The term “Passiontide” traditionally refers to the two weeks preceding Easter, so the fifth Sunday in Lent has commonly been known as Passion Sunday. During the coming days, our meditation on the redemptive passion (that is, the suffering) of Christ becomes even more focused, aided by many allusive elements in today’s service.
The Epistle reading from the letter to the Hebrews explains the superiority of the blood of Christ to that of bulls and goats used in Temple sacrifices; the shedding of his blood has the power to “purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” The final verse in the Gospel reading depicts an outright attempt to kill Jesus — this after he had proclaimed his superiority to Abraham.
Between now and Easter Sunday, our liturgy becomes even more spare. Throughout Lent, we have omitted the singing of the Gloria from our service; on Passion Sunday, the Introit chanted by the choir omits the singing of the Gloria patri (“Glory be to the Father . . .”).
The Introit, Gradual, and Tract propers include Psalm texts that can be understood in light of the suffering of the anointed Servant of God. The Introit (from Psalm 43) begins: “Give sentence with me, O God, and defend my cause against the ungodly people: O deliver my soul from the deceitful and wicked man: for thou art the God of my strength.”
The Gradual (from Psalm 143) also begins with a plea for deliverance coupled with an expression of the desire to please God; it calls to mind Christ’s agonizing prayer in Gethsemane: “Deliver me, O Lord, from mine enemies: teach me to do the thing that pleaseth thee.” The Gradual concludes with confident affirmation of the certainty of deliverance: “It is the Lord that delivereth me from my cruel enemies, and setteth me up above mine adversaries: thou shalt rid me from the wicked man” (Psalm 18:49)
The Tract contains even more explicit reference to the suffering of Christ, describing the specific wounds that Christ would bear: “the plowers plowed upon my back and made long furrows” (Psalm 129:3).
Our anthem today contains another Psalm text, verse 5 from Psalm 31, which is probably best known because Jesus cited it from the cross just before he died: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. You have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.” In addition to anticipating the suffering of Christ, this Psalm is a powerful statement of the steadfast love of God. It begins: “In Thee, O Lord, have I put my trust; let me never be put to confusion, deliver me in thy righteousness. Bow down thine ear to me; make haste to deliver me.” The Psalmist calls out to God, Who is his “strong rock, and house of defense.” God is his castle or fortress. The Psalm (a rich source of meditation for the next two weeks) ends on a note of confident hope: “Be strong, and he shall establish your heart, all ye that put your trust in the Lord.”
Our anthem setting, In manus tuas, is by John Sheppard (c. 1515-1558), one of the greatest composers of the Tudor period. During Communion, the choir will sing Sheppard’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer. You can hear in Sheppard’s music a distinctive musical voice; conductor Peter Phillips says that “Sheppard’s Latin music [i.e., music for the Catholic rather than Anglican liturgy] displays one of the most consistently worked, strongly personal compositional styles of the whole period.” He was a prolific as well as distinctive composer. Music historian Peter Le Huray, in his Music and the Reformation in England, 1549-1660, judges that “In terms of sheer quantity Sheppard has no mid sixteenth-century rival.” Yet, sadly, large portions of his music were destroyed in the wholesale destruction of monastic libraries during the Tudor period. We are deeply grateful for the pieces that remain available to us.
Our Processional hymn today is “Behold the Lamb of God” (#338). The text is by Matthew Bridges (1800-1894), better-known for “Crown him with many crowns.” The text we sing was greatly altered; the original hymn had 7 stanzas, each of which began more sparely: “Behold the Lamb!” The imagery throughout Bridges’s poem resonates with the beholding of the Lamb in Revelation 5. The third stanza in the original hymn read:
Behold the Lamb!
Archangels, — fold your wings, —
Seraphs, — hush all the strings of million lyres:
The Victim, veiled on earth in love, —
Unveiled, — enthroned, — adored above,
All heaven admires!
The tune we sing to this hymn — WIGAN — was written by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876) especially for this hymn text. In his lifetime recognized as a leading choirmaster and organist, S. S. Wesley is recognized today as one of the 19th century’s greatest composers of music for the Anglican liturgy. In his book, The Musical Wesleys, music historian Erik Routley notes that S. S. Wesley was “easily the most cultivated musician of his day” who could “induce a sense of spaciousness and authority which none of his contemporaries could approach.”
His father, Samuel Wesley, was also a composer and gave his son the middle name Sebastian in honor of his love for Johann Sebastian Bach. S. S. Wesley’s grandfather was Charles Wesley, whose hundreds of hymn are a great treasure of piety and theology. While Samuel Sebastian Wesley wrote some hymn texts, his principal work was as a composer of works for choir and for organ, as well as hymn tunes. His tune for “The Church’s One Foundation” — AURELIA — is probably his best known.
Our Sermon hymn — “Thou art the Way” (#361) — is based on St. John 14:6. It is by the American priest and poet George Washington Doane (1799-1859). The second bishop of New Jersey, he was active in promoting foreign missions and the establishment of church schools.
Our Communion hymns, “Sion, praise thy Saviour, singing” and “Very Bread, good Shepherd, tend us,” are discussed here.
We conclude our Passion Sunday service with a hymn about the cross, “In the cross of Christ I glory” (#336). The text, inspired by Galatians 6:14, is by John Bowring (1793-1872) who was an English colonial official and a Member of Parliament. Appointed governor of Hong Kong in 1854, Bowring was an accomplished linguist and the author of several volumes of devotional poetry, from which this hymn and the better-known “Watchman, tell us of the night” are taken.