The Music of Holy Week and Easter

I’m not musically gifted at all, but I enjoy good music. And the music of this time of the church year is simply unsurpassed. Here are my top three picks — all of them no-brainers — for the best songs of each part of Holy Week. If for some reason your church didn’t play these three , somebody needs to be talked to:

Last Supper: Pange Lingua
I can’t imagine any other song being sung on Holy Thursday night during Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. The full text of this chant is Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium, and it was written by St. Thomas Aquinas. It’s beautiful, and requires no instrumentation: in fact, it’s far better without. Verses 5-6 are often used for Eucharistic Benediction under the title Tantum ergo, and outside of Holy Thursday, usually only verses 1, 5, and 6 are sung.

Here’s the Latin:

1. PANGE, lingua, gloriosi
Corporis mysterium,
Sanguinisque pretiosi,
quem in mundi pretiumfructus
ventris generosi
Rex effudit Gentium.

2. Nobis datus, nobis natus
ex intacta Virgine,
et in mundo conversatus,
sparso verbi semine,
sui moras incolatus
miro clausit ordine.

3. In supremae nocte cenae
recumbens cum fratribus
observata lege plene
cibis in legalibus,
cibum turbae duodenae
se dat suis manibus.

4. Verbum caro, panem verum
verbo carnem efficit:
fitque sanguis Christi merum,
et si sensus deficit,
ad firmandum cor sincerum
sola fides sufficit.

5. Tantum ergo Sacramentum
veneremur cernui:
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui:
praestet fides supplementum
sensuum defectui.

6. Genitori, Genitoque
laus et iubilatio,
salus, honor, virtus quoque
sit et benedictio:
procedenti ab utroque
compar sit laudatio.

Amen. Alleluia.

And an English rhyming translation:

1. SING, my tongue, the Savior’s glory,
of His flesh the mystery sing;
of the Blood, all price exceeding,
shed by our immortal King,
destined, for the world’s redemption,
from a noble womb to spring.

2. Of a pure and spotless Virgin
born for us on earth below,
He, as Man, with man conversing,
stayed, the seeds of truth to sow;
then He closed in solemn order
wondrously His life of woe.

3. On the night of that Last Supper,
seated with His chosen band,
He the Pascal victim eating,
first fulfills the Law’s command;
then as Food to His Apostles
gives Himself with His own hand.

4. Word-made-Flesh, the bread of nature
by His word to Flesh He turns;
wine into His Blood He changes;
-what though sense no change discerns?
Only be the heart in earnest,
faith her lesson quickly learns.

5. Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail;
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing,
newer rites of grace prevail;
faith for all defects supplying,
where the feeble sense fail.

6. To the everlasting Father,
and the Son who reigns on high,
with the Holy Ghost proceeding
forth from Each eternally,
be salvation, honor, blessing,
might and endless majesty.

Amen. Alleluia.

The English translation is intended to express the same content in rhyme, not to be an exact translation. That means that at times it misses some of the original’s beauty. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that the second half of verse 4 literally reads: “The Word-(made)-Flesh makes by (His) word true bread into flesh; and wine becomes Christ’s blood; and if the (unassisted) intellect fails (to recognize all this), faith alone suffices to assure the pure heart.” It’s a recognition, by one of the sharpest minds of human history, that there were some things he couldn’t wrap his mind around, and had to just take on faith. The translation sort of grasps that, and does a good job getting the part about how the Word made Flesh turns the bread into His Flesh by His word, but I get the feeling that to get the full weight, one would have to speak Latin (which I don’t).

The Passion: “Were You There?”
“Were you There?” is a forlorn songs, written and originally sung by African slaves, recalling the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. This song is sung during Good Friday’s liturgy as we venerate the Cross. It’s also sung on Palm Sunday (and sometimes, Good Friday), when we read the Passion account. There, it isn’t sung in whole, but the first three verses are interjected as appropriate. The lyrics are repetitive and easy to remember, and yet the lyrics are piercing. It is, in other words, a great hymn for meditative prayer, and worship which just recalls our Lord’s suffering. The lyrics, and particularly the melody, are haunting:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?

Technically, the last verse of this song is more Easter than Good Friday, but the tune is so sad that it just isn’t the same as the last song on the list:

The Resurrection: “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!”
Even if you couldn’t understand the words to this song, it would put you in a good mood. It’s upbeat and excited without being too over-the-top. In fact, the tune is known simply as “Easter tune” because it’s the song most associated with Easter. And the lyrics are certainly not lacking, either. They’re a joyful proclaimation that Christ is Risen!

The song started as a 14th century Bohemian carol, sung in Latin:

Surrexit Christus hodie
Humano pro solamine.
Mortem qui passus pridie
Miserrimo pro homine.

Mulieres ad tumulum
Dona ferunt aromatum,
Album cernentes angelum
Anuntiantes gaudium.

Mulieres o tremulae,
In Galilaeam pergite,
Discipulis hoc dicite,
Quod surrexit rex gloriae.

Ubique praecedet suos,
Quos dilexit, discipulos.
Sit benedictus hodie,
Qui nos redemit sanguine.

Ergo cum dulci melodo
Benedicamus Domino.
Laudetur sancta trinitas,
Deo dicamus gratias.

In 1708, an English version was published in the Lyra Davidica, and the tune it was set to was what became “Easter tune.” John Arnold, in his Compleat Psalmodist, re-wrote the lyrics to what we know today, and in the 19th Century, William Henry Monk reworked the tune a bit to what we’re now familiar with. The song’s lyrics are:

1. Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
Who did once upon the cross, Alleluia!
Suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia!

2. Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia!
Unto Christ, our heavenly King, Alleluia!
Who endured the cross and grave, Alleluia!
Sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia!

3. But the pains which he endured, Alleluia!
our salvation have procured, Alleluia!
now above the sky he’s King, Alleluia!
where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!

If you didn’t sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!” then hopefully you at least sang, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” The only difference is that Charles Wesley (Methodist founder John Wesley’s brother) wrote seven new verses, with the Arnold’s three verses of Jesus Christ is Risen Today! tacked on as verses 8-10. It’s usually even sung to the same tune. “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” has the unique distinction of being a Methodist translation of an old Catholic hymn set to music by an Anglican organist: a fitting sort of Easter ecumenism.

Anyways, those are the three songs which seem to have become part of the Holy Week and Easter tradition. They’re three very different songs: one written by a Doctor of the Church, one written by slaves who knew what sufferring felt like, and one written by — well, seemingly everybody. They set the tone for each of their liturgies: Pange Lingua inspires awe, “Were You There?” recalls sorrow, and “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!” exudes joy.

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