Music Notes | Third Sunday in Lent

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

In this Sunday’s Gospel we find Jesus ‘cleansing the Temple’, driving out those who sold acceptable animals and exchanged currencies for ritually acceptable tender (perhaps with some unscrupulous practices involved, or at least eclipsing the ultimate point of the appointed sacrifices) to pilgrims who had come to make their offerings. This episode is placed on this Sunday presumably because of the foreshadowing of the Crucifixion (a theme that becomes more prominent on subsequent Sundays) that is appended to it. 

The Gospel is reflected in the hymn sung just before it, ‘We sing the praise of him who died’ [471]. The text bears comparison with ‘Take up your cross, the Savior said’ [675], 

Isaac Watts’s ‘Nature with open volume stands’ [434], and  ‘The head that once was crowned with thorns’ [483], also written by the author of the present hymn, Thomas Kelly. 

Perhaps as a reminder of the true nature of God’s holiness and the true purposes of sacrifice, this Gospel is accompanied by a list of the Ten Commandments from the Book of Exodus. This text is also being used liturgically in this season as part of the Penitential Order at the beginning of the service – as it was used at every celebration of the Eucharist, or at least once a month, under most previous editions of the Book of Common Prayer.

The response to this Old Testament Lesson, in turn, is Psalm 19, whose second half extols the virtues of the law, testimony, statutes, commandment, and judgements of the LORD: they revive the soul and rejoice the heart; they give wisdom and light; they are perfect and true, righteous and everlasting, and to be desired above all things. The Prayer Book, naturally enough, sets off this part of the Psalm from the first six verses, which celebrate the glory of God as shown forth in the heavens. But the two halves are part of the same reality, for the precepts of the LORD are the earthly manifestations of the divine wisdom, power, and love that fashions and undergirds the entire cosmos. 

This connection is made explicit in our opening hymn [431], a free but powerful paraphrase of this Psalm by the Church of England bishop-hymnographer Timothy Dudley-Smith. After two stanzas vividly portraying the splendor of the skies, the third links this to the Torah: just as the stars and our own Sun blaze brightly, ‘So shine the Lord’s commandments…’. In the fourth, having connected the cosmic order to the earthly realm and rightly summarized the Way of the LORD as ‘a law of love’, the author asks that the same be found in his own life: ‘So order too this life of mine, direct it all my days’. A return of two of the rhyming words used in stanza 2 – ‘days’ and ‘praise’ strengthens the link.

This text is set to music written for it by Richard Proulx, a prominent American Roman Catholic musician of the late 20th century. The melody is a flowing one, but the syllabic setting of the words to relatively quick notes in the first half, can, if not carefully treated, carry this rich text away rather too quickly. In this it is not unlike some other modern pairings of tunes in a similar vein with texts that are semantically and/or phonetically dense (‘Bridegroom’ [513, setting ‘Like the murmur of the dove’s song’] and ‘Bingham’ [585, setting ‘Morning glory, starlit sky’] come to mind).

On the other hand, the second half of this tune, which sets several syllables with similar groups of two or three notes, slows the progress of the text significantly – as with many flowing triple-meter tunes of earlier centuries – and the very lightly stressed third syllable of ‘silences’ is given a false accent by the strong downbeat in this musical meter and the rising three-note group to which it is set. The musical setting, and the various garblings of the text in some printings of the Hymnal, have unfortunately not served this fine text as well as it deserves.

A different sort of connection between creation and the all-pervasive divine presence is made in Sunday’s Anthem, ‘Water/Wind/Fire’, by contemporary singer-songwriter Jess Ray. Here God is likened to the eponymous forces of nature, uncontrollable, overwhelming, and transformative: a warning, perhaps, but ultimately a welcome message to those who would undertake the Lenten journey, or the Christian life in any season, seriously. 

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