Songs for the Great Fast

The next set of music I’d like to address in the Hymnal Project is our collection of spiritual songs for the Great Fast and Holy Week.

Why this poses a particular problem for us

Much of our para-liturgical hymnody (that is, songs meant to be sung outside of liturgical services)developed in an era when, due to Roman Catholic influence, our primary services for Lent were the Stations of the Cross, and the rosary with Sorrowful Mysteries. Vespers and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts were neglected, and instead “daily Mass” was celebrated throughout the forty days of the Great Fast.

This led to an over-emphasis on the suffering of Christ on the cross, in all its physical details (“On the morrow you must face the Cross in pain / Slowly from your bloody wounds all life will wane….”), rather than on urging us to repentance and conversion (metanoia).  Of course, meditation on Christ’s love for us as shown in his sufferings can bring us to conversion, but if you look at our liturgical texts, the Passion itself is much more the subject of Great and Holy Week than of the forty days of the Fast.

So where do we start?

We do have a number of hymns which are eminently suitable for the Great Fast itself.

Beneath your compassion (Pod tvoju milost’) is a heart-felt plea to the Mother of God for protection and aid, sung at the end of weekday Vespers during the Great Fast.  This is actually in the back of our Divine Liturgies book, but should be in the hymnal as well, in both English and Slavonic.  We should also have choral versions of this available.

Do not forsake us (Ne opuskaj nas) is another plea for protection, this time directed to Christ. Originally published in Hymns for Great Lent (see below), it is a true Lenten text.

Have mercy on me, O my God is a versified setting of Psalm 50 (that is, a psalm turned into a hymn). This Psalm is the Church’s great song of repentance.

Having suffering (Preterpivyj), originally a Polish hymn which became “naturalized” in Slavonic, has been sung at the end of Lenten services in our church for many years.  In view of the sufferings of the Lord, it makes a plea for mercy and forgiveness.

Follow each link for more information, as well as a discussion of any tricky points in the hymn which need to be addressed before it goes into the hymnal.

Father Levkulic and Hymns of the Great Fast

Many of the Lenten hymns we use were collected by Father William Levkulic and included in the back of his 1978 Divine Liturgies book.  Some years later, he published a larger collection, Hymns for Great Lent. (The booklet itself is undated; does anyone know when it came out?)

This booklet contained more than just Lenten hymns: it also provided music for the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, as well as the Typical Psalms and Beatitudes (which as a result became associated in the minds of many with the Fast), several settings of Beneath your compassion, and the troparion of Great and Holy Thursday. Much of this music now exists in officially promulgated settings in our Divine Liturgies book, so perhaps half of Hymns for Great Lent is now out of date for our purposes.

Of the remainder, there are quite a few hymns of the Passion – which, as I argued above, may be better saved for Great and Holy Week – and two hymns for Palm Sunday.  Some of these hymns as well known, while others (as far as I can tell) are rarely sung in our churches.

Hymns of  the Cross

We could, of course, just group all the remaining Lenten hymns under the heading “For use during Holy Week”, but this would give us four hymns for all of Great Lent, and perhaps a dozen to sing on the days of Holy Week – where only a few are likely to be used if the full cycle of liturgical services is held. Without regular Stations of the Cross, we simply have too many “hymns of the crucifixion” to sing in the course of a few hours, once a year.

Or perhaps not. Among the Passion hymns in our repertoire, there are at least three that focus more on the Cross (as a symbol of God’s love and Christ’s victory) and our response to it.  These hymns might be suitable for our Lenten observance, especially from the third Sunday of the Fast (the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross) through the end of the Fast:

At the most holy cross of our Savior

Beneath your cross I stand

Come now all you faithful, look upon the cross

My proposal would be to label these as “hymns of the Cross”, or even include them in the Great Fast section of the hymnal. This would provide a more even balance between the hymns for the forty days of Lent, and the songs we sing during Great and Holy Week.

Your comments welcome below!  You can use this space to provide your insights on the general topic of Lenten hymns, and on any of the specific hymns linked above.

And as always, see the Hymnal Project page for the overall status of the hymnal, and each hymn we are looking at.



18 thoughts on “Songs for the Great Fast”

  1. Seriously, now that we aren’t supposed to sing Great Fast Hymns on Sunday, unless my parish sings only two or three they will become forgotten. “Now Do I Go to the Cross” and “Beneath Your Cross I Stand” are two most common hymns we sing, along with “In Gethsemene’s Darkness”. I would like to see these continued…..otherwise I fear we will lose Great Fast hymns altogether in our parish. We are having difficulty (understatement) training a new cantor and new music isn’t on the horizon.
    Perhaps these may not be liturgically correct (LC) but they are songs of repentence, humility and contrition…..and isn’t that what the Great Fast is about? We only have one LPG per week, as our priest serves two parishes. Your brother in Christ,

    1. Father Deacon Paul – thanks for replying! As you can see from the table of hymns, the proposal is NOT to omit any of these, but simply to say that some are more appropriate for the Fast, and some for Holy Week – and the two are not the same! (Though many of our faithful don’t realize that – partly because we treat them as the same).

      If you read the words of Now do I go to the cross, they are not about contrition – they are about “all of nature” weeping for Christ. Wonderful words for the middle of the celebration of the Passion, but not for the Fast. The same applies to In Gethsemene’s Darkness. Look at the second verse:

      On the morrow you must bear the cross in pain.
      Slowly from your bloody wounds all life will wane.
      The sword of sorrow, foretold long ago,
      Your mother’s heart will known.

      And that is the END of the hymn. No commitment to Christ; no mention of our sins; no promise of the resurrection. I don’t see how you can sing this outside of Holy Week and have it match the “bright sadness” of the Fast.

      But of course if a hymn is IN the hymnal, you can sing it at Presanctified regardless of which page it is on. I should note also that some of these hymns, such as the setting of Psalm 50, could be sung even on Sundays during the Fast. It is not the hymns of repentance as sung we omit on Sundays, but the ones “filled with sadness” – and Psalm 50 is something we chant at Sunday Matins!

  2. I would like to submit a Lenten Hymn that we have been using for years at the Cathedral in Phoenix and at Annunciation in Anaheim that has kept the congregation in church after the Presanctified Liturgy. It may be from our Ukrainian friends. Not sure if you have it and I am not sure where I got it except that the parish cantors and the choir love it. “From the Depths of Sin and Sadness.” Let me know if you need a copy of it.

  3. I like “Do Not Forsake Us.” Seems like an appropriate hymn for a memorial service, too. I am fairly new to music, and am wondering if the slur should be for two notes on “-sake” and not for three notes on “-sake us.”

  4. Deacon Jeff,
    When I print “Do Not Forsake Us” and “Have Mercy On Me, O My God”, all the half notes are printed as arrows instead of notes. ??? Please check.

    1. Michael – I’ve seen this happen sometimes when the Adobe Reader software is updated (or needs to be) on the computer used to download the music. I did try refreshing “Do not forsake us” – could you please try again?

      1. Deacon Jeff,
        My wife, who is more computer literate than me, helped me out. She updated Adobe Reader, but that didn’t work. She then saved the PDF file to the desk top and printed it from there. That worked! Thanks.

  5. Do not forsake us: This version needs some minor edits. In the first bar, could the word “us” have a half note? And could the next phrse “do not forsake us, O Lord” be all one measure? And could the 4th and 5th bars be one measure combined? And could the last four bars be combined as one measure?

    1. Well, right now it is in a fairly consistent 3/2 time, which is how it was presented by Fr Levkulic. We COULD take the metered hymn and turn it into something more free form – I usually try to avoid that but in this case (with so little documentation for this hymn) it might make sense.

      Before I make any changes, I want to contact one or two places where it had a tradition of being sung.

      1. We sang “Do Not Forsake Us” year round at Saints Peter and Paul Byzantine Catholic Church in Minersville, PA in both English (slightly different text than Msgr Levkulic’s version) and Church Slavonic.

        The last time I visited (2018) – it was still being sung with great gusto.

        The Church Slavonic version that we sang is presented in Msgr Sokol’s Plain Chant book (“blue book”) on page 89.

  6. All set. I sent a copy to you (Father Deacon Jeff) as well as to Father Deacon Tim Woods earlier this afternoon for your review.

    1. So far, I’ve followed the rhythm in the Minersville version, which I like very much (it matches what is tin the Sokol Plain Chant collection. I didn’t change the Slavonic or English, since the Slavonic in Levkulic looks slightly more standard, and the two English verses are both usable. (Of course, the Music Commissiom may decide differently when it goes to them!)

    1. Yes, it does (as noted here). But at least in our contemporary church, it has been assimilated to the Great Fasts and minor fasts.
      Good to see you hear, Father David!

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