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.