Music Notes | Fourth Sunday in Lent

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

Many Sundays of the year are traditionally known by the first word(s) of the Introit (Entrance) chant assigned to them: the Fourth Sunday in Lent is thus known as Laetare Sunday, after its Introit, which begins ‘Laetare Jerusalem’ (Rejoice, O Jerusalem). Several of the historic proper texts on this day  allude to Jerusalem: not only the Introit-verse, but also the Gradual (upon which this week’s prelude by contemporary American composer Gerald Near is based), is taken from Psalm 122 – a psalm of pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem – which was also the Psalm for this Sunday in the 1979 Prayer Book lectionary that in most parts of the Episcopal Church has been superseded by the Revised Common Lectionary. 

These references to Jerusalem appear because the stational church of the day (the place where the Bishop of Rome anciently would celebrate Mass after the faithful from all over the city had gathered and made a procession) is the ‘Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem’, built to house relics of the True Cross and floored with earth brought to Rome from the Holy City so that it was literally ‘in Jerusalem’: one of several ways in the ancient world in which the liturgy could  be shared, or even be continuous, throughout the Church despite the gaps in time and space which we are also feeling acutely at the moment. The church in question anciently lay across a valley from the Lateran, so that going up to it was  like going up to Zion, and the Prophet Isaiah’s words of promised restoration to a people in exile (as mediated through old Greek and Latin translations) could be heard as an invitation to the congregation there present: ‘Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and assemble, everyone, all who love her.’

Why was this church chosen as the station for this day? We can imagine that it was meant in part as a preview for the Lenten catechumens of the joy soon to be theirs, fitted between their being instructed in the Creed and the Our Father on the Sundays before and after (as they are in the Episcopal Church’s Catechumenate today). The historic Epistle calls the heavenly Jerusalem (elsewhere, of course, equated with the Church) the mother of the faithful. It is this mother who satisfies her children with her milk: the Eucharist, sign and means of abundant life, which Lenten catechumens finally taste at the Easter Vigil (indeed neophytes were anciently given milk and honey along with the Body and Blood, a sign of their having reached the promised land of nourishment and sweetness). And the historic Gospel, the account of the multiplication of loaves from John 6, is a figure of the Eucharistic abundance as well. (This Gospel was retained for this Sunday in the 1979 Prayer Book lectionary and is reflected in the Collect still appointed.)

The Revised Common Lectionary now used at St David’s and in most places in the Episcopal Church instead conforms to the modern Roman Catholic lectionary on this day (as both it and the Prayer Book lectionary indeed do on most other occasions) and provides a selection from John 3, including the famous sixteenth verse. Our Anthem is the premiere presentation of a new setting of this text by our own Mark Wischkaemper. Our Sequence hymn, F. Bland Tucker’s versification of a passage from the second-century Epistle to Diognetus, also reflects this Gospel’; the tune was written by major English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis.

Sunday’s Gospel as a whole also contains both a prediction of Christ’s Passion (echoed in next week’s Gospel) and a statement that ‘light has come into the world’, repelling those who do evil but attracting those who do the will of God (perhaps also a useful word to the Lenten catechumens). This latter notion is also found in the appointed Epistle, and light is the main image in our opening hymn, Charles Wesley’s ‘Christ, whose glory fills the skies’. The tune associated with ‘Christ, whole glory fills the skies’ is ultimately derived from a medieval German folk hymn, ‘Gott der Vater, wohn uns bei’ (God the Father, dwell with us), of which there are many settings for organ. Our Postlude is one such, by the important late-17th-century German composer Johann Pachelbel.

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