Service music

First Sunday in Lent (March 10, 2019)

The Propers chanted by the choir on this first Sunday in Lent are dominated by verses taken from Psalm 91. It is rare for one biblical passage to be so prominent throughout the service, but this Sunday is exceptional. On this Sunday we enter a liturgical season in which Christ’s forty days in the wilderness (narrated in today’s Gospel reading) is remembered. That experience is marked preeminently by the Son’s faithfulness and trust in the Father’s protection, the theme of Psalm 91.

Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner writes that Psalm 91 “is a psalm for danger: for times of exposure and encirclement or of challenging the power of evil.” As we read in today’s Gospel, two of its verses were cited by the devil (St. Matthew 4:6) as a cynical taunt, urging Jesus to put the Father to the test by leaping from the roof of the Temple: “He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.” The fact that those very verses are chanted in today’s (lengthy) Tract affirms their truthfulness, despite the devil’s misuse of them. As Kidner observes: “It was characteristic of the devil to read this promise as an invitation to arrogance. It was characteristic of God, Father and Son, that angelic help was sent when it was most needed [St. Matthew 4:11], accepted as strength for service and sacrifice, and refused for self-advantage.”

The text to our Processional hymn — “With broken heart and contrite sigh” — was inspired by the humble spirit of the Publican in the parable in St. Luke 18:9-14. Such humility is the response to God’s generous and faithful protection. Our Lenten Sequence hymn — an Anglican chant setting of Psalm 51:1-13 — sustains the penitential posture established with this psalm’s recitation on Ash Wednesday.

Our Sermon hymn — “Lord Jesus, think on me” — is based on a prayer of Bishop Synesius of Cyrene (370-430):

Christ, Son of the most high God, remember your servant, a man of sinful heart, who writes this; send deliverance from sorrows and griefs to my soul, born in sin; Jesus, Savior, grant me to see your divine radiance, so that having seen, I may sing a song, praises in my soul, praises in my body, to the Father with the great Holy Spirit.

The Offertory anthem by the choir is a poem by John Donne (1573-1631) set to a chorale by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Donne’s poem is entitled “A Hymn to God the Father,” on which you may read a commentary here.

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.

The Bach chorale to which the choir sings Donne’s prayer is So gibst du nun, mein Jesu, gute Nacht! (“Now must Thou then, my Saviour, say farewell?”). The original text that Bach set with this music was from a 24-stanza poem by August Pfeiffer (1640-1698), a German Lutheran theologian.

Here is the chorale with its original text (four of the 24 stanzas), sung by the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, conducted by Helmuth Rilling.


The choir’s Communion motet is the text of “O food to pilgrims given,” set to another Bach chorale. The story of this text and tune are here.

Our Communion hymns are “O Lamb of God, still keep me” and “Let thy Blood in mercy poured.” The service closes with “Saviour, when in dust to thee,” a hymn which encourages us to remember the sufferings of Jesus. “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”