Service music

First Sunday after Easter “Low Sunday” (April 28, 2019)

The first Sunday after Easter has many “aliases.” Within the Anglican Communion, this day is traditionally called Low Sunday; the origins of that name are at best obscure. It is often suggested that the name suggests the inferiority of this Sunday to the Great Sunday that we celebrated last week, the Sunday our Prayerbook designates “Easter Day.”

The term “Octave of Easter” is used to designate the eight-day period that starts on Easter Sunday, so the “Octave Day of Easter” can also be used to name Easter’s eighth day.

Among Eastern Christians, it is sometimes called St. Thomas Sunday, with reference to the appearance of Jesus to his doubting — then believing — disciple. One of the hymns used on this Sunday in the Orthodox liturgy remembers Thomas’s encounter (John 20:26-29) with the risen Christ on the eighth day:

Thomas touched Your life-giving side with an eager hand, O Christ God,
When You did come to Your apostles through closed doors.
He cried out with all: You are my Lord and my God!

One last alias is worth mentioning, as our own liturgy nods in its direction. The Introit for today begins with a quote from the First Epistle of St. Peter: “As newborn babes, alleluia: desire the sincere milk of the word. . . .” That text reminds all believers of the new life we receive by the power of Christ’s Resurrection. Since it was common to baptize new believers on Easter Sunday, and since the Sunday after Easter was the day one which the newly baptized ritually set aside their baptismal robes, this text has special significance for them, as newborn babes in Christ.

The first two Latin words of this text are Quasi modo. The Introit itself is thus designated “Quasi modo,” and so this Sunday became known as Quasimodo Sunday. The character with that name in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris was so called because, as an unwanted foundling, he was discovered in the cathedral on the Sunday after Easter. He was effectively named by the text of the Introit in that Sunday’s liturgy.

Before that Introit is heard in our service, we will sing our Processional Hymn: “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain.” This hymn is one of the handful in our Hymnal taken from the Orthodox liturgy; as it happens, we’ll sing three hymns today with origins in the Eastern liturgies. This one is a hymn appointed for use in the liturgy for St. Thomas Sunday, and was probably written in the eighth century by St. John of Damascus (c. 696-c. 754), one of the last of the Greek Fathers. Last week, we sang another of his Easter hymns, “Thou hallowed chosen morn of praise.”

Our Hymnal features two different tunes to this hymn. The more familiar tune is ST. KEVIN, written for this text in 1872 by Arthur S. Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame). We will sing the first tune this year, GAUDEAMUS PARITER, which dates to 1544. It has four lines, three of which are identical. The third line introduces some syncopation that gives the tune its more festive quality.

Our Sermon Hymn is “O for a heart to praise my God.” The text is one of Charles Wesley’s many hymns, and is based on Psalm 51, which we sang during Lent as a Sequence Hymn. While the Psalm focuses on contrition for our weakness, Wesley’s text focuses more on the confident hope of our hearts being remade by Christ.

At the Offertory, the choir will sing Johann Sebastian Bach’s setting of Luther’s great Easter hymn, Christ lag in Todesbanden, “Christ lay in death’s bonds.” Luther adapted the melody for his hymn (with the help of his friend and colleague composer Johann Walther) from the 11th-century plainchant Easter hymn we sang last week, “Christians, to the Paschal Victim.”

At Communion, the choir will sing a setting of the Agnus Dei from the Ordinary of the Mass, composed by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). This setting is from Hassler’s Missa super Dixit Maria. The hymns during Communion are “O Food of men wayfaring” and “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.” Since this latter hymn has “Alleluias,” we haven’t sung it since Ash Wednesday, and are glad to renew our experience of it. This is also a text from the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, more precisely, from the Liturgy of St. James of Jerusalem, and has been used in Orthodox churches since (probably) the fifth century. The tune to which we sing this ancient text is PICARDY, adapted from a French folk song and first published in 1860.

We close our service with a third hymn from St. John of Damascus, “The day of resurrection!” In Greek churches, this is sung at midnight on Easter morn, when the congregations all light candles together to signal the new light of Resurrection life.