I often get questions and comments about Sunday morning worship, this because it is different from what most in our community do on Sunday morning. One more prominent question is, “why do we sing the same songs every Sunday?”
What this question refers to is four particular pieces of music- the Kyrie (Lord have mercy upon us), the Gloria (Glory to God in the Highest), the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) and the Agnus Dei (O Lamb of God). These pieces of music are prayers and praises that have been a part of Eucharistic worship since the first centuries of Christianity. From very early on, these pieces of music have been a mandatory and unchanging part of what we do.
The Kyrie recalls the prayer of the tax collector (Luke 18.9-14) who is justified in his humble prayer for mercy.
The Gloria is both a statement of orthodox belief in the Trinity and participation in the praise filled song of the Angels at the birth of Jesus (Luke 2.14).
The Sanctus contains two parts: the first (holy, holy, holy, Lord…) partners the faithful with the angelic choirs attending the Throne of God almighty in the vision of Isaiah (Isaiah 6.3 see also Rev. 4.8) and the second part (blessed is He who comes…) joins the faithful to those who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem with palm branches and “Hosannas” (Mat 21.9). We sing this hymn as a statement of belief in Jesus’ presence in the Holy Eucharist and among the faithful in the Liturgy.
The Agnus Dei is a hymn that combines the prayer of the tax collector in the Kyrie with the affirmation of Saint John the Baptist “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1.29). We sing this as another affirmation of belief that Jesus is present with us in the Bread and Wine of Communion as well as the One who saves us.
If you attend the 8:00 service these hymns are all said, and if you attend the 10:30 service, they are sung. Generally, these hymns have a common sound or musical foundation and together are called a ‘mass setting’. There are several different ‘mass settings’ in our hymnal, some relatively new and some ancient. We generally try to change the ‘mass setting’ seasonally to provide a change in the flow, tempo, and ‘feeling’ of the service.
During Lent, we are using a mass setting the has been named “Missa Marialis.” The mass setting Missa Marialis was composed by an Episcopal priest by the name of Charles W. Douglas in 1915. In his creation of the “Missa Marialis”, Fr. Douglas did not create a new or unique work, rather he set the ancient and unchanging hymns to ‘plainsong’ settings of the same dating from the 9th century, using the language and wording of our beloved ‘Book of Common Prayer’, all the while making it accessible to congregational singing.
Plainsong as a musical form dates back itself to the third century of Our Lord and for centuries has formed a foundation for song and chant in the Christian Church. Although mostly lost to our modern American popular culture, plainsong did make a brief appearance in the ‘90’s- a few of you might remember or even purchased monk’s chants or heard dance music that remixed ancient plainsong chant (Enigma’s song “Sadness” being one of the more popular).
I hope during this season of Lent you will enjoy participating in a form of music that is right at 1,000 years old, and as you say or sing the ancient and unchanging hymns of the mass, think of how you join with the holy angels, and the myriad people across time and space who worship in common with you.