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CNP Feedback - Chrism Mass Brass

Question: Dear CNP,

I was just invited to sing with the choir at our cathedral for the Chrism Mass during Holy Week. I was excited to participate until I read that they are hiring a brass quartet! Am I mistaken in saying this is a premature presentation of Easter joy? Is a brass quartet even technically allowed for the Chrism Mass considering Lent hasn't officially come to a close? I have been working hard to keep my own and my congregation's Lenten experience very simple in order to highlight the joy of Easter and do not want to compromise that feeling of Lenten penance before Easter.

A. Brass Pass

Answer: Dear Mr. Pass,

Thanks for your question about brass at the Chrism Mass. It gives me a chance to talk about some rather "fuzzy" (less clear-cut) rubrics concerning music during Lent.

The blanket rubric says that during Lent the organ (and other instruments) are played only to accompany singing (congregation, choir, cantor, etc). The rubric further lists the following exceptions specifically, when solo instrumental music is allowed:

  1. Laetare Sunday [4th Sunday of Lent]
  2. Solemnities (like Annunciation, Saint Joseph, Anniversary of Church Dedication)
  3. Feasts (like Chair of Peter, Anniversary of Diocesan Cathedral Dedication, Principal Patron of the Diocese)

There are a number of questions that arise from trying to reconcile the blanket prohibition of solo organ music with other possible "exceptions" that are not specifically listed.

For example, what about:

  1. Wedding Masses
  2. Confirmation Masses
  3. Masses at which Baptism is celebrated
  4. First Communion
  5. Palm Sunday
  6. Holy Thursday [Chrism Mass]
  7. Holy Thursday [Mass of the Lord's Supper]
  8. Stations of the Cross and other devotions
  9. Penance services
  10. RCIA rituals, like the Rite of Election

One could say that the blanket prohibition covers all these circumstances, since none of them is specifically exempted. That, however, seems contrary to the real intent of the rubric. That intent seems, at least to me, to concretize the penitential nature of Lent by "fasting" from solo organ music. I see that "fasting" rooted in the penitence of Lent, much the same way as violet vestments show that penitential spirit.

When a penitential mood is lacking, exhibited by not wearing violet vestments, then perhaps the blanket rubric does not apply. Up until the new Roman Missal, this could only be "inferred," and the inference could be seen as rather tenuous. A certain part of the new Roman Missal made this clearer — and this was brought to light by some liturgical questions recently answered by the Secretariat of Divine Worship (USCCB Committee on Divine Worship).

The Ritual Masses near the back of the new Missal (Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, etc) call for a Gloria to be sung (said), even during Lent. The thinking is that this puts these Ritual Masses on a par with Solemnities and Feasts during Lent (which also have a Gloria). Consequently, solo organ music could be allowed, as it is on Solemnities and Feasts. This would indicate that for numbers 1, 2 and 3 above one could readily use solo organ music.

I would think that because of the violet vestments worn for numbers 8, 9 and 10 (as well as no Gloria at all, which otherwise might indicate festivity), solo organ music should not be used during Stations, Penance service, or the Rite of Election.

This leaves two groups: First Communions, and the Holy Week Masses listed above. The first category is not terribly pertinent, since it is a rare parish that schedules First Communion during Lent. In the unusual event of such a Mass, I would presume that a Gloria could be sung, due to the festive nature of the celebration, and this would allow solo organ music on the same grounds as for any other Ritual Mass.

Palm Sunday and the two Mass of Holy Thursday are different. They're certainly not Ritual Masses. They are, however, not celebrated in violet vestments: we use red for Palm Sunday and white for both the Chrism Mass [which can be transferred to a day earlier in Holy Week] and the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday. There is no Gloria sung on Palm Sunday, but the mood of the beginning, the Commemoration of the Lord's Entrance into Jerusalem, is undoubtedly festive and celebratory. The ritual action (gathering outside, processing to the church, waving palm branches) as well as the texts ("Hosanna to the Son of David," "Even the stones would cry out," "O gates, lift high your heads," "All peoples, clap your hands") are boisterous and acclamatory ... hardly penitential. An argument can be made that the beginning of this Mass, up until the Collect and Readings, is not "of Lent," and that solo organ music [prelude, processional] might be appropriate.

Both Masses of Holy Thursday call for a Gloria; both are celebrated in white vestments. I can see little sense in prohibiting solo organ music at the Chrism Mass or at the Mass of the Lord's Supper, up through the Gloria. After the Gloria at this latter Mass, the rubrics do specify a "return to Lent" — organ music only to accompany singing. In fact, many parishes turn the organ off completely, and use only a cappella music (choral and congregational) for the remainder of this Mass, for all of Good Friday, and for the beginning of the Easter Vigil (until before the Gloria).

So if we can argue for allowing organ music at the Chrism Mass, what about a brass quartet? Realize that the official rubric makes no distinction among organ, piano, brass quartet, guitars, or any other instruments one might play during liturgies. They all fall under the general Lenten ban. We can't use an organ prelude on the First Sunday of Lent and we can't use a brass recessional on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. But we can use either one (or both) on the Solemnity of Saint Joseph (which would only ever fall on a weekday during Lent).

If we allow the organ to play alone at the Chrism Mass, then we would need to allow a brass quartet to play as well. Would that be "a premature presentation of Easter joy"? Only if using it on Saint Joseph's solemnity is such. The Chrism Mass is a festive celebration in the life of a diocese, wherein the holy oils are blessed by the bishop and he receives a renewal of the promises made by the priests in his care. There is no sadness here — unlike even the Mass of the Lord's Supper, where the Collect reads in part, "...[the Lord], when about to hand himself over to death...", and the altar [the symbol of Christ] is quietly stripped of cloths and adornments after Mass. Using organ music and even a brass quartet may not be out of character for the Chrism Mass.

This may be a matter of perspective, though. If the cathedral celebrates the Chrism Mass with much pomp and ceremony, with large choir and brass quartet, but enlists only a cantor and the third-string organist for the Easter Vigil — then something's not right. But assuming that the cathedral and your own parish are doing their best to make the "Easter joys" fully realized in the liturgy, then I would feel quite comfortable participating in the Chrism Mass as you outlined — just hold back on the timpani, cymbals and pealing bells!

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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