“He who sings, prays twice,” said Augustine. Well, except that he didn’t. He had plenty to say about singing, but his most famous line on the subject turns out not to have been his. Still, whether singing does double duty or not, it’s clear that it does augment prayer somehow. During Lent, then, when we’re invited to a deeper relationship with Christ through fasting and almsgiving and, yes, prayer, it makes sense that singing is given more attention. One example is the Church’s instruction that during Lent musical instruments be used in the liturgy only insofar as they are needed to support the singing; another is the increased intricacy and beauty of our Dominican chants proper to Lent, such as the In Pace and the Media Vita.
Composers seem to have sensed for ages the fit between sublime music and Lenten meditations on the Passion, from the plaintive polyphony of Victoria’s Tenebrae responsories to the brooding brilliance of Bach’s Matthäus-Passion, BWV 244. One of the chorales in this latter work, Herzliebster Jesu, was a popular German hymn which Bach arranged and used for the Matthäus-Passion’s third and fifty-fifth movements. The text is best known in English in the beautiful translation by Robert Bridges, which is still sung today to essentially the same tune:
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
That man to judge thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.
Bach places this first verse immediately after Jesus predicts his Passion. As the Gospels recount, the disciples’ reaction to this prediction was confusion, grief, and even rebuke. Indeed, the notion of an afflicted Christ is a startling one for us weary sinners who know well our weakness: Jesus, the Light of the World, in whom there is no fault, afflicted? The fact of his humanity is hammered home with all the force of a nail through hand or foot:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
These questions are not inquiries but laments, for we know the answers: I am the guilty, I brought this upon thee. My treason, my denial, was the reason for the Savior’s suffering. ’Twas I, Lord Jesus: I crucified thee. I think there is a particularly Petrine character to this hymn, and especially to this verse. What must have been his anguish when, far from denying himself and taking up his cross and following Jesus, he instead denied Jesus and refused the cross and fled from him? And the Lord turned and looked at Peter (Lk 22:61). As Dom Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori, O. Cist., puts it in his lovely book, Simon, Called Peter: “The words of his denial—‘I do not know the man’—were reflected in the Master’s eyes, so full of love and suffering, and fell back into Peter’s heart like salt on a wound. He had never truly loved the love of Jesus, and he measured within his own heart all of the solitude, all of the abandonment of his only Friend and Father. No, it was not the Jews, it was not the Romans who wounded Jesus that night, but him, Peter!”
Lo, the good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered;
For man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
This is the other verse which Bach employs, placing it on the heels of the crowd’s frenzied demands that Christ be crucified (“Laß ihn kreuzigen!”). The musical contrast is striking, moving from the frantic overlapping melodies of all the people clamoring for his death, to the the melancholic chorale imbued with hushed awe at the condescension of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (Jn 10:11), the beloved Son who becomes the suffering servant (Isa 52:13–53:12), the God-Man who truly intercedes for us (Rom 8:34).
For me, kind Jesus, was thine Incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter Passion,
For my salvation.
Why suffer so? Why become man at all, knowing that he would shoulder the burden of such mortal sorrow? For me, for my salvation. God could have saved us by any number of ways, but he chose to manifest his all-encompassing love in this way, to reveal its breadth and length and height and depth (Eph 3:18), which extends even unto death, and beyond it: the love of God is cruciform.
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
Think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.
How can one hope to respond to such a gift? How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? (Ps 116:12) By giving him all we have and are.Your servant, Lord, your servant am I, the son of your handmaid; you have loosened my bonds (Ps 116:16). The sacrifice of Christ elicits from us a sacrifice of praise; the free gift of redemption impels us freely to give ourselves to him, in whom is the fullness of grace and truth, mercy and glory, life and light.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Embrace of the Cross (used with permission)