Holy Week 2019: A Retrospective

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Palm Sunday

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass

Zechariah 9:9

Jesus is indeed making a royal claim. He wants his path and his action to be understood in terms of the Old Testament promises that are fulfilled in his person. The Old Testament speaks of him – and vice versa: he acts and lives within the word of God, not according to projects and wishes of his own. His claim is based on obedience to the mission received from his Father. His path is a path into the heart of God’s word. At the same time, through this anchoring of the text in Zechariah 9:9, a ‘Zealot’ exegesis of the kingdom is excluded: Jesus is not building on violence; he is not instigating a military revolt against Rome. His power is of another kind: it is in God’s poverty, God’s peace, that he identifies the only power that can redeem. 

Benedict XVI Jesus of Nazareth Pt 2

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday: solemn liturgies featuring the blessings of palms, processions, and proclamations of the Saviour’s Passion. At the High Mass, sumptuous red vestments during the procession of the psalms were drawn from the Oratory’s antique collection: they were designed and woven by the German firm of Hubert Gotz around the turn of the last century. In the Mass that followed these yielded to the sober violet of a brand new set, conceived and produced here at the Oratory according to styles originally laid down by St Charles Borromeo, the great Counter-Reformation Archbishop of Milan. 

During Holy Week, it is the Passion narratives that take pride of place in the meditation of the People of God. This year our proclamations of the Passion were made from three new lecterns designed by the Brother sacristan and manufactured by him with the assistance of one of our Norbertine seminarians. Inspired by Roman examples, accented in black and gold, this liturgical furniture assisted in bringing dignity and distinction to the singing of the Lord’s Passion.

Music for the High Mass was provided as usual by the Oratory Choir: we heard the Mass for Five Voices, the Offertory Motet Ne reminiscaris and the Communion Motet Civitas sancti tui, all by William Byrd. The choral parts during the singing of the Passion were taken from the Passio secundum Mattheum of Tomás Luis de Victoria. 


‘I have seen iniquity and strife in the city’. Behold, the glory of the Cross. That Cross is established now above the brow of kings, which enemies did once deride. The end has shown the measure of its power: he has conquered the world, not with a sword, but with wood. The enemies of God thought the Cross a meet object of insult and ridicule, yes, they stood before it, wagging their heads and saying, ‘If he be the Son of God, let him come down from the Cross!’ And he stretched forth his hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people. If he is just who lives by faith, he is unjust that has no faith. Therefore where ‘iniquity’ is written, we may understand ‘unbelief’. The Lord therefore said that he saw iniquity and strife in the city, and that he stretched forth his hands unto that disobedient and gainsaying people, and yet, looking upon the very same, he said: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

St Augustine Commentary on Psalm 54

The Office of Tenebrae for Holy Thursday was sung in anticipation on Wednesday evening. This Office begins with fifteen candles on the triangular stand or hearse, and a further six on the altar: each will be extinguished as the Office progresses, save one. At the end of Lauds the final candle is not extinguished but concealed, so that the psalm Miserere is sung while the church is in complete darkness. After the closing prayers, a raucous interruption, the strepitus, representing the turmoil of creation responding to the death of the Creator, penetrates the encompassing darkness. Once the strepitus ceases, the lone candle is brought out from behind the altar and takes its place at the summit of the hearse, symbolizing the coming resurrection of the One who is the Light of the world.

Polyphonic responsories in the three Nocturns of Matins were sung by the Oratory Choir. In the first Nocturn we heard In monte Oliveti by Edmund Rubbra, Tristis est anima mea by Marco Antonio Ingegneri and Ecce, vidimus eum by Carlo Gesualdo; in the second, Amicus meus by Orlandus Lassus, and Judas mercator pessimus and Unus ex discipulis, both by Tomás Luis de Victoria; and in the third, Eram quasi agnus by Victoria, Una hora by Gesualdo and Seniores populi again by Victoria.

Holy Thursday

Were we to … regard the Passion as the centre of everything, with the Incarnation simply as a means to that end, should we not then make God’s self-glorification in this world dependent on human sin, and reduce God himself to an instrument for promoting the purposes of the creation?…[But] to focus the Incarnation on the Passion enables [us] to reach a point at which the mind is flooded by the … perfect thought: in serving, in washing the feet of his creatures, God reveals himself even in that which is most intimately divine in him, and manifests his supreme glory

Hans Urs von Balthasar Mysterium Paschale

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper concluded as usual with reposition and silent adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at the Altar of Repose, to which this year a new frontal had been added, modelled on the frontal of an altar at the London Oratory.

The Altar of Repose was painstakingly put together in situ in the hours preceding the Evening liturgy.

At Mass the Oratory Children’s Choir and schola sang O love, how deep (Southern Harmony), Ubi caritas by Maurice Duruflé, O food of pilgrims lowly by Heinrich Isaac and a second setting of Ubi caritas by our former Director of Music Philip Fournier.

Good Friday

The tree is for me a planting of eternal salvation; I find my nourishment from it … By its roots I am rooted, by its nourishment I am spread out … This tree of heavenly dimensions rises up from the earth to heaven. It is fixed, as an everlasting growth, in the midst of heaven and of earth. It is the sustenance of all things, the prop of the universe, the support of the whole inhabited earth and the axis of the world. It holds together the variety of human nature, fixed as it is by the invisible pegs of the Spirit so that, divinely adjusted, it may never more be detached from God. By its pinnacle touching the summit of the heavens, by its foot stabilizing the earth, and by its immense arms restraining on all sides the manifold spirits of the air between heaven and earth, it exists whole and entire in everything, everywhere.

Pseudo-Hippolytus On the Pasch

The Good Friday liturgy, in all its stark simplicity, begins with the ministers prostrating themselves before the bare altar. After the reading of the Word of God, and the solemn proclamation of the Lord’s Passion, the Church prays the great orations. The bells, falling silent after the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, are replaced by the crotalus, pictured below. The crucifix, gradually unveiled in procession, finally arrives at the sanctuary, tenderly accessible to the veneration of the faithful.

The strange intensity of today’s liturgy, which might be characterized as a kind of elevated, even contemplative sorrow not yet accorded the grace of resolution, was matched by the musical offerings of the Oratory Choir: the choral parts were from Tomas Luis de Victoria’s Passio secundum Joannem, and in addition we heard his Improperia, as well as Carlo Gesualdo’s O vos omnes, Orlando Lassus’ Miserere mei Deus and Jacquet of Mantua’s Aspice Domine.

Easter Vigil

The mystery of the Incarnation of the Word contains, as in a synthesis, the interpretation of all the enigmas and figures of Scripture, as well as the meaning of all material and spiritual creatures. But whoever knows the mystery of the Cross and the burial, that person knows the real reasons…for all these realities. Whosever, lastly, penetrates the hidden power of the Resurrection, discovers the final end for which God created everything from the beginning.

St Maximus the Confessor Capita Theologica et Oecumenica I

The Mass of the Easter Vigil includes tableaux of concentrated intensity such as the blessing of the Easter fire, the procession of the Paschal candle as it gradually diffuses its light to the entire congregation, the proclamation of the Exultet and the age-old Christian paradoxes of redemption, and finally the coming to new birth of the community of catechumens: this year 12 were baptized and 3 were received into the fullness of the Church’s communion.

The Oratory Choir sang Missa Resurrectio Christi by Andrea Rota, the Offertory motet Surrexit a mortuis by Charles-Marie Widor and Dum transisset Sabbatum by Christian Hollander at Communion. The voluntary, performed on the newly liberated organ, was Final from Widor’s Symphony No. 6.

Easter Sunday

It is part of the mystery of God that he acts so gently, that he only gradually builds up his history within the great history of mankind; that he becomes man and so can be overlooked by his contemporaries and by the decisive forces within history; that he suffers and dies and that, having risen again, he chooses to come to mankind only through the faith of the disciples to whom he reveals himself; that he continues to knock gently at the doors of our hearts and slowly opens our eyes if we open our doors to him.

And yet – is not this the truly divine way? Not to overwhelm with external power, but to give freedom, to offer and elicit love. And if we really think about it, is it not what seems so small that is truly great? 

Benedict XVI Jesus of Nazareth Pt 2

The celebration of the Mysterium Paschale draws to a close with the Masses of Easter Day. The vestments for the High Mass were a splendid cloth of gold set by the French firm Maison Henri. Designed and woven in Lyons in the early part of the twentieth century, they feature Christ resurrected in glory.

Among the music performed by the Oratory Choir were Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, Giovanni Basano’s Offertory motet Dic nobis, Maria and Palestrina’s motet at Communion Angelus Domini descendit. The organ voluntary was Victimae paschali laudes by Charles Tournemire.

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