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

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Women’s voices in the Bible : few but worth listening to

Women’s words and women’s voices

We have two big Marian feasts coming up as we move into the second week of Advent : the Immaculate Conception on December 8th and Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th. Then on the Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (this year) we have Our Lady’s song, the Magnificat, instead of a Responsorial Psalm.  So I’m thinking about women and their prayer and singing.

Women’s words are a tiny proportion  of Scripture.  We have lots of chants, songs and canticles (which simply means ‘little songs’) in the Bible, but they are nearly all by men.  I read a fascinating account of the case for considering the author of at least part of the Song of Solomon to be female, a few years ago, but I don’t think it has met with widespread acceptance.

Women’s songs and prayers

There are a few precious references to women’s songs in the Bible.  When I was considering lullabies,  I said that because they are seen as ‘women’s work’, they don’t have the same esteem as poems by men, and oral literature is not taken as seriously as written.  This impacts directly on the preservation of women’s words as far fewer women traditionally have been literate than men (and schools set up ‘for the children of the poor’ have usually been kept only for the male version).   Women don’t even talk much in the narratives of the Old Testament, which presumably pleased St Paul, when he was studying it as a young Pharisee;  but this does mean that we treasure what we have.

Miriam, a prophet with no prophecies

Miriam the prophetess is allowed to lead the women singing the chorus in the song of victory after the Red Sea roars back and swallows up Pharaoh and his horses and his chariots, but although the male prophets declaim at length (a whole book of the Bible each), we don’t hear any of Miriam’s words.  It is only through her label that we know she is a prophetess at all.

There are very few books of the Bible named after women (and they are so short, it is easy to overlook them while leafing through).  We have Ruth, Esther and Judith (personally I would add Wisdom, as she is so often personified, and I called my daughter Sophia after her, but I do know she is an abstraction).

Ruth’s words : a tender poem

Ruth is a refugee with all the cards stacked against her : a childless, foreign widow, with a dependent mother-in-law. The Book of Ruth tells how by hard work, patience, obedience and love, she ends up married to Boaz, and is the mother of kings.  She has one piece of speech written out in verse, and it is the lovely invocation to her mother-in-law, ‘wherever you go, I shall go’.   It was adapted and given a tune a while ago (I remember singing it as a student), but the words have been changed and the tune has so many long pauses that it’s difficult to sing.  I think it’s interesting that it’s been used as a hymn, when it does not occur in any Sunday reading.  People would clearly like to use it.  Maybe I should do a more upbeat setting.

Esther’s prayer for courage before the lion king

The Book of Esther is in a bit of a mess; there is a Greek version which contains many parts not present in the Hebrew version, including not only Mordecai’s prayer, but also one by Esther.

Esther is a member of the king’s harem,  but no-one knows that she is a Jew, except her uncle Mordecai, who is an astute civil servant.  The king’s right hand man, Haman, takes against the Jews because they are a stiff-necked people, and Mordecai won’t bow to him.

Keep calm and be like Queen Esther
purple for the queen

Esther’s influence with the King is the only way to save the whole Jewish nation.   She adorns herself beautifully for the King and finds favour in his eye, which she uses to save her people (after three banquets, in the best story tradition).  It’s a wonderful, dramatic story, which has been turned into novels and plays, and I remember a haunting little poem by Eleanor Farjeon which starts, ‘Put on your purple, Esther, Esther’.   Most of us know the bones of the story.  But Esther’s own words are unfamiliar.

Judith, a great heroine, but don’t quote her

Judith is a corking story, longer than the other two, but I recommend it as a good read.   She is another widow (very low down in the pecking order, that’s why God has to look out for them especially), very virtuous, very sensible and forthright, and (critically) extremely beautiful.

Judith holding a sword
Giorgione’s Judith

Both her prose (when she’s giving advice to the elders and generals, which astonishingly they accept) and her prayers are worth reading.  And we have a really authentic voice here.  ‘You must not ask what I intend to do; I will not tell you until I have done it’ (Judith 8 33).   She is the only person I can think of in the Bible who says please : ‘Please, please, God of my father, God of the heritage of Israel, Master of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of your whole creation, hear my prayer’ (Jud 9 12).  It would take too long to tell the story but (spoiler alert) she beheads the enemy’s general and saves the day with her virtue intact.  Her words are powerful (she has a couple of other short prayers and a great victory song) but the only song out of the book of Judith that we use in the liturgy (for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe) is actually the words of the High Priest as he blesses her for saving Israel.

I should mention at this point that Esther and Judith don’t even appear in many Bibles, as their pedigree and style are different from the other canonical books.

Are any psalms by women?

What else have we got?  Of course we don’t know who wrote almost any of the psalms, but I would be surprised if many of them were women’s prayers, though some of the yearning psalms might be.  As I said when I was looking at inclusive language, the Psalms are more inclusive than other bits of the Bible because so much of them is direct conversation between two interlocutors, and ‘I’ and ‘you’ are gender-neutral on the page.   This is possibly one reason why the Psalms are so widely beloved: because they feel relevant to each reader and he or she can pray them as his or her own words.

Hannah the mother of Samuel

I’m sure there are some  other examples of women’s words that I have omitted, because the Bible is too long for me to be able to do a quick check through.  I make no claim for this list being exhaustive.  There is a great prayer by Hannah, the noble mother of Samuel, after she gives her son, her only son, to God (I Samuel 2).

Hannah hands over Samuel
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

In it she quotes the psalms, and she also uses many of the ideas that we find in the Magnificat. God humbles and he exalts (v7).  He raises the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the dunghill to give them a place with princes, and to assign them a seat of honour (v 8ff).  These are ideas that we often find in the psalms, but they have peculiar force when the person talking about God’s turning the established order upside down, is someone who is right at the bottom.  Like Judith, she reminds God that men do not win by their own strength, but by his.  The inference is clear : with his help ‘women can do much’, as Mary Ward says.

Deborah, a prophetess with more of a voice

Another prophetess is Deborah, in the book of Judges, and she is another strong and sensible woman whose advice is heeded.  Like Joan of Arc, she puts fire into the belly of the soldiers.  Barak refuses to go and fight Sisera if she does not go with him, and again I think we hear a real person speaking in her answer :’I will go with you then, but the way you are going about it, the glory will not be yours; for God will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman’ (Judges 4 9, Jerusalem version). They march out to battle together. Later, Sisera is horribly staked by Jael, and then there is the triumph song described as being by Deborah and Barak.  I hope it’s mostly by Deborah; to me, it certainly reads that way (there is even a little joke in it about men holding long debates by the stream while others are rushing into battle with Barak and Deborah).  It has some wonderful lines: ‘From high in heaven fought the stars, fought from their orbits against Sisera……Through her window she leans and looks, Sisera’s mother, through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot long in coming? Why are the harnessed horses slow?” (Judges 5 2off).  It is really exciting,  a fine piece of writing.

The New Testament

Although there’s not much in the Old Testament, there is surprisingly even less in the New.  There are many women about in the narrative (Jesus seems to have felt comfortable in their company), but their words are rarely recorded, and never at length.   When they speak, it tends to be brief questions, requests, comments – not prayers or songs, with the exception of Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary incorporated into the Hail Mary, and of course, Mary’s own Magnificat.

Anna and the song we don’t have

There is a sad but very telling moment in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus is presented in the temple.  Simeon, an old and very holy man is there, and we have the words of what he said. The first part is the Nunc Dimittis, another beautiful prayer which the Church uses every day.  He also prophesies Mary’s future sorrow.  Then the narrative describes the arrival of Anna, an elderly and very holy widow. ‘And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2 38, RSV).  And that’s it.  The narrative moves on, and we do not have Anna’s words.  This upsets me every time I read it.

Suppressing women’s voices

Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular has a real problem with letting women’s voices be heard.  Adult women are the one group still barred from Catholic Cathedral choirs. During the Middle Ages, nuns were not even allowed to sing Gregorian chant in convents, they were restricted to intoning on a single note, in case people might come and listen to the beauty of their singing.  This seems to me to be a fine example of both missing the point and blaming the victim : if you are singing beautifully, you are doing it for God, not for an audience, which is usually not there anyway.

Nowadays we can read poems and prayers by women (not ‘for’, those are often less helpful) and they are often very useful and beautiful.  I have heard calls for a separate ‘theology of women’, but I don’t think we need one.  What we need is for the men who run the Church to realise that women are human too, and that their experience and its expression are equally valid with men’s.

‘Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, declaim a song!’ (Judges 5 12).  ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!’ (Zechariah 9 9).   Alas, there are no New Testament equivalents of this encouragement.   We have been waiting too long to hear women’s voices.