GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO LENT
Lent is a preparation for the celebration of Easter that “disposes both catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery” (General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, 27). Lent is not self-contained; it is forward looking and focused on the meaning and the rites of baptism. For catechumens, the season is a time for the final ritual stages of the process leading to sacramental initiation at the Easter Vigil—the rite of election, the scrutinies, and catechesis. For the rest of the Church, it is a time to reflect on personal and communal continuing participation in these sacramental rites and, therefore, since all are sinners who are not fully living the meaning of these rites, a time for “listening more intently to the word of God and devoting themselves to prayer,” preparing “through a spirit of repentance to renew their baptismal promises” (Ceremonial of Bishops, 249). Lent, in other words, focuses on what it means to live every day as a Christian. For catechumens, it is the final opportunity to understand the demands of such a life before committing irrevocably to it at Easter; for those already so committed, it is an opportunity to recognize that they may have wandered away from those demands but that the grace of God is greater than their failure.
Originally, the focus of Lent was on the elect preparing for initiation, but with the decline in the catechumenate and in adult initiation by the fifth century, focus shifted to penitents, since public penance was still practiced. Lent then took on a penitential air, as the whole community prayed for the penitents and fasted with them. This was the time, by the way, when Ash Wednesday got its name. Beginning probably in Gaul, the practice developed of sprinkling the penitents with ashes—a practice which was adopted voluntarily by other community members in the tenth and eleventh centuries and was eventually incorporated into the liturgy on the first day of Lent. With the rise of the mendicant orders (especially the Franciscans and Dominicans) in the thirteenth century, Lent shifted focus again. Mendicant preachers focused on the passion of Christ, and the prayer and fasting of Lent assumed an aspect of suffering with the Savior. Penitence and a focus on participation in the sufferings of Christ led to very strict rules for fasting, abstinence, and other behavior during Lent. Although feast days were rarely observed during this season, the appearance of even a few feast days, with their relaxation of the Lenten rules, helped to lighten the load, and the appearance of rose vestments on Laetare Sunday (the Fourth Sunday of Lent) in the sixteenth century served as a reminder that Lent’s strictures would soon end.
In 1963 the Second Vatican Council called for the renewed Lenten liturgy to reflect the twofold focus of baptism and penance. This season is once more, with the widespread use of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a time for an intense preparation of the elect for the sacraments of initiation and for the whole community to walk this journey with them, since we will be invited to renew our baptismal promises on Easter Sunday. It is also a time to hear God’s call to continuing conversion and to enter into a spirit of penance through prayer, fasting, and works of charity.
The Rituals of Lent. Music serves the rituals that are particular to this season, beginning with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. The liturgy of the First Sunday of Lent may begin with a Lenten procession and the singing of the Litany of the Saints, marking a solemn entrance of the whole community into a time of renewal. There are a number of rituals related to the celebration of initiation, such as the diocesan rite of election, the optional parish rite of sending (for election), the scrutinies, the optional penitential rite for baptized candidates, and the presentations of the creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Lent is also a popular time for penance services, when the community comes together to celebrate sacramental reconciliation. Masses on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion open with a commemoration of the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem, including the blessing of palms and either a full-blown procession of the whole assembly or a solemn entrance of the ministers. Pastoral musicians and liturgy planners should study these rites with an eye to providing music for the parts that are meant to be sung.
Years A, B, and C. Before preparing music for the Sundays of Lent, be sure to check with the parish liturgy team on the selection of readings. The readings for the first two Sundays will be taken from the current year of the three-year cycle. If your parish has catechumens preparing to be initiated at this year’s Easter Vigil, then the scrutinies are celebrated on the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent, and the readings for those Masses are always drawn from Year A. Even in Years B and C, the readings of Year A are proclaimed because of their traditional and intimate connection to preparation for baptism. (Even when there are no candidates for initiation, in fact, the Lectionary for Mass offers the freedom to use the readings of either the current year or Year A at any Mass on those three Sundays.)
Instruments. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal directs that, except on the Fourth Sunday (Laetare Sunday), the organ and other instruments should be used only to lead and support the singing. This restriction does not apply to music before and after Mass (prelude and postlude), but it does suggest that any music connected to the liturgy should be modest and reflective.
Unaccompanied Singing. Whatever instrumental accompaniment you use, Lent is a good time for the whole community to do some unaccompanied singing. Consider using simple Gregorian settings of the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei or a chanted seasonal hymn such as Parce, Domine or Attende, Domine.
The Shape of the Sunday Eucharist. Plan to use the same musical shape for the liturgies of the entire season, choosing simple settings for the Kyrie, the acclamation before the Gospel, the response for the prayer of the faithful, the responsive acclamations of the Eucharistic Prayer, and the Agnus Dei. The act of penitence at the beginning of Mass might receive special attention during Lent. In fact, though it is not an option in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, some communities kneel while praying this rite, in imitation of the prayer posture assumed by the ancient order of penitents.
The Spirit of and Sound of Lent. The music of this season can help express the spirit of the season and support the members of the community on their Lenten journey. Music planners should begin their preparation by reflecting on some of the words found in the Scripture readings of Lent: return, mercy, reconciliation, fasting, prayer, giving, covenant, test, light, kindness. The music of the season should express a penitential stance while at the same time giving voice to our hope and confidence in the God whose will is always to save, redeem, and reconcile. The music should reflect the simplicity of the season and allow the liturgy to be as unencumbered as the Lenten journey itself.
(This introduction has been excerpted from Singing the Year of Grace: A Pastoral Music Resource [NPM Publications, 2009].)