St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church


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Liturgy and Music During Lent

Posted by Nathan Costa on

Lent, deriving from a medieval Germanic word for “spring,” is a time for renewal, preparation for the rebirth of the church at Easter baptisms. It offers us an opportunity each year to consider how we are living out our baptismal calling. As we begin this time of reflection together, we take the opportunity to celebrate differently as well.

During Lent we are choosing to celebrate Morning and Evening Prayer with Holy Eucharist at our Sunday liturgies. Morning and Evening Prayer, also called the “Offices of Lauds” and “Vespers,” derive from traditions of cathedral and monastic worship as early as the third century, as Christians attempted to follow the apostle Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5: 17) by marking certain moments of the day as a time for communal prayer. While the Eucharist has rightly gained its place as the primary Christian celebration, Morning and Evening Prayer are still the proper communal prayers of the church that remain hallmarks of the Episcopal tradition and that we all are encouraged to pray. We renew that tradition at St. Bart’s by having lay presiders lead our communal worship in Morning and Evening prayer. Our Saturday evening service also renews the early Anglican tradition of Rite 1 Evening Prayer, reflecting the language and piety of Elizabethan liturgy and Book of Common Prayer.

Although much will seem familiar, Morning and Evening Prayer differ in their structure and sequence from Holy Eucharist. After some opening sentences, the offices begin with a confession of sin, particularly appropriate for Lent as we examine our consciences and renew our calling to follow Christ. The offices also place greater prominence on psalms and canticles, which are in fact Jewish and early Christian prayers and songs, rather than on lengthy readings. An “invitatory” psalm “invites” us to prayer as we rise in the morning (Psalm 95: “Come, let us sing to the Lord”), while the evening recognizes the setting sun with a hymn to light, a symbol of Christ. During Lent we will speak the appointed psalm antiphonally, from side to side, as it likely would have been done (and sung) in early church celebrations. We will still hear readings from scripture, using two lessons for Sunday Eucharist, generally the Old Testament and Gospel reading, and following each reading we sing the traditional canticles (Latin, for “little song”) for morning and evening: in the morning we sing Zechariah’s song of blessing (Benedictus, “Blest be the God of Israel”) at the birth of his son John the Baptist, celebrating Christ as the “dawn from on high breaking upon us … to guide our feet into the way of peace.” In the evening we sing both Mary’s song of praise (Magnificat, “My soul glorifies the Lord”) when she learns she will give birth to the child of God, and Simeon’s song, (Nunc Dimittis, “Lord, let your servant go in peace”), when he sees Jesus, the long-awaited messiah. Following the sermon will be the shorter Apostles’ Creed, the prayers, and the peace, and then our celebration of Eucharist as usual. 

In addition to choosing a different structure for liturgy, as we are called to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, so too do we fast from our senses in liturgy: our songs are simpler — we sing a litany chant for our procession as well as a meditative response to the Prayers of the People. Instrumentation will be simpler, as well, used to support our singing. The brighter mixtures and reed (trumpet-like) sounds of the organ will wait until Easter. Finally, we will sing our most common songs, the Sanctus and the Lord’s Prayer a cappella, without instrumentation at all, allowing our song to be sustained by our common voices. Of course, we save our fullest word of praise, Alleluia, for our Easter acclamation. 

These changes are all choices designed to take us deeper and differently into our common life of prayer and to prepare us for the great rebirth that is Easter.  We wish you a holy and productive Lent and look forward to the opportunity to reflect with you on these choices together after Easter Day. 

~Nathan Costa, Director of Music and Liturgy