Abbot Xavier Perrin OSB of Quarr Abbey writes of Holy Week Gregorian Chant
We may feel daunted when we arrive at Holy Week, even at the end of a reasonably serious Lent, by the mysteries of this most sacred season. Now is the time to entrust ourselves to the Church’s maternal lead, to listen to the voice of the Church: the words she reads out, the prayers she makes, the silence she keeps, and the music she sings. The Church has found in Gregorian Chant an apt expression of her soul. She sings in the Spirit the mysteries of Christ. Christ sings in her and with her to the Father’s glory.
On Palm Sunday, the voice of the Church – vox Ecclesiae – intones the Gradual Christus factus est for the first of many times during this week. Taken from the Christological hymn to the Philippians, it aptly expresses the Church’s contemplation of the Cross: ‘Christ was made obedient for us (touching bottom D) even to death and death on the cross (touching bottom C). Therefore God exalted him (touching top G) and gave him the name which is above every name.’ The musical phrase holds together in unity death and resurrection, humiliation and exaltation, thus helping us to pass over smoothly from one pole of the Paschal Mystery to the other.
The Introit of Maundy Thursday, Nos autem, is taken from the letter to the Galatians. With it, we enter the Triduum Sacrum, the eyes of our souls fixed on Christ for in the Lord Jesus Christ himself are “our salvation, our life and our resurrection”.
The voice of the Church conveys the contemplative vision of our Mother gazing at her crucified Saviour. She makes sure that we never celebrate the Cross without the Resurrection. She guarantees the climate of supernatural peace that must prevail in any celebration of the Cross.
Most texts in Gregorian Chant are taken from the Psalter. The Psalms give us access to Christ’s voice. They are his prayer. With them, we look at the Passion from inside, from within Christ’s soul. One could say the Psalms fully make sense only in the light of the Cross and the Resurrection, on the lips of the suffering Christ.
The Tract on Palm Sunday is Jesus’ cry on the Cross: ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ The Offertory is the suffering cry of Psalm 68: ‘I looked for someone to help me, but I did not find any’. The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday Masses quote some of the most powerful cries of the Psalter (Ps 34; Ps 68; Ps 69; Ps 101; Ps 142; Ps 101). Each time, a few verses (never more than three) suffice. The melodies express suffering and dejection by adopting a low tone and a slow movement. In other pieces, Christ’s voice becomes vehement, even anguished. Always, though, after a climax of tensions, the final note is of peace.
The same voice of Christ is heard during the long Vigils of the Triduum, both in the psalmody and in the responsories. The Lamentations of Jeremiah make it heard in the most poignant way.
However, Christ remains peaceful and divine. The communion of Palm Sunday, in its utter simplicity, sings the consent which closes the prayer at Gethsemane: “Father, if this chalice cannot pass without my drinking it, your will be done.” The final notes resound as a victory of filial love.
Christ holds in Himself all the dimensions of His mystery: harsh sufferings and serene obedience, horrible death and unflinching trust. By singing not only with his words but with his voice or even, in his voice, we enter his Heart through the humble door of Chant.
On Good Friday, there is no Introit. Silence is the only fitting preface for the Cross, just as it will be the companion of the tomb on Holy Saturday. When it comes to the adoration of the Cross, though, the cantors intone the Reproaches: “My people, what have I done to you? You prepared a Cross for your Saviour!” This is the voice of the crucified Christ, obviously, but one hears in it the Father’s voice, too. We recognise God’s great cry: “Why is love not loved? Why is mercy not received?” The Church responds to it first in Greek, then in Latin: “Hagios o Theos!” ‘Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us’. The contrast between the humble music of the reproaches and the ardent proclamation of God’s holiness is unforgettable.
The holiness of the Cross stems from the merciful heart of the Father in which it was planted before the foundation of the world. The voice of the Father showing His crucified Son breaks the hearts of stone of sinners, thus enabling them to receive the Holy Spirit who opens in them the source of supplication and adoration.
Our heart is now ready (or less unprepared) to sing – over the silence of the great Sabbath – the resurrection of Christ, not as a powerful and loud event, but in the quiet and intimate dialogue of Son and Father: “I am risen from the dead and I am always with you” (Ps 138.5). In this sublime Introit, the Church is one Spirit with Christ who is always pros ton Theon, (Jn 1.1). Mother Church leads her reborn children into the ‘bosom of the Father’ (Jn 1.18) where they sing together with the First-Born: “I am always with you, alleluia” in a melody of powerful simplicity, ineffable kindness and eternal Truth.