Lent Gospel Acclamations, a User’s Guide

Putting the Alleluia on hold (for a little while)…..

From this Wednesday, February 14th, you won’t hear the word Alleluia in church for the next six weeks or so. That is because it is the beginning of Lent (although there may also be a few people celebrating February 14th for other reasons), and during Lent all the Alleluias, like the Gloria, are removed from the liturgy.

A beautiful place to keep the Alleluias during Lent
…and giving the job to the Lent Gospel Acclamation

Instead we have the Lent Gospel Acclamation, which has the exact same role. It heralds the Gospel. We sing (or say, but singing’s better) it before the (relevant) Gospel verse, and repeat it afterwards; then, completely focussed and wideawake (because of the injection of new oxygen caused by singing), we listen to the Gospel.  In some parishes, they repeat the Acclamation again after the Gospel, which means the congregation is singing it at least three times.

Lots of options

There are different forms of words for the Lent Gospel Acclamation, and they also differ in each country-group, so we end up with lots of them.  I’m not sure why there is so much variation, as they all replace the simple word ‘Alleluia’, and no-one seems to feel a need to vary that from week to week, but I just work with what I’m given.

Hunting the Bonnacore (mythical beast)
Volmar and I attempting to subdue the Lent Gospel Acclamation

We’ve now been doing this for a few years, and I have to admit that my heart and that of Volmar the Vebmaster both sink when we realise it’s Lent Gospel Acclamation time again.  This is because they are tricksy little things and it’s hard to get a good grip on them.  Somehow they always manage to get in behind you and bite you on the bottom, however hard you try to keep them in order.  This year, for example, I was reasonably sanguine about them after putting a lot of work and organisation in over the last two years.  Ash Wednesday looked all right…..and then my nice neat system fell at the first hurdle as I had to write a third one for Canada for First Sunday of Lent Year B, because the Missal used a different one.

Sheep tightly jammed into sheepfold
How many different Acclamations?
Lots and lots of options

The problem arises because each country-group Missal can choose any of the optional Lent Gospel Acclamations to go with any set Gospel verse, which offers a dizzying number of possibilities.  Most parishes don’t actually want to have a new Acclamation every week as well as the new Gospel verse.  So what I have done is take a default setting for every week, choosing the one that is used most often in the Lectionary, so that you can actually sing the same Acclamation every week if you want to;  and where the Acclamation in the Missal is one of the alternatives, I’ve set that as well (so you can stick with the words exactly as in the Missal if you prefer).  For all the country-groups except  the Canadians, the default setting is the first standard Lent Gospel Acclamation, but for Canada it is the fifth on the list.

Nun reading at lectern
Hooray for women cantors even if they can’t read the Gospel
The problems of labelling

I started out by giving them letters instead of numbers, but that turned out too confusing.  We have numbered them according to the order in the Missal, but it’s still not foolproof as the Sundays of Lent are themselves numbered, and the Years are designated by different letters, so both obvious markers could cause confusion.  I thought about Roman numerals, lower-case letters and different alphabets, but they all have drawbacks.  Various useful typographical marks aren’t accepted as elements in filenames by the computer.  So the form we settled on is that the first number in any name is the marker for the top-and-tail, and later numbers refer to the Sunday of Lent. Thus Lent Gospel Acclamation 1 (US) 1 Lent A, for example.

America, Canada and Australia/New Zealand all use the same set of possible Lent Gospel Acclamations, but OZ and CAN do not use Nos. 3 and 6 in their Missals.  I thought about renumbering in consequence, but decided against it. The UK and Ireland have their own set.

In addition, the Saints’ days which fall in Lent have to use Lent Gospel Acclamations instead of Alleluias.  Since March is a busy month (St David, St Patrick and St Joseph among others), this is a whole further group.

Further possible complications

Sometimes I have to transpose the Acclamation down a tone, because the Gospel verse would otherwise feel uncomfortable for the Cantor;  I thought about doing a separate list of these as well, but decided it probably wasn’t worth it.  Most Acclamations are in G or F, and they are all 4/4;  this is to keep things as modular as possible, so if your congregation particularly likes one Acclamation, it’s easy to reuse it, even if it isn’t the one set in the Missal.  And I can easily transpose anything for you if you e-mail me (singenofbingen@gmail.com).

How does it work in practice?

When we post the music for the appropriate Sunday, this means that every week there is a setting of the Lent Gospel Acclamation with that week’s Gospel verse, and often two, because there is the default setting (usually Lent Gospel Acclamation 1) as well as whatever is written in the Missal.  It’s not as complicated on the ground as it sounds when you try to explain it.   On some Lent Sundays,  we have the same Gospel verse as a different Year, but a different top-and-tail, so it’s possible to end up with three options, but usually it’s only two; and of course, you only need one for any given Mass.   We are trying to keep this simple (I realise it may not sound like that!), and it’s easier in practice than it sounds.

Making them work

Like Alleluias, these are musical miniatures, but they do have a function, and they have to work.  To be succesful, they must be clear, attract attention, encourage participation, stop people being distracted and give the words their full weight.  This is why everyone sings the top-and-tail, even if only the cantor sings the verse.  That’s quite a lot of work for four bars of music.

Teacher reading to class
Paying attention and enjoying it?

The Acclamations need to be a call, but not jubilant like the Alleluia, more of a formal introduction.  The format for both Alleluias and Lent Gospel Acclamations  reminds me of the old advice about speaking to a group : you need to tell people what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.  It is a deliberate framing device.  Some of the words are trickier than others; I have tried to be ceremonial without being musically pompous.  They don’t need to be slow, just comfortable talking speed for the verse.  Over the course of Lent, the Gospel verses start spare and become slightly more elaborate; I have tried to follow the same development.

Always trying to catch up

As evidence of the tricksiness of the Lent Gospel Acclamation, I have to mention that only this year did I discover that there are even two more available for the US and CAN Lectionaries.  These two don’t get set in the Missal for the Lent Sundays, so I don’t actually need them for this year; but in the interests of completeness, and giving you the full set of options, I will try to set them before next Lent season……and then I will find that there is still more to do, before I have got all the Lent Gospel Acclamations sorted out and musicked.  I wish you a happy, holy and musical Lent.

Mini-dragons attacking people
Lent Gospel Acclamations refusing to lie down

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Waiting, hoping and trusting : the same but different

Subtleties of translation

Just as translating something gives you a rare chance to get inside the text and really understand it, writing a tune for a line of text makes you chew it over far more carefully than a quick reading does.  This is even truer of the Alleluia verses than the psalms, because they are mostly so short. The functional problems tend to be getting the balance right, especially as you aren’t allowed to repeat anything (except the word ‘Alleluia’, obviously). But precisely because they are so short, you have to focus on the exact rhythm of the words, and the meaning, and the way the two interconnect.

Sometimes the different country versions are clearly dealing with the same idea, sometimes they decide to stress different aspects of it. The words for the Alleluia verse this week were on the one hand simple, even monosyllabic, but on the other hand so different in the choices which had been made, that I was intrigued.

Hope, trust, wait ; one verse, four versions

The only easy way to compare is to set them all out on the page, so bear with me.  I’ll leave out the Alleluias.

CAN : I wait for the Lord; I hope in his word.

OZ :    I hope in the Lord, I trust in his word.

UK :   My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word.

US :    I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for his word.

The original Psalm verse

The origin for all these Alleluia verses is Psalm 129/130, v 5, so let’s have a look at some translations of that. Grail version : My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word.  Revised Grail : I long for you, O Lord, my soul longs for his word (awkward shift from second to third person there, but that’s the newest translation, so presumably the most accurate).   King James : I look for the Lord, my soul doth wait for him : in his word is my trust.  Jerusalem : I wait for God, my soul waits for him, I rely on his promise. Scottish metrical psalms, for the purposes of comparison : I wait for God, my soul doth wait, my hope is in his word.

Back to the (differing) Alleluia verses

So full marks to the British for keeping as close as possible to the original psalm version, and let’s talk about that one first, after a pause while I clear away all the books I have just looked everything up in.  The two first striking things are that it is ‘my soul’ rather than ‘I’, and that the verb is an ongoing present tense. ‘My soul’ for ‘I’ is a fairly common Latin circumlocution (we’ve recently had it put back into the prayer just before Communion in the new translation…’and my soul shall be healed’, where it is definitely meant to mean the same as ‘I’, which was the previous version), so that’s easy, though I must say I like the directness of the ‘I’ that everyone else has gone for.  But that present continuous is interesting, because you get a sense almost of patient impatience, as if we are saying to God, ‘Here I am, look at me actively waiting, your move now’, where the simple ‘I wait’, though it technically means the same, is more a description of a state.

Commas and semi-colons

And look at the punctuation.  The UK and OZ versions describe two simultaneous aspects : I hope, and at the same time I trust;  I am waiting, and at the same time I count on the Lord’s word. I accept ‘count on’ as equivalent to ‘trust’, but because what divides the two phrases is a simple comma, they are in balance, not causally related (I am feeling terrible nerdy here, I hope someone else is as interested in this as I am!).

In the US and CAN versions, we have a semi-colon which indicates a different relationship between the clauses.  The CAN one seems to me to be causal : I wait for the Lord [because] I hope in his word;  whereas the US one is much more limited, even repetitive, but intensified : I wait for the Lord; yes, my deepest self is waiting for what he has to say.  That connects neatly with God’s instruction last week at the Transfiguration to listen.

Waiting leads to hoping leads to trusting?

What first set me thinking about this was the way that the OZ and CAN verses almost sound like two stages of one process.  First (CAN) I wait, [because] I hope; then (OZ) I hope, [while] I am trusting.  You can do the same thing with US and UK : first (US) I wait for the Lord, [yes really] my soul waits for his word; then (UK) my soul is waiting for the Lord [while] I am counting on his word.  But where in the process do we start? Are these sequential? Do we wait because we believe, or because we hope? Do we hope because we believe, and so we wait?  Is trusting the same as hoping or believing?

Waiting, hoping and trusting : similar but not quite the same, and one day I’m clearly going to have to learn Hebrew and probably Ancient Greek as well (Latin I can manage).  Failing an examination of the original words, I went off to have a look at Spe salvi, as being the most recent official teaching about hope.  And I was lucky, because it was illuminating.  ‘Faith is Hope’ is the title of the second section. ‘The one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life’ (SS2). Aquinas is quoted as saying that this faith is how eternal life takes root in us (SS7), but where I really struck gold was in section 9, where it explains that the word St Paul uses for this is hypomone, normally translated as patience, perseverance, constancy (so there is my ‘wait’) and goes on to say, ‘this word was used expressly for the expectation of God […] on the basis of the certainty of the Covenant’ (and there is my ‘trust in his word’), summarising this as’a lived hope, a life based on the certainty of hope’ (SS9).

The perfection of hope and trust

So it isn’t sequential, more relational and even dynamic, like God himself (I knew the Greek would be helpful).  The waiting we are talking about here is active, like Advent, like pregnancy, as I’ve mentioned before.  And then in the last section of Spe salvi, there is a meditation on Our Lady as the symbol of hope, not just Stella maris but also the star of hope.  There we can see someone hoping, believing, waiting and trusting all in one, like any mother only on a cosmic scale.

Actually writing the tunes

The emphasis throughout then is on patient trust-filled waiting, so when I was writing the tunes I concentrated on not resolving the wait, but allowing a sort of conscious patience to support the meaning.  All the settings came out differently, which I felt was appropriate in the circumstances.  Luckily I had forgotten (or I would have been totally intimidated) that Bach set this, as part of one of the cantatas, and you can hear how he keeps the waiting hanging over several bars.  My other favourite example of musical ‘waiting on the Lord’ (a recurrent psalm theme) is Mendelssohn Ps 39/40, but there the waiting is resolved in rescue, so the feel is different.  The waiting is in the past tense.   Do hope and trust figure?   Sometimes the words just say ‘he answered my cry’ or ‘he heard my complaint’, but the translation I sang with my sister ends with the words ‘he inclined unto me, who put my hope and trust in him’.  Not a faithful translation, but full of the same hope and trust as this week’s Alleluia verse.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.