Music for the First Sunday in Lent

Lent is a solemn and somber time of the church year, beginning as it did last Wednesday as we remembered that we “are dust and to dust we shall return.” Thus, the liturgy takes on a more penitential character during Lent. We do not sing that festive song of praise, the Gloria in Excelsis, and likewise the doxology is omitted. We will neither speak nor sing “alleluia” in the liturgy or hymns. Instead of an entrance hymn, the Ten Commandments are chanted. This reminds us of the Law of Moses which we cannot keep, but has ultimately been fulfilled in Christ. Nonetheless, do also note that this day is the First Sunday *IN* Lent. Other seasons utilize “of”. . . for example, the “First Sunday of Advent.” Why the difference? In short, each Sunday is a “little Easter” in which Christ’s resurrection is celebrated, the high point of which is the eucharist. This holds true for Lent as it does any other time of the year. It is simply that our resurrection celebration is moderated as we focus on Christ’s Lenten journey, which, hence, informs our own.

The Gradual today is from Psalm 51, that great psalm of penitence in which we pray to God to “create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.” The Cantate Deo choir sang two settings of this text on Ash Wednesday. This morning at 10.30am the children’s choir sings an anthem entitled “Jesus in the Wilderness,” which is inspired by today’s Gospel text in which Jesus was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted for forty days and forty nights.” In preparing this piece, the children learned that the 40 days of Lent is not an arbitrary number; rather, we can recount many times in scripture that the number 40 is significant (40 days of flood, 40 years of wandering in the desert, Moses on Mt Sinai for 40 days, etc.) So, for these forty days we too may decide to fast or give up something (or not–neither doing so nor abstaining will itself make us any holier, but these practices should remind us of what Christ did for us).

The choirs sing the Taize chant, “Jesus Remember Me,” during communion. The children learned that this was implored by the one thief on the cross as a response to the taunts of the other one. We learned that Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

One of the traditional hymns for the First Sunday in Lent is 688, “A Mighty Fortress,” Martin Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46. Written early in his career in 1529, the hymn reflects our Gospel reading. Don’t be lulled into thinking much of this hymn is not about Satan–Luther and the devil seemed to enjoy taunting each other, Luther having spilled much ink under the devil’s torments. Yet, in this hymn Luther gives it back:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing: for still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.

It is easy when we sing this stanza mindlessly to forget that it is the “ancient foe” who seeks to “work us woe” who on earth has no equal. It seems unusual to sing so triumphantly–particularly at the end of a stanza–about the devil. Luther continues in stanza 2:

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing: dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus it is he; Lord Sabaoth his Name, from age to age the same, and he must win the battle.

In this stanza, Luther answers who it is who will counter Satan–Christ Jesus! But notice how long he waits into the hymn to get to Christ! He has to set us up for Christ first. But then, as in a great dialectic, Luther turns his attention back to the devil in stanza 3:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us; we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us; the prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.

The world is filled, then, with great evil, filled with death, as our Old Testament lesson today reminds us. But, our response is not to “tremble,” but to “endure,” because for all his wiles, “one little word shall fell him.” That Word–that Name–is Christ.

Thus sums up our Lenten journey. As in life, it is not easy. We are tempted, tormented, but also have times of success. Neither last, both are transitory. Lent reminds us that only Christ’s love for us is constant, enduring from age to age. The perils of the world do their best, but ultimately all is subject to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.