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Musical Musings: Holy Week

The Music of Holy Week

by Gary Penkala

Part I: Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

"Christ became obedient for us unto death, even to death on a cross. Therefore God exalted him and has given him the name that is above every name." With this text, oft repeated in Holy Week liturgies, the Church celebrates the ultimate mystery - the death and resurrection of God's Son for the salvation of the human race. It is no light matter we commemorate during this week called "Holy," and the music used must reflect our reverence, awe, sorrow and joy. This very special week calls for the best and the most sacred music -- trite or childish music that has unfortunately become a part of other liturgies has absolutely no place during Holy Week.

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion (as the new Lectionary calls the day) opens this week, and, as many people will not return to church until Easter, it should capture the mood of all the liturgies preceding the Great Vigil. Palm Sunday itself has a dual character: the exuberant cries of "hosanna" which accompany Christ's entry into Jerusalem, and the somber proclamation of the Passion account. If the Solemn Entrance Rite is used (rather than the Simple Entrance) the song which will accompany the procession must be strong and vigorous, acclaiming Christ as King and Messiah, "as did the crowds who welcomed him to Jerusalem." The hymn could be "To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King," "All Glory, Laud and Honor" (or perhaps just the refrain), "Crown Him with Many Crowns." "All Glory Laud and Honor" may also be sung to the tune used for "O Sacrament Most Holy." Whatever the song, the procession should be majestic, colorful, with veiled cross, candles, incense, palms, banners, and, if the word may be used, POMP.

In contrast to the festive nature of the opening, the Liturgy of the Word (and the rest of Mass) should be simple. The setting for the Responsorial Psalm should be somber and unadorned, as should the proclamation of the Passion. A chant setting of the Mass Ordinary may be effective (see Chant Booklet IV Catalog #2004, for one possibility). Rather than using a hymn at the close of Mass, perhaps a quiet recessional (e.g. the chant Vexilla Regis prodeunt which is available in Chant Booklet II Catalog #2002) could be sung by the choir, or perhaps silence would be best. In either case there should be no organ music following the recessional.

 Back to Holy Week Index

Part II: Holy Thursday

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