Chant in Holy Week: Audible Mystery, Pain, and Love
There is a vast well of spiritual illumination available through the chants found in Holy Week. As we move from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to his crucifixion and ultimately to his resurrection, the chants for Holy Week also reflect this journey. Many of us are familiar with some of the more well-known chants such as, “Hosanna, Filio David” (Hosanna to the Son of David) chanted during the symbolic entry into Jerusalem, or “Ubi Caritas” (Where true love is) which is chanted during Maundy Thursday Mass — the commemoration of the Last Supper.
However, what I would like to highlight are the Lamentations of Jeremiah. These extraordinary pieces, typically chanted by a soloist and followed by a group responsory during the service of Tenebrae, are part of our Divine Office beginning with Vespers on Maundy Thursday and finishing within the Vigil for Holy Saturday.
The outcries of Jeremiah become the outcries of Christ, and the indescribable grief at the downfall of Jerusalem. But what makes these pieces so unique is that each cantor takes these chants (which can be up to almost 10 minutes in length!) and spends weeks in personal prayer, preparing the lamentation so that he or she is able to chant the piece on behalf of themselves and the entire congregation.
In 2007, I was assigned the 8th Lamentation, which occurred during the Holy Saturday Vigil. It was a personally difficult time. As I offered this chant during the vigil, I knew that I was literally being changed as the sound came out of my mouth. Following that service, I remained in the church for several hours — I could not grasp what had just happened. All I knew was that Love itself had just greeted me and changed my life. More than at any other point, I knew that chant would be a part of my life forever.