Forty Days – RPC Music Notes, Sun 8 March 2020

The season of Lent

“The Glory of these Forty Days” hymn arrangement

Today the season of Lent lasts 40 Days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. If you try to figure this out from a calendar you must not count the six Sundays, which are technically not part of the traditional Lenten observance (and for those of us who have chosen to ‘give things up’ – interesting to know that in some traditions, Sunday is the weekly day off from those commitments!)

Ever notice the prominence of the number 40 in the Bible? From the length of the flood (40 days and nights), to Moses’ days on Mount Sinai, the Israelites’ two periods of wandering in the desert (40 years twice), to the period of Jonah’s warning to Nineveh and the period of time in which Jesus appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection (both 40 days) the number is mentioned a striking 146 times in scripture. The Bible, as it turns out, was even written down by exactly 40 people, if you count them up.

The earliest recorded references to a pre-Easter season of self-denial, introspection and prayer date from the early days of the church, in the writings of Irenaus of Lyons (c.130-c.200), but at that time it was just a few days in length: sometime after discussion by the Council of Nicea (325) Lent eventually climbed on the bandwagon of the Bible’s seeming fascination with the number 40, inspired of course by the days Jesus himself spent fasting and praying in the wilderness.

In musical terms Lent can imply many things in addition of course to melodies and texts traditional to or thematically fitting the season. Music conceived with Lent (and especially Lenten texts) in mind can often have a reverent, sober and cerebral character not so suited to more festive seasons. In some very catholic-style churches an ironically Calvinistic texture is adopted without organs and other instruments, reverting to the austerity of unaccompanied singing by both choirs and congregations. And where instruments continue to be used through Lent there is often a culture of using them sparingly, more quietly, and – dare I say it – more humbly. Even the musicians’ most beloved ‘Hallelujah!” is often put away, as though its true meaning at Easter could ever be compromised by its release in the preceding weeks.

At RPC, in addition to following detailed sermon plans (you will always find these and complete musical details published on our monthly Word and Music List in the Music/Media section of the RPC website), Lent gathers many diverse genres and ideas into our musical life, including this year our ongoing winter/spring project to sing all seven movements of Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem‘ where they pick up on themes of the day.

As much as sacred music at RPC reaches far beyond our Presbyterian tradition, the true riches in our Lent are often found within our hymns. This is an expression of not only the basis of the Reformed perspective on literacy, on direct congregational worship and a metrical literary tradition, but also I think of the way hymns seek to collect together the immensity of self-introspection that is germane to a personal faith, rather than one perhaps more clouded by ritual, decoration, sense and experience, or on any other beautiful thing liable to be a target for idolatry.

After all, in some sense art may be thought to be true and beautiful only when it is seen, heard or otherwise experienced by people. We with good reason build cathedrals, paint and compose masterpieces to God’s glory – but, perhaps, they become art only through people.

-CD