Service music

Good Friday (April 19, 2019)

On this dark day, our service begins with a triumphant Processional hymn: “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle.” This hymn reminds us that the Victim on the Cross was finally triumphant.

Tongues and battles are both referenced in the Tract proper for this day, which is taken from Psalm 140. The psalmist is acutely aware of threats from evil and wicked men: “They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent: adder’s poison is under their lips.” They are described as those who “imagine mischief in their hearts.” The word “mischief” has lost much of its power today, suggesting childish waywardness. The word’s etymology suggests things that end very badly, like battles. This is deadly mischief. So the psalmist is grateful the Lord “hast covered my head in the day of battle.” The use of this Psalm on Good Friday points to the enemies that Jesus faced, who wanted to make him a mere victim, and the enemies we face, from whom we are delivered by the Victim’s victory.

Our Sequence hymn — “O sacred head, sore wounded” — is attributed to the great German poet Paulus Gerhardt (1607-1676), and translated by the great English poet Robert Bridges (1844-1930). But Gerhardt’s text was itself a translation of a work by Arnulf of Leuven (c. 1200-1250), the abbot of the Cistercian abbey in Villers-la-Ville (now in modern Belgium). Arnulf’s seven-stanza poem — Salve mundi salutare — was (as states its Latin inscription) a “rhythmical prayer to the various members of Christ’s body suffering and hanging on the cross.” The seven stanzas address in turn Christ’s feet, knees, hands, sides, breast, heart, and face. That seven-phase structure is not evident in the form in which we receive this hymn. But the sense of deep gratitude expressed with passionate urgency remains.

At the Offertory, the choir will sing a Lutheran hymn that dates to 1522. It is a German-language paraphrase of the traditional Agnus Dei from the Mass. We will sing the same text three times, first in unison, then with a simple harmony, and finally with a rich harmony by J. S. Bach.

O Lamb of God most holy! Who on the cross did languish,
And patient still and lowly, though mocked amid thine anguish.
Our sins by thee were taken, or hope had us forsaken.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesu!

As in the Agnus Dei, the third singing of the text concludes with an alternate petition: “Grant us thy peace today, O Jesu!”

This hymn (best known by its German title, O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig) has traditionally been sung during Passiontide in Lutheran congregations since its composition in the early 16th century. It was appropriated by J. S. Bach for a dramatic purpose in the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion. This chorus opens with an anguished dialogue between two choirs:

Come, ye daughters, help me mourn! Behold!


The bridegroom! See him!


Like a lamb.

The identity of this Bridegroom/Lamb whom we are called to mourn is finally established with the confident singing of this venerable Lutheran hymn by a boys choir, standing as it were above the tumult and agony evoked by the other two choirs. As you can hear in the recording below, at 2:55 into that chorus, we hear a boys choir singing this tune and these words (in German, of course):

[Editor’s recommendation: You can hear (and watch) a wonderful performance of this entire work at the All of Bach website.]

At Communion, the choir will sing a traditional Good Friday chant, Ecce lignum crucis.

Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.
Come, let us adore!

Our closing hymn — “When I survey the wondrous cross” — was first published in Isaac Watts’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707. It is based on Galatians 6:14: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” The English poet laureate Robert Bridges has written that “this hymn stands out at the head of the few English hymns which can be held to compare with the best old Latin hymns of the same measure.” Watts originally included another stanza, which he later omitted:

His dying crimson, like a robe,
spreads o’er his body on the tree;
then am I dead to all the globe,
and all the globe is dead to me.