Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hymns on the Sundays in Lent

At a recent discussion about hymnody with some musical colleagues from diverse congregations across the ELCA, someone suggested that we might sing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" (ELW 503-505) as hymn of the day on the First Sunday in Lent. Many bristled at the idea; one person even said, "Oh, we can't do that in my congregation -- it's not a Lenten hymn." And I wondered, "what do they think makes for a good Lenten hymn?"

It is true that many of us were formed in a church where Lent was understood as a primarily penitential time, a period where we walked step-by-step each week of Lent with Jesus to Jerusalem. It made some sense, if one experienced the liturgical year as a chronological walk through Jesus' earthly life -- you know: Advent (Jesus is unborn in Mary's womb), Christmas (Jesus is born), Epiphany and the time after (Kings come, Jesus is baptized, begins earthly ministry), Lent (moving toward Jerusalem), Holy Week (eats with disciples, is denied and tried, dies) and Easter (he is risen and appears) and Pentecost and the time after (the Spirit is poured out and the church lives into its future). But the church year did not originate as a chronological walk through Jesus' life, but as a gathering each Lord's Day (Sunday) over which are imposed two different cycles -- the incarnational cycle of Advent / Christmas / Epiphany, and the paschal cycle of Lent / Easter. The incarnational cycle occurs when it does in the year not because we believe Jesus to have been born on December 25, but because we keep the feast of the light of the world coming into the world on the darkest days in the northern hemisphere. More, the paschal cycle comes when it comes because Christians know from the scriptures that Jesus was crucified at passover, the springtime festival, and so we keep our annual observance in tandem with the Jewish calendar. English speaking Christians are at a disadvantage at Easter -- most other languages and peoples use the same word for the Jewish passover and the Christian observance of passover -- Pascha (or some variant on that word)

Because Christians understand baptism as the sacrament that joins us, by water and the word, to the death and resurrection of Jesus, it became customary that baptisms happened at Easter. If the church baptized at Easter, then there was needed a time to prepare candidates for baptism, to teach them the faith into which they were being baptized. Forty days of preparation before the feast allowed the church to teach the meaning of the faith and especially the meaning of baptism.

Lent, in its origins, is then a time of preparation for baptism and baptismal renewal. The scripture readings we read now during Lent are the classics of the Christian faith. This year we read from the Hebrew scriptures of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, David, and Ezekiel, from Paul's letters his correspondence with the church at Roman and Ephesus, and except for the first and last Sunday in Lent when we read from Matthew, we read from John's Gospel stories of images of baptism: Nicodemus and his nightime inquisition, the woman at the well, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. Finally, at the end of Lent we have the Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) when we read the details of Jesus' denial, trial, punishment, and death. We read the story of his passion one way, from the synoptic gospels, on Sunday, and then another version of the story, from John, on Good Friday.

It is right to sing the hymns of Christ's passion and death at the end of Lent, when we read these amazing and perplexing stories. But leading up to the Sunday of the Passion, the Sundays draw us deeper into the meaning of being baptized into Christ's death and resurrection -- into the stories of people of faith called to live a life in God. Lenten hymns then can sing robustly or with solemnity, in major and minor keys, in rhythmic vigor or meditative nuance, in joy and contemplation -- in the vast array of ways music sings the faith of the church.

So, in our Lent in our time, musicians will resist the temptation of playing only music in minor keys or in slow mournful strain, as if to impose a pall of gloom and sadness. Lent in our time does not deny the cross or repentance for sin. But Lent does not invite us to have amnesia about the story of our life in God and pretend that the resurrection and forgiveness have not already also come to us. And especially the Sundays in Lent, which are in the season and not of the season (skip Sundays when counting to forty), call us to sing the breadth and depth of the Christian life. Thus, music in Lent has many colors, tempos, and tonalities. And all of it points to the rich life in Christ we receive through cross and resurrection.

Sing "A Mighty Fortress" on the First Sunday in Lent this year -- and don't hold back. This is the best Sunday for the hymn. Let it rip.


  1. Thanks, Mark, for your reflection--a good reminder of how to keep Lent.

  2. Folks at St. John, Emmaus, PA will be singing it tomorrow, too!

  3. wonderful blog Mark. We went to church in San Sebastian Spain this morning, Beautiful catherdral - Cathedral of the Good Shepherd - but no music

  4. We sang this hymn in Maple Shade the first week in Lent which was also my first Sunday as their pastor.