Friday, April 10, 2009

The bittersweetness of Good Friday

Our parish belongs to a cluster of three old urban churches, two Polish and one German, in downtown Detroit. Each is structurally traditional and beautiful in its own way. A couple of them are veritable jewels of traditional church architecture.

Each parish has traditions uniquely their own. The German church, St. Joseph's, is known for its magnificent musical program. St. Josaphat, one of the Polish parishes, is known for its beautiful EF liturgy and music. Sweetest Heart of Mary, the other Polish parish, has, in my opinion, the most breath-taking interior; but what this parish really has to offer is a robust and distinctively Polish parish life.

For two years now, I have been taking in their traditionally Polish rendition of the Stations of the Cross on Lenten Fridays. It is likely a matter of personal taste, but I find something hauntingly beautiful about Polish devotional singing. There is something deeply primeval about the mournful melodies and the voices of the cantor and priest, belting out the refrains, which, at times, sound almost like the forlorn tribal wailing out of some ancient Eastern European saga.

This atmosphere was ratcheted up maximally today when, for the first time, I had the opportunity of experiencing the Polish Lenten devotion entitled Gorzkie żale (Bitter Lamentations), focusing on the human suffering of Christ -- "Któryś za nas cierpiał rany" (You who suffered wounds for us). Again, it may be a matter of personal taste, but witnessing the devotion there, in the transcendently sublime setting inside of Sweetest Heart of Mary church, with Polish priest and cantor at all-stops-pulled full-blown lachrymose lamentation, it is nearly enough to transport one straightaway to Golgotha. Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ barely holds a candle to it. (Here is a professional production that captures the plaintiveness of the melody, though it lacks the rustic promordiality I witnessed.)

That was at 12:00 noon today. At 1:30 began the Good Friday liturgy at St. Josaphat just a few blocks away, which was another first for me: the Good Friday liturgy in Latin in the Extraordinary Form.

The first thing that struck me was the limpid clarity of the prayers. Had I missed something before?
  • "Oremus et pro haereticis et schismaticis: ut Deus et Dominus noster eruat eos ab erroribus universis; et ad sanctam matrem Ecclesiam Catholicam atque Apostolicam revocare dignetur." ("Let us pray also for heretics and schismatics: that our Lord God would be pleased to rescue them from all their errors; and recall them to our holy mother the Catholic and Apostolic Church.")
  • "Oremus et pro paganis: ut Deus omnipotens auferat iniquitatem a cordibus eorum; ut relictis idolis suis, convertantur ad Deum vivum et verum, et unicum Filium eius Iesum Christum Deum et Dominum nostrum." ("Let us pray also for the pagans: that almighty God would remove iniquity from their hearts: that, putting aside their idols, they may be converted to the true and living God, and His only Son, Jesus Christ our God and Lord.")
  • [And, of course, after the Holy Father's alteration of the prayer for the Jews]: "Oremus et pro Judaeis: ut Deus et Dominus noster illuminet corda eorum, ut agnoscant Jesum Christum salvatorem omnium hominum." ("Let us pray also for the Jews: May our God and Lord enlighten their hearts, so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, savior of all men.")
There were, of course, no bells used today, but wooden clappers used instead, as during the Maundy Thursday liturgy last night, as a sign of penitence in accordance with the sorroful mystery being commemorated. Likewise, for the same reason, there was no organ accompaniment for the cantors. The choir was strictly a cappella. I must say, however, that the rendition of Allegri's Miserere offered would have given the Tallus Scholars a run for their money.

Another first for me, which will show just how naive I often am, is that I finally made a point of reading the words of Allegri's Miserere the other day when I was listening to the CD, which I have listened to for years without paying much attention to the words, just enjoying the penitential music. What sublime bittersweetness! It's the Penitential Psalm of all Penitential Psalms: Psalm 51, written by King David in penance after his sin with Bathsheba and after being confronted by the prophet, Nathan:
Miserere mei Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum dele iniquitatem meam. Amplis lava me ab iniquitate mea et a peccato meo munda me. Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco et peccatum meum contra me est semper....

("Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy great mercy and according to the abundance of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my offence and my sin is ever before me....)
A Blessed Good Friday and Triduum to all.

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