By Fr Andrew Burnham Let’s return to God with all our hearts Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say: “Spare your people, O Lord!”
These words, from the second chapter of the Prophet Joel, are read during the Ash Wednesday Mass. They are read nowadays and they were read half a century ago, when, in one of his later works, the Tudor composer, Thomas Tallis, set them to music in masterly fashion. Masterly in more than one sense: for one thing, here is a searingly beautiful piece of music. For another, here was a composer writing quite brazenly after the English Reformation about the destruction of the old Faith. It seems quite extraordinary to us that two Catholic composers – Tallis and his pupil William Byrd – were given the monopoly of the printing of music and music paper by Queen Elizabeth. It is surely even more extraordinary that the composers thanked her by writing subversive music. Not many of the 1575 Cantiones Sacræ – a collection of 34 motets, 17 each for the 17 years of her reign – have subversive texts, but florid Latin motets are not the most obvious way to reward the patronage of a Protestant monarch.
In jejunio et fletu, with its priests weeping and wailing in front of the sanctuary, was clearly a lament. It recalls the more extensive and subversive Tenebræ Lamentations – set by both Tallis and Byrd some years earlier. The Lamentations of Jeremiah recall a whole liturgy abolished by the Reformers – the celebration of Maundy Thursday Vigils on the previous evening in an ever-darkening church. The lessons of the day might well be recounting the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple but, to those in the know, there was little doubt as to what was meant by the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. It was the devastation of the old religion and the beginning of the Exile. One wonders how many of Queen Elizabeth’s subjects noticed how the Ash Wednesday lesson started: “Even now,” says the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12). Tallis and Byrd were not pamphleteers or campaigners but they certainly understood the persuasive power of the beauty of orthodoxy.
Quite a few people this Ash Wednesday will be particularly aware of the themes of exile and return. There will be the converts – people preparing to enrol for the journey towards the Easter sacrament of baptism. Among these, one imagines, will be people captivated by the way the Pope came to England last autumn and brought the Gospel to life for them. Others will be people suddenly surprised and enthralled for other reasons by the Catholic Faith. These will include converts and the lapsed, those who have been in exile from the practice of their Faith, perhaps for many years. Here is the time to return “with all your heart”. If not “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” – we are not much good at any of those things – then at least with a quiet and thoughtful attentiveness to what the jour ney through Lent to Easter has to teach.
There will be an unusual bit of journeying, this year. Among those travelling from Ash Wednesday to the Paschal mysteries will be Anglicans, responding to Anglicanorum cœtibus, the Apostolic Constitution which, as the name suggests, welcomes groups of Anglicans into the full communion of the Catholic Church. Like the bishops and religious, who have already made the journey, the Anglican priests, deacons, and faithful will receive further instruction, the laying on of hands and chrismation. Those who will go on to serve as deacons and priests in the Catholic Church will receive the sacrament of Holy Orders in the coming months and continue for quite some time afterwards with study and formation. Quite a few making this journey will have spent many years thinking that they already belonged to and practised the Faith of which Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were champions. Somehow, we thought, Jerusalem was not sacked and the temple not destroyed. There were revivals, from the early 17th century to the late 20th century, which made us think that all was well where we were. We put those questions behind us. As we are moving into full communion, nothing is demanded of us beyond a determination to journey on as Catholics, leaving behind what must be left behind, and bringing along whatever is good.
Most likely of all, you are neither a convert nor returning by way of confession and absolution to the Faith from which you lapsed. And you will be an unusual reader if you are one of that little band of brave Anglicans, blazing a trail. Most likely you will be a Catholic, one who struggles year by year to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbour as yourself. Lent is another chance to take stock and have another go at doing it all a bit better. The winter waistline calls out for a bit of fasting. The rushing out to work on winter mornings calls out for a new effort at scheduling in morning prayers, a moment of stillness before the rush, easier perhaps as the day lengthens. The New Year budgeting after an expensive Christmas might even make the Lenten challenge of almsgiving – realistic giving to the needy, support of the Church – more feasible. But, to begin it all, for everyone of us, there is the weeping between the vestibule and the altar. The prophet Joel summons us: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people” (Joel 2:15). Fr Andrew Burnham is a member of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham