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   /   Ministry & Liturgy - Volume 38 -2011   /   December/January Issue   /   Sung Prayer

Denise Morency Gannon


Out of the depths: A practical approach
to music from Ash Wednesday through
Passion Sunday

Liturgical musicians prepare and practice seasonal church music outside of cultural "real time." While the world celebrates the birth of Jesus (this writer lives in hopeful expectation), pastoral musicians rehearse ritual music to celebrate his passion and death. Diligent effort pays off when shades of green turn to purple and musicians hit the road running, singing and playing well-prepared scores that shift the assembly's heart to the season at hand. Practice makes perfect.

If practice makes perfect, when do pastoral musicians rehearse the principal choir of the liturgy — the assembly? Why do pastoral musicians expect assembly song to prayerfully resonate within worship without some kind of rehearsal? How can liturgical music leaders breed familiarity through the use of texts and tunes to produce worthy music participation at Mass? Perhaps a very practical approach to these questions would employ the psalms of Lent to provide a liturgically sound and creative solution.

Permit the psalms to inform all other musical decisions within Lenten music. Use a compendium of psalms that stay consistent in style so that your assembly acquires reliable, musical psalm tones that a choral ensemble may embellish or simply intone with a cantor, with or without accompaniment. Once an assembly learns a series of particular psalms or psalm tones, they will become familiar with the structural pattern of those tones within their rehearsed ritual prayer, so that their response becomes both powerful and prayerful. A well-rehearsed community expresses its gratitude through well-sung prayer within worship. Fluency in repertoire works within assembly song the same way fluency works within choral or instrumental ensembles. Practice makes perfect.

Investigate one of these trustworthy examples of tried and true psalmody; they offer a rich palate of choice for pastoral musicians who lead sung prayer: Lectionary Psalms by Michel Guimont (GIA); Psalms by Joseph Gelineau, SJ, and Richard Proulx (GIA); Respond and Acclaim (OCP); Psalms for Feasts and Seasons (Liturgical Press); and Psalms and Ritual Music (World Library Publications).

Find a musical context within the framework of the psalms of Lent. Begin to shape the structure of the music for each liturgy, starting with Ash Wednesday, on the basis of the psalms you elect to use. Apply the three judgments from Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship as you pray, evaluate, discern, and decide. Once you settle on the psalm setting, consider revisiting that psalm text for possible use with other ritual moments, such as the reception of ashes, preparation of the gifts, communion procession, or after communion.

The following is a liturgical music model for Lent 2012 (B) using a consistent style and psalm tones and basing other music choices on those choices.

Ash Wednesday

  • Psalm 51: "Be Merciful, O Lord" by Michel Guimont (GIA)
  • Reception of ashes: "Be Merciful, O Lord" by Michael Joncas (GIA)
  • Communion song: "Create in Me" by Bob Hurd (OCP) or by Tom Kendzia (OCP)

1st Sunday of Lent

  • Psalm 25: "Your Ways, O Lord" by Michel Guimont (GIA)
  • Communion song: "Loving and Forgiving" by Scott Soper (OCP)

2nd Sunday of Lent

  • Psalm 40: "I Waited, I Waited for the Lord" by Joseph Gelineau (GIA)
  • Communion song: "Here I Am, O God: Psalm 40" by Steven C. Warner (WLP)

3rd Sunday of Lent

  • Psalm 19: "Lord, You Have the Words" by Michel Guimont (GIA)
  • Communion song: "Lord, You Have the Words" by Michael Joncas (OCP)

4th Sunday of Lent

  • Psalm 137: "Let My Tongue Be Silenced" by Michel Guimont (GIA)
  • Preparation of gifts: "Psalm 137: If I Forget You" by Rory Cooney (GIA)
  • Communion song: "By the Rivers of Babylon" by Marty Haugen (GIA)

5th Sunday of Lent

  • Psalm 51: "Create in Me a Clean Heart" by Michel Guimont (GIA)
  • Preparation of gifts: "Be Merciful, O Lord" by Michael Joncas (GIA)
  • Communion song: "Create in Me" by Bob Hurd (OCP)

Passion (Palm) Sunday

  • Psalm 22: "My God, My God, Why Have You Abandoned Me" by Owen Alstott (OCP). Implement Alstott's psalm without accompaniment. Alternate the four verses of the psalm between a cantor and a four-part choir. On verses one and three, the choir sings "oo" or "ah" under the cantor's verses as a sustained harmony. On verses two and four, the choir sings the verses in four-part harmony. On the end of the sung refrain, play one handbell or the chime stop on the organ on the tonic note in the mid-register.
  • Communion song: The communion procession will be lengthy on Passion Sunday. Revisit some of the psalms you sang as communion processionals throughout Lent. Your "rehearsed" regular assembly will sing robustly and assist those who do not regularly worship today.
  • Communion meditation: Consider "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani (My God, my God, why have you abandoned me)" by Richard Clark (CanticaNOVA) as a choral anthem to further promulgate the meditative prayer of psalms.


Denise Morency Gannon is a campus minister for music at Emmanuel College in Boston and serves as a consultant and presenter in matters of liturgy and music. She is also the founder and owner of Morgan Music. Contact her through her website,