There was something different about Mass this past Sunday. Did you catch it? Being Easter Sunday, it was hard not to notice that the Glory to God and Alleluia made their joyous return after six weeks of Lent. There was also the sprinkling with newly blessed Holy Water. And if you looked closely, the blossoms of the Easter lilies almost appear like they too are joining in the triumphant sound of the trumpets announcing that Christ is Risen. But there was another element at Mass on Easter Sunday that, year after year, causes people to ask questions or even wonder if the choir just simply decided to sing an extra song. It was the Sequence.
The liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church requires two Sequences — one on Easter Sunday and one on Pentecost Sunday. They are somewhat of an interesting facet of the liturgy and have a historical origin that is difficult to trace. The sequence is generally thought to have begun as a genre of poetry around the ninth century when Gregorian Chant was flourishing and spreading throughout Europe. A signature element of chant of that era was a flowery, artistic expression on the last syllable of the Alleluia, which extended over several moving notes — a technique known as a melisma or jubilus. Because these jubili were often difficult to learn, poets and musicians started to use prose texts to help a singer memorize the long and complex melodies. Therefore, many of the earliest sequences of this time ended each line with the letter “A” in order to drive home its connection with the Alleluia.
Because chant of this era was originally used as a meditation on Scripture, the purpose of the Sequence developed from a teaching tool for the singer into a musical reflection on the Alleluia verse. This is most obvious in the Alleluia verse for Easter Sunday, which is, “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed; let us then feast with joy in the Lord.” The Easter Sequence begins with this theme and builds on it with its opening line: “Christians, to the Paschal Victim, offer your thankful praises!” Likewise, the Sequence for Pentecost develops the verse for the Alleluia, which is, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.” The Pentecost Sequence picks up this verse and develops it into one of the most beautiful poetic masterpieces of our time. In fact, literary scholars, musicians and liturgists have sometimes referred to the Pentecost Sequence the “Golden Sequence.”
Historically, the Sequence was sung before the last Alleluia before the Gospel. Think about the normal way the Alleluia is sung: the Alleluia is introduced by the cantor or choir, and the people repeat. Next, a verse follows, and the Alleluia returns for one final, concluding refrain. Originally, before the Alleluia refrain returned, the Sequence was added. In the years following the Second Vatican Council, the Sequence was moved to just after the concluding Alleluia. Either way, this placement of the Sequence created an extension of the Alleluia, which accompanies the most solemn procession with the Book of the Gospels.
In our liturgy today, the Sequence precedes the Alleluia. This placement maintains its historical origin of developing the Alleluia verse but turns the sequence into a contemplative meditation on the mystery of the day in preparation for the proclamation of the Gospel. The assembly is to remain seated, which is a posture of meditation, and then stand as the Alleluia begins. The Sequence may be sung by all together, alternating between the assembly and cantor or choir, or even by a cantor alone. If presented effectively, the Sequence can draw the faithful more deeply into the mystery being celebrated on these central days of the liturgical year, and provide an abundance of images for reflection, meditation, or even preaching.
For your reflection and meditation on the two gems of our liturgy, the Easter and Pentecost Sequences are below.
Christians, to the Paschal Victim
Offer your thankful praises!
A Lamb the sheep redeems;
Christ, who only is sinless,
Reconciles sinners to the Father.
Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous:
The Prince of life, who died, reigns immortal.
Speak, Mary, declaring
What you saw, wayfaring.
“The tomb of Christ, who is living,
The glory of Jesus’ resurrection;
bright angels attesting,
The shroud and napkin resting.
Yes, Christ my hope is arisen;
to Galilee he goes before you.”
Christ indeed from death is risen, our new life obtaining.
Have mercy, victor King, ever reigning!
Come, Holy Spirit, come!
And from your celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine!
Come, Father of the poor!
Come, source of all our store!
Come, within our bosoms shine.
You, of comforters the best;
You, the soul’s most welcome guest;
Sweet refreshment here below;
In our labor, rest most sweet;
Grateful coolness in the heat;
Solace in the midst of woe.
O most blessed Light divine,
Shine within these hearts of yours,
And our inmost being fill!
Where you are not, we have naught,
Nothing good in deed or thought,
Nothing free from taint of ill.
Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
On our dryness pour your dew;
Wash the stains of guilt away:
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.
On the faithful, who adore
And confess you, evermore
In your sevenfold gift descend;
Give them virtue’s sure reward;
Give them your salvation, Lord;
Give them joys that never end. Amen.