Holy Week without going to church

Every church is shut

One of the measures taken by a lot of different governments in the current Corona virus situation, is to close all places of assembly, including the churches. This has been difficult already, with no Sunday going-to-Mass, no adoration sessions, no popping in to touch base with the Lord.  But the timing now is particularly difficult.  Lent meant that the family’s stocks of biscuits and chocolate were low even before we could go shopping, because everyone had given things up; but when they are all at home all day, it’s good occasionally to provide a morale-boosting treat. Now we have reached Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week.  We can’t even have Stations of the Cross or the Last Supper Mass; we won’t be able to go to church on Good Friday to feel the ache of what’s missing. We have had to park the Holy Sacrament in the sanctuary a couple of weeks back, without even any ceremony; and when it comes to the Vigil or the joy of Easter morning, how joyful will we manage to feel?

Flocking to the house of the Lord in happier times
Nobody to pray with
praying with correct social distancing

Of course you can still pray ‘alone and in secret’, but the community part of prayer is turning out to be more important to most of us than we realised.   Ekklesia (Church) is from the word which means calling out to draw together, to assemble.  It is fundamental to our faith.  At least we should be able to have more empathy with those Christians who have to manage like this all the time, once this is over. But I’ve been trying to think of practical alleviations for now.

New use of new technology

Masses on-line are working really well, and we are all grateful to those who have managed to provide the technology and have it function more than adequately in these difficult days.  It seems only last week that our parish priest was having trouble with a single microphone, and now people are livestreaming and recording whole Masses.

even better social distancing
..but not the complete event

We attend attentively to these Masses, but it’s a strange experience.  The ones I have seen (attended? taken part in?) have been of either just a priest, or a priest and one other (either a reader, or a concelebrant).  The Mass as such is there, but no congregation, and (for me, crucially) no congregational singing.   One of the recorded Masses I attended had a priest who intoned the end of the Proper, and my family and I duly sang Amen, but somehow it emphasized the gap between us and what was happening on-screen rather than the opposite.

Holy Week with a mute button

So now we are facing a Holy Week with no congregational music, and I am planning ways to supply what I feel I will miss the most.  I know some people will think that we should offer up our discomfort, and of course that is an option.  We will all have to do that anyway, as I don’t think I will be able to compensate for what I am missing.  But here are a few suggestions of music which helps us to shape and understand the words of the Holy Week liturgies.   For me, and I’m sure for others,  much of the effect is added by the music.   I am sure these services, like our on-line Masses,  will be available on-line in some form, though without live music and congregation.  Even if you had a socially-distancing congregation, most non-professionals would not want to sing on their own so far away from the next voice!

easier to sing as a group
Holy Week hymns not an option

Before the virus overtook all our arrangements, I was wondering about assembling a list of the best Holy Week hymns, or even hymns creating a virtual Stations of the Cross, but I’ve parked that idea for now (maybe I’ll do it next year).  Hymns really are for singing yourself with a group, so I won’t be digging up favourite ones on YouTube just to listen to (though if the BBC plays me some services from past years with good singalonga hymns over the Triduum, I’ll probably join in while making my hot cross buns). 

Passion music to listen to : Bach, Schütz, Stainer

The Passion reading for Palm Sunday this year is St Matthew’s, and the Good Friday one St John’s.  Bach set both, quite differently.  The St Matthew Passion is a work of great scale, almost lush in its sweep, and the link is to a big choir and orchestra.  The St John is gentler and more intimate, and I like to listen to it with a small choir (here’s a link).   In both cases, the narrative is interspersed with comments (arias and chorales), which is the way that Bach’s church did it;  but both these linked recordings have subtitles, so you can follow where you are. 

Heinrich Schütz  (1585 – 1672)  also set both the St Matthew and St John Passions, but he did it in a straight run of the narrative, and with no instrumental support.  It’s simpler and more devotional, but I can’t find a subtitled version.  I know the Bach much better, but I love Schütz’s Christmas music, so I’ll be listening to his Passions as well.  Other listening music is the Passion part of Handel’s Messiah,  which means Part 2, but without the Hallelujah Chorus at the end.  Save that (and Part 3) for Easter Sunday.  Something else I love dearly is Stainer’s Crucifixion, unfairly neglected by us Catholics, which I find very moving.  

By the time we get to Easter Sunday, if you want joyful music, try putting ‘surrexit Christus hodie’ or ‘surrexit Christus vere’ into Google and YouTube.  Baroque Czechs and Netherlanders wrote some truly beautiful music for this, exciting to listen to (and really exhilarating to sing in different times).

A modern take on the Via Crucis

One other suggestion for those of you with children at home, who want to tell the story of Holy Week.  When I was teaching the First Communion class, some years ago, we did models, like little tableaux,  of the crucial stages of the Passion narrative for the class coming up to Holy Week.  I did it with Playmobil, but it would work just as well with Lego.  You need a clearly recognisable Jesus figure, a few representative apostles, some Roman soldiers (capes and helmets), a Pilate figure with something that can double as a basin for handwashing, a Herod figure with crown, a spare crown (of thorns, or you can improvise with brown wool or even paper), and a couple of representative women.  For scene setting you need a few trees and bushes, fires, a throne or two, a plate and a cup (some of the Harry Potter Lego would give you cups and fires).   You need a base plate for each separate scene, just to keep it reasonably straightforward. 

Set up the Last Supper;  the Garden of Gethsemane;  Herod’s palace, Pilate’s palace; and a green path, which will lead to Calvary.  Then what I did was to tell the story slowly, moving the little figures from place to place.  Spread it out over two or three tables if you can, so that everyone has to follow the journey.  You can have a real crucifix at the end of the green path, and light a candle there when you reach it (put Jesus in your pocket here, because he’s on the crucifix).   You can repurpose two of the apostles as the thieves for this scene, because they’ve all run away, but make sure the women are there, however peripherally, in every scene.  I found the children were absolutely rapt and reverent, and it helped us all to understand exactly how the story unfolded. 

The power of the cliffhanger

You stop fairly abruptly at the Crucifixion, which is entirely appropriate, and you don’t need to go into detail.  Indeed, saying to the children, ‘And now we all have to wait and see what can possibly happen next’, is a good way to leave it.  You could then secretly (I haven’t actually done this, because we’ve never not been able to go to church for Easter before) make one of the little Resurrection gardens that you see in Anglican churches, and leave it to be found on Easter morning with the Lord standing outside it (and Mary Magdalene looking baffled or surprised  – lift up the arms on the little figure – in the garden).  I think that would work, because it’s like leaving the crib empty on Christmas Eve and filled with the baby on Christmas morning.

Christ emerging from tomb
resurrexit sicut dixit

Use whatever helps, because the message is so much more important than the ways we use to tell it.  Even music, though it pains me to admit it.  And the Lord will himself turn our mourning into dancing, as it says in Ps 29/30, even if it is to music that we can only make when we get back to our churches.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. 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.

 

What’s the story in the Eastertide Sundays (Year C)?

Eastertide : celebration which keeps going

After all the joy and excitement of Easter Sunday, the Church settles down to enjoy the Easter season which lasts through six more Sundays. Eastertide  ends with the Ascension and then Pentecost, so specifically this is the period  after the Resurrection but while Jesus is still on earth.   He is still the central character, but he comes and goes at this stage in the story.  It is no longer just the story of what happens to him or what he does.

Christ emerging from tomb
Time for the next phase

It is fascinating to see how the focus of the narrative shifts. Jesus is there, but intermittently. He pays visits to the apostles, to put heart into them, but he often finds them cowering in the Upper Room. They are trying to work out what to do next, in a world which has been totally altered by Jesus’ return from the dead.

But what happened next?

We are so used to the idea that Jesus is the living Lord that we don’t give the apostles enough credit for how hard this must have been. We learn about his Resurrection as soon as we learn about his death on the cross, and the length of the annual wait from Good Friday to the Easter liturgies is fixed and familiar. But the apostles had no missals, Gospels or road maps of any kind. They really were making it up as they went along, with Jesus appearing now and then to keep them on the right path and repeat the same message over and over again until they could let themselves believe it.

Mary addressing apostles
Some (male) people take a lot of convincing……

2nd Sunday, still celebrating but also moving on

The second Sunday after Easter is still part of the Easter narrative itself.  The Gospel is the same for each of the three liturgical years, the story of Thomas and his encounter with the Risen Lord.  It is nearly the same psalm (117/118), just with a different verse in the middle, and, as if to emphasize the point, it is the same psalm that we have been singing since the end of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday.  Like a musical octave, the Easter octave strikes the same note.  What shows the change of emphasis which is starting to happen,  is that the First Reading is taken from Acts.

The purpose of the First Reading

Usually the First Reading comes from the Old Testament, and indeed, at the Easter Vigil, we have an orgy of Old Testament readings before we get to the Gospel.  It can be a historical echo of events in Jesus’ life, or a fascinating parallel, or evidence of God’s slow plan of salvation from the shadowy beginnings of life to the prophets’ desperate attempts to pass on God’s message.  But now, after the Resurrection,  everything is changed, changed utterly: and we start needing to focus on what happens next.  The next significant event in the story of Jesus’ earthly life is the Ascension, but we don’t want to get there yet, because we are still celebrating Easter.  So the gospel readings assigned for the rest of the Easter season are in a sense marking time; – in fact, they go backwards.  They give us an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ earlier words, because there are a lot more of those, especially in John’s Gospel, than we have already had room for (we will see this again in the Sundays of Ordinary Time).

The Gospel is usually the main narrative

The gospels for these Sundays of the Easter season, then, are not usually taking the story forward.  After the second Sunday of Easter, the three liturgical years diverge, not for the usual reason, that they are taking their readings in sequence from a different evangelist (A : Matthew, B : Mark, C : Luke), because nearly all the gospel readings for Eastertide are taken from John;  but they all take different bits out of John’s Gospel, so as to include more of Jesus’ actual teaching.  But this is of course a recap of earlier events; time has gone back, not forwards.

Eastertide Year C : the gospels

I’m going to concentrate on Eastertide Year C (this year), because otherwise there will be too much to talk about (if it’s worth it, I’ll cover the other years as they come up).  In Year C, all the Eastertide Sunday gospels are from John’s Gospel. Second Sunday of Easter is the same for all three years, the story of Thomas, taken from John (chapter 20), as I said before.  The third Sunday is the story of the miraculous draught of fishes and Jesus’ charge to Peter; that is another  event after the Resurrection (John 21).  Then we have (4th Sunday) a reading from John 10 about Jesus as the Good Shepherd (very brief, vv 27-30); (5th Sunday), what Jesus says after Judas has gone out to betray him (again very short, John 13 vv31-35, and very obviously back to a previous period), and (6th Sunday) Jesus’ promise in John 14 that he will send the Holy Spirit, and foretelling his departure, like an envoi, and a preparation for the Ascension which will shortly follow (the following Thursday, or in some Lectionaries, the following Sunday).

First Readings : not OT but Acts

The current action, as it were, has moved to the First Reading, because we need to know how the apostles are managing and what they are doing in this changed world they now inhabit.  Jesus is not staying with them as he used to, teaching as he goes along.  Where is the story?  Where is the main character?  Who is the main character?   The apostles are having to work out how to put this new faith into practice. We are not looking for historical parallels, because nothing like this has ever happened before.  The Old Testament has been put on pause while we work this out.

Second Readings from Revelation

Year C is particularly interesting because it uses Revelation as the source of the Second Readings for this same period (in Years A and B, we have readings from the  letters of Peter (A) and John (B), keeping the emphasis on the doings of the early Church, as opposed to Paul’s letters which we have for most of the rest of the year, which tend to be more about doctrine). The readings from Acts in Year C move about inside the book, giving us a general overview of how the early Christians lived.  We get further into the story than in the other years, even into the early travels of Paul and Barnabas, and I think this is why these readings are coupled with the book of Revelation, because Revelation has always been a comfort to the oppressed and persecuted, and the later chapters of Acts describe the persecutions as they took hold.

…and all reinforced by the (carefully chosen) psalms

And of course all this affects the choice of psalms.  They are there to respond to the first reading, reinforce its message and act as a bridge to the second reading.  Their link to the Old Testament readings on an ordinary Sunday is usually fairly clear, and they are out of the same historical context, even if we can’t be sure which is older; but here we have the psalms of David being used as a commentary on early Christian events, after Jesus’ departure, and after the great temporal rupture of the Resurrection.  The context is completely other.  We are singing the Lord’s songs in a totally strange land.  One striking thing is that none of the Eastertide psalms is at all unusual.  They all occur elsewhere in the Church’s year, sometimes more than once.  They are the usual psalms which everyone is already familiar with.  It is the context which has changed.

Musician king with courtiers
Let’s all join in with David’s psalms

First Reading and psalm, 2nd Sunday : starting the (new) story

We start in Acts 5 (so after the Ascension and the revolution of Pentecost), where the author describes ‘the faithful’ as meeting ‘by common consent in the Portico of Solomon’.  All still good Jews, at this stage, almost like another Jewish grouping or sect.  No one else dares to join them openly but their reputation is good, the numbers of believers increases, and there are many miracles, so people take their sick out of doors and place them where Peter’s shadow will fall across them so that they might be healed.  The psalm in response to this is still the Easter psalm (117/118), because we are still celebrating and everything is going well.  It is the second reading which darkens the mood slightly, as John introduces himself: ‘I am your brother and share your sufferings, your kingdom, and all you endure’, but then moves on to describe Jesus appearing to him, telling him not to be afraid (as so often) and charging him to write down what he sees.  The Gospel, as I said earlier, is the story of Thomas  -and the end of John’s Gospel in some of the early manuscripts.  The focus of the story is shifting.

3rd Sunday

This First Reading is only ten verses later, in the same chapter of Acts, but the clouds are gathering in our new story.  The high priest demands an explanation from these observant Jews with their inconvenient add-on doctrine.  Peter and the apostles have the chance to bear witness before the Sanhedrin, and this time they are released, but they have been warned again, and it’s clear that trouble is in the offing.  The psalm  (29/30) celebrates release from danger, acknowledging the reality of suffering (‘At night there are tears’) but showing an unshakeable faith in victory for the right side (‘but joy comes with dawn’), which is then shown in the celebration in the Second Reading (Revelation 5).

4th Sunday : the story develops

We leap forward several chapters this week to find Paul and Barnabas taking the story forward as they deliberately widen their appeal (Acts 13).  The Jews in Antioch mostly aren’t interested, even though Paul and Barnabas are still attending the synagogue religiously.  So they preach to the pagans, who are very happy to hear them, and are expelled from the town.  The answering psalm (99/100) makes us into the rejoicing pagans, hearing and accepting the word of God : ‘We are his people, the sheep of his flock‘, and we stay with this sheep imagery, with the persecuted martyrs of the Second Reading being led by the Lamb, and the Gospel being part of Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd.  I couldn’t resist quoting Bach’s Sheep may safely graze in the accompaniment to the Alleluia verse because it was so apposite.

Banquet with sheep on table
The sheep/lamb metaphor made flesh at an Easter banquet

5th Sunday

Paul and Barnabas set off for Iconium at the end of last week’s reading, and they are already retracing their steps, heading for Antioch again.  This gives us a very clear idea of how the young churches were beginning to stand on their own feet.  Elders are appointed, the visitors encourage the locals to persevere in their efforts, and they move on again, going back to report to HQ – and, crucially, explaining how the mission has broadened to include those who weren’t Jews to start with, ‘the pagans’, people like us.  This has been a very successful trip, even though there are regular mentions of sufferings and hardships, and the psalm for this week (144/145) celebrates that success : ‘All your creatures shall thank you, O Lord’, not just some of them, and ‘Yours is an everlasting kingdom’.  The second reading is one of the most beautiful sections of Revelation (21 :1-5) describing the new Jerusalem, the establishment of this kingdom and the end of death and suffering.

Lady = Church scaring off dragon=Satan
the dragon being seen off by the lady in Revelation

6th Sunday : the next stage of the story

Now the question of whether you have to be a Jew as well as a Christian has come to a head, and there has to be a council of ‘the whole church’ to sort it out.  Here we see the Church operating as a Church, raising important questions, deliberating and discussing, and then making a judgment which is promulgated to the members.  We don’t have the discussion in this reading, but you can look it up, it’s all there in the text; here we have just the conclusion ‘decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves’ (note the order).  Earlier Peter has come to the same conclusion about God calling also the pagans, when he meets Cornelius after having his dream about the tablecloth (Acts 10ff).

engraving of Peter's vision
Peter, the angel, the tablecloth and all the different beasts

The psalm (66/67) emphasizes the universality, one might almost say catholicity, of the Church’s final decision :’the nations […] the peoples[…] the ends of the earth’ and the response beautifully endorses it :  ‘Let all the people praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you ‘ (my italics).  The second reading continues the description of the new Jerusalem, and the Gospel goes back to Jesus’ words about the Holy Spirit and his own departure,  as we get ready for the Ascension.  But although the Lord is leaving the earth, we have seen that the Church, though still small and feeling its way, has the leadership it needs to continue the work it has been given.

Armenian kachqar with ornate cross
The cross sprouting new life from every corner

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. 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.