The forty days of Lent are almost over, and now the great Easter Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter) has begun. Last Sunday we began Holy Week with a triumphal procession, but with the reading of the Passion story from Matthew, the tone changed from exultation to that of grief and lamentation. Last Sunday’s Compline service and one of the anthems we sang during Lent – the Tallis setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah- express this mood of sorrow.
We began Compline on Palm Sunday (listen our podcast – click Play to begin) by singing as an orison “Drop, drop, slow tears“, as set by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). The words take us immediately into a place of devotion, as they evoke the woman who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears, and dried them with her hair:
Drop, drop, slow tears, and bathe those beauteous feet,
Which brought from Heav’n the news, and Prince of Peace…
Our psalm that evening (03:45) was Psalm 22, verses 1 through 21, in a simple plainsong setting. The words begin “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — words recorded by Matthew and Mark as those of Jesus, dying on the Cross. This text not only contains its literal meaning, but stands for the whole psalm, painting a picture of who Jesus was. It includes not only his suffering and the manner of his death (“they pierce my hands and my feet”), but, in the last verse, a proclamation of deliverance: “They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done.”
Our hymn on Palm Sunday (11:00) was Vexilla Regis, which dates from the sixth century, and is sung at Vespers in the two weeks before Easter, and also on Good Friday as the Blessed Sacrament is carried in procession to the altar. The version we sang had alternate verses in polyphony by Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474). Here is the first stanza:
The Royal Banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow
Where He, as man, who gave man breath
Now bows before the yoke of death.
Our anthem (24:40) was a setting of In manus tuas by John Sheppard (1515-1558). The words are taken from Psalm 31:5, and are sung every week as a short response in our Compline service, after the Chapter, a short bible reading. Like the opening of Psalm 22, the first half of this verse was said by Jesus (Luke 23:46) as he hung on the cross:
Into your hands I commend my spirit * for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.
On Wednesday through Friday of Holy Week during the middle ages, sections of the Lamentations of Jeremiah were used as lessons during the first part (or Nocturn) of the Office of Matins. In the later middle ages, these were sung on the afternoon and evening of the day before, during which candles were extinguished, symbolizing the death of Christ; this became known as Tenebrae (Darkness). It has been a tradition of the Compline Choir since its founding to sing settings of the Lamentations during Lent; you can listen here (Press Play – the anthem begins at about 20:30) to a setting of Lamentations 1:1-2 by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). Each verse is introduced by a letter, in alphabetic order. This is the letter that begins the verse in the original Hebrew, but the use of it by itself in both the chant, and in later Renaissance settings, is a plaintive vocal expression of grief. Here is the translation:
Here begin the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah:
Aleph. How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.
Beth. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.
(Refrain) Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God.
As we enter these days of lamentation and hope, we find consolation through the communal expression of our sorrow. May you have a most blessed and happy Easter.