Mind Your Liturgical Seasons
It's February, so you're probably thinking about Lent, and you're probably looking through your resources, wondering "Why are most of my options for Lent so bad?" If you're tempted to just sing O Sacred Head Surrounded for six weeks straight, starting with Ash Wednesday, allow me to give you a little pause on that thought.
If you've done any thinking at all about the role of music in liturgy, then you know that the Church has a pattern, and she has that pattern for a reason. (If you haven't done any thinking about the role of music in liturgy, it's time to start!) The liturgical cycle begins in the darkest part of the year, with preparation, readings filled with hope for the future but without any denial of the darkness of the current situation. Then, Light - at the turning point, when the balance just begins to turn back towards Day over Night, the Word Becomes Flesh. We make our way through the manifestation of Jesus to the world, the calling of the apostles, a handful of His teachings and parables. Then, at the tail end of winter, we begin preparing the ground and planting the seeds which will bloom at Easter. These blooms ripen over the summer of Ordinary Time, hopefully to bear fruit in the autumn. As the world around us moves into winter, we are moved to think about the end of things; we pray for our dead, and we meditate on our hopes for everlasting life. The year finishes with a harvest festival of sorts - the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, the sum of all our hopes, and the end towards which we labour. The readings at the end of the year are nearly identical to the readings at the beginning of the year - a true cycle.
(Please don't ask me about why the church year isn't inverted in the Southern Hemisphere, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a whole chapter on it in Spirit of the Liturgy and I still don't get it. I don't disagree, I just don't understand.)
So, the liturgical seasons are distinct, each has a different function, and they are ordered the way they are on purpose. The preparation of Advent is not the same as the preparation of Lent - a difference of kind, not merely of degree. Even within the seasons, there is a gradation from start to finish. Which brings me back to Ash Wednesday.
The Paschal Mystery is a big pill to swallow. In recognition of this, the Church gives us six weeks to prepare for it; if we don't use it properly, we will be unable to accept the gift of Christ's sacrifice. Ash Wednesday is set aside for beginning this preparation on the right foot, by acknowledging how long a journey we have to make, begging for God's help, and shedding distractions. We get the Transfiguration early on, to give us strength, just as it was given to the Apostles. Especially in Year A, with the incredible stories of the Samaritan woman, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the readings are gripping and dramatic. Then during Holy Week, and especially in the Triduum itself, we experience the Passion and Resurrection in real time, as it were, with one epic liturgy spanning three days, just as Jesus and his disciples experienced it. This is no mere commemoration, this is a reenactment.
As adults who have been through this cycle a few times (and who know how short a time six weeks really is), we tend to think of Lent as one thing, and we lose the subtlety of it - the progression through compunction, repentance, re-dedication to God's word, forgiveness, healing, and finally, redemption itself. If we go through it in any old order, the strength of the progression is greatly weakened. Furthermore, for those still being formed in their faith, changing the order can be confusing. Children especially are vulnerable to developing scrupulosity, by hearing on the same day the equally powerful messages that they must confront their sinfulness and that Jesus died for their sins; to become discouraged, to feel like they are horrible people for allowing the Crucifixion to happen because they hit their sister or said mean things about their mom. They need space between these ideas in order to understand the gift of love freely offered by Jesus, and to be able to accept it, not as a punishment but as an embrace.
The Church gives us this space by making the messages of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday distinct. Ash Wednesday is the plea: "Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion, wipe out my offense." Good Friday is the response: "I will give him his portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty, because he surrendered himself to death and was counted among the wicked; and he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses." We need to be past thinking about ourselves by Good Friday. That's what the progression of Lent does for us, properly observed.
As liturgical musicians, we have a great deal of control over which messages are driven home, especially for the children in our parishes. We play a huge part in the religious formation of those children. For the same reason that we must choose only appropriately solemn and beautiful music to fill their thirsting souls, and not be satisfied with what only makes them feel good (or just makes us feel good), so we also must make sure to teach the intended lessons in the intended order. It is our duty.
And yes, I know, there is so much amazing Passiontide music. That's not a good reason for singing it outside of Passiontide, any more than it is a good reason to sing Christmas carols in Advent. It really is its own micro-season, a necessary step between Lent and Easter. We can't take it too early, lest we stumble over it.