Lent is not self-contained; it is a preparation for Easter and is, therefore, 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 continuing 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.

In addition to images of life as a pilgrimage or journey, Christian preachers and hymn writers have always liked the image of life as a sea journey or river crossing from one shore to another: “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand/And cast a wishful eye/To Canaan’s fair and happy land,/Where my possessions lie” (Samuel Stennett [1727–1795], “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks”). Such imagery, of course, is rooted in the Exodus story with its account of the passage through the sea from slavery to freedom (Exodus 14) and in the New Testament story of the storm at sea (Mark 4:35–41

Two other favorite scriptural stories associated with the need for repentance—and frequently replicated in paintings—are the story of Jonah’s shipwreck and salvation by God’s intervention (Jonah 1–2) and the story of Peter’s near-drowning and his salvation by Jesus (Matthew 14:22–33). Lent is a time to acknowledge and ask for divine help with the stormy seas that are part of baptismal life. Catechumens—and the rest of the community—are reminded in the prayers for the three exorcisms that Christian life involves temptations by the “spirit of evil,” the “father of lies,” and the “spirit of evil who brings death.”

Singing Lent

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—and a fairly new rubric calls for a separate rite if there is no procession. Pastoral musicians and liturgy planners should study these rites with an eye to providing music for the parts that are meant to be sung.

Psalms. There are seven psalms that Catholic tradition calls the “penitential psalms,” used during Lent and at other times to express repentance. In contemporary English numbering, they are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. Two of these—51 and 130—appear as assigned responsorial psalms on the Sundays of Lent and are among the common responsorial psalms for Lent, and Psalm 51 is suggested as the song during the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday. All of the penitential psalms—but these two psalms in particular—might also be used during penitential services and even in preparation for praying the stations of the cross or as part of other services during Lent.

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 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 and adapted from Singing the Year of Grace: A Pastoral Music Resource [NPM Publications, 2009].)

NOTE: For the list of abbreviations for the various hymnals, song books, and publishers, see “Key to the Music Suggestions.”