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The Sequence of the Mass of Easter Sunday – An overlooked liturgical treasure

The Easter Triduum is the high-point of the Catholic liturgical year. Sadly, many are not afforded the opportunity to appreciate the liturgical significance embedded in these ceremonies. Cameron Upchurch draws our attention to the Sequence of the Mass of Easter Sunday, an often-overlooked part of the Catholic liturgies at Easter.

The liturgies of the Easter Triduum are filled with many powerful symbols and expressive words, so much so that one could perhaps be forgiven for not noticing all of them. This is sadly often true of the sequence of Easter Sunday, Victimae paschali laudes, which is sung or recited after the second reading, before the Alleluia. The former ICEL translation reads as follows:

Christians, to the Paschal Victim
offer sacrifice and praise.

The sheep are ransomed by the Lamb;
and Christ, the undefiled,
hath sinners to his Father reconciled.

Death with life contended: combat strangely ended!
Life’s own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign.

Tell us, Mary: say
what thou didst see upon the way.

The tomb the Living did enclose;
I saw Christ’s glory as He rose!

The angels there attesting;
shroud with grave-clothes resting.

Christ, my hope, has risen:
He goes before you into Galilee.

That Christ is truly risen
from the dead we know.
Victorious King, Thy mercy show!
Amen. Alleluia.

Sequences, with their form dominated often by rhyming couplets, lent themselves to being metricised. As such, they developed within the liturgy into their own musical genre. These liturgical embellishments abounded during the Middle Ages, but were reduced to just four in the Missal of Pius V (1570), after the Council of Trent.

The Stabat Mater, an option for Our Lady of Sorrows, was restored as a fifth sequence in the 18th Century. It has been translated into English as ‘At the cross her station keeping’, and is probably associated more readily by Catholics with the Stations of the Cross.

After Vatican II, Victimae paschali laudes and Veni Sancte Spiritus remained obligatory on Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday respectively. Lauda Sion salvatorem was retained as an option for The Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) and the 13th Century Dies irae was removed from the Mass for the Dead. It was then made an option in the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Initially the sequence was always sung after the Alleluia, just before the Gospel. This order was reversed in the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal, but did appear before then in some post-Vatican II vernacular translations of the Missal (the English translation being one of them).

It seems a great pity that this unique constituent of the Liturgy is, most often, just recited rather than sung, or even omitted altogether.

The Easter Sunday sequence encapsulates the drama of the Resurrection and prepares us for the astonishment of the women at the empty tomb. At the same time it sets the liturgy of the day apart from others.

The ancient plainchant melody is noble and dignified, and not beyond the reach of a committed parish choir; there are vernacular settings that are also equally accessible. If you are involved with musical ministry and haven’t ever attempted a setting of the sequence, try it next year. If you are a parishioner who has noticed that it has been missing from the liturgy, encourage your pastor and liturgy team to consider it.

On Monday night I watched with incredulity as the great cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris burned. On Tuesday morning there it still stood, its roof and spire gone, but its stone frame and bell towers intact.

Shortly after its completion this building became a liturgical centre of note, giving its name to an entire school of liturgical music composition. To this day it has remained a place of daily worship and musical excellence in the service of the Church.

Amid the ashes this cathedral is a symbol of enduring hope, that same hope that we celebrate this week and that is so succinctly put to us in the sequence of Easter Day. At the time of writing, we are still awaiting a full picture of what was irretrievably lost in the conflagration.

The mighty organ of the cathedral, or part of it, may well be one of the casualties, and so it seems fitting to conclude here with a link to a performance of Victimae paschali laudes recorded in Notre-Dame, with the famed Pierre Cochereau (1924-1984) at the organ.

Christ, my hope, is risen. Amen, Alleluia.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.