits of this cultural affinity toward the Christmas story has been renewed attention to the musical form of the carol, largely music with a focus on the Nativity, but not exclusively. The popularity of carols was so great that it prompted the editors of the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols to call upon churches to hold “carol services” not only at Christmas time, but also Advent, Epiphany, Eastertide, and – why not? – Lent too! Indeed, within the Oxford Book of Carols a number of pieces of music marked for Lent and Holy Week can be found.
This impulse to use the carol to draw Christians deeper into their faith arose at an academic community where there was no liturgical observance of Holy Week. This place is St. John’s College, Cambridge (which also served as the source of the liturgy for our Advent Carol Service). The students of Cambridge University are not present during Holy Week, so a service was designed for the St. John’s College community to reflect on the mysteries of this key part of the Christian story beforehand. The service was designed in 1985 by the Dean of Chapel, the Rev. Andrew Macintosh, and the Organist, George Guest.
The original name of this service was “A Meditation on the Passion of Christ, with Carols,” though it should be noted that at St. John’s, and many other places where this service is offered, the designation “with Carols” has been dropped, and now many different types of music are used.
This service was introduced and explained to American church musicians by Dale Adelmann, the first North American to sing with the Choir of St. John’s and now the Canon for Music at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta. Dr. Adelmann notes that the “bones” of the service are “1) the liturgical singing of the Gospels, 2) the plainsong antiphons, and 3) the collects.” We are very familiar with collects at St. Peter’s, hearing a Collect of the Day at the beginning of the Eucharist every Sunday, but let me comment briefly about the other two “bones.”
In many “high church” parishes it is customary for the Gospel to be sung every Sunday, but even in these places the chanting of the Passion Gospel on Palm Sunday would likely take a different form. The ancient tradition was for this gospel to be sung by three deacons: one taking the role of the narrator, one singing the words of Jesus, and one to sing all other dialogue (the crowd, Pilate, Peter, etc.). Even in parishes like St. Peter’s where there is no custom of singing the Gospel on Palm Sunday, the Passion is still singled out for special treatment due to its length and its drama. On Palm Sunday morning we will read the Passion responsively and, uniquely on this day, we will hear most of it while seated. So if you return to St. Peter’s on Palm Sunday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. to the Meditation on the Passion of Christ, you will hear a rather different presentation of the Passion story; it will be taken from Matthew, Luke, and John, and it will be largely sung by the Choir.
The second of the “bones” of the service is the singing of the plainsong antiphons. The Meditation on the Passion of Christ is divided into three sections: 1) Gethsemane, 2) the Trial, and 3) the Crucifixion. An ancient plainsong antiphon corresponding to each of these themes is sung at the opening of each of these three parts of the service. These antiphons come from the great body of plainsong that was cultivated in the church starting in about the eighth century, and are chants that were sung on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. They were translated into English by George Guest for this service.
In both cases we are hearing familiar words of scripture set to unadorned melody – ancient melodies that have stood the test of time. It is hoped that singing these words to plainsong as part of this service will not be some academic exercise or museum piece but rather help to connect us in this time and place to the living Christian tradition that has told this story for 2000 years.
And what can make this service so moving, I think, is the juxtaposition of these ancient melodies with newer elements that can speak to us afresh, and help us to hear the power and the mystery of the Passion story in different ways.
The service to be held at St. Peter’s will include readings from the poetry of Wendell Berry and Scott Cairns (a professor of English at the University of Missouri). The music to be sung will include words of Charles Wesley (“O Love divine”), and in thinking about how this service had its genesis with carols that “connect Christ’s Incarnation to his Passion” we have also included the carol “I wonder as I wander.”
One of the features of the original service of St. John’s was the pairing of the spiritual “Were you there” with a choral setting of the Crucifixus (the lines from the Nicene Creed that declare Christ was crucified for us). Dr. Adelmann notes that “it may seem an odd juxtaposition, but the two pieces work together powerfully, even devastatingly, in this context.”
So what is it, exactly that we are doing? We are following in the footsteps of composers like J. S. Bach, and John Adams, and of liturgists like St. John’s College and Dale Adelmann; we are gathering words and music from across time to contemplate the Passion of the Christ.
I hope that you will attend, and I pray you will find it meaningful.
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other that the way of life and peace; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
– Collect for Monday in Holy Week.