The Words I Sing

I have a song stuck in my head. And it’s glorious.

It’s been quite a while since that’s happened. Actually, I think it’s been a year.

The weekend of March 21/22 last year was the first weekend our parish was closed to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was a solid three months before public Masses resumed. We still can’t sing in groups here or invite the assembly to sing. The hymnals are still stacked on tables in the parish library, which is still closed to the public.

Music at Mass for the past nine months has basically been walking music: hymns for the entrance procession, preparation of the gifts, Communion, and recessional. And we sing the Gospel acclamation. We have a cantor and accompanist, and we’re singing behind plexiglass shields, far away from each other and anyone else.

We haven’t been singing the Responsorial Psalms. The lector simply reads those.

But starting at this year’s Easter Vigil, we’ll be singing the psalms again.

Psalms are a challenge for the cantor, because they’re a whole new song you basically sing as a solo (so you have to get it right, since there’s no one to cover your mistakes), and sometimes you won’t sing that particular one again for another three years. They’re not like a new hymn you’ll sing several times within a liturgical season and get to know quite well.

For some weird reason known only to the music director, whenever I’m one of the singers at the Easter Vigil, I’m assigned the Exodus 15 psalm: “Let us sing to the Lord; He has covered Himself in glory.” A couple of years ago we got the Spirit & Psalm arrangements for the psalms and learned those; they’re more guitar-friendly than Respond & Acclaim. Since we don’t have enough organists or pianists to cover all the Masses at our parish, that option is a welcome one.

Some psalms are more difficult to learn and sing than others. Sometimes there are a lot of syllables stuffed into a short musical space. That’s what happens in verse 4 of that psalm for the Easter Vigil:

You brought in the people you redeemed
and planted them on the mountain of your inheritance
the place where you made your seat, O LORD,
the sanctuary, LORD, which your hands established.
The LORD shall reign forever and ever.

Five lines, but only four musical phrases. That “mountain of your inheritance” seems pretty insurmountable when you’re tripping over the syllables. And the Easter Vigil is less than two weeks away.

On Saturday I had a rare opportunity to be alone in the house, so I grabbed my copy of the psalm and headed for my little keyboard, where I belted out the refrain and stumbled over the verses a few times, worrying because the Easter Vigil is less than two weeks away and I don’t want to mess this up.

I practiced it so much that, while I still don’t have it right, I do have it stuck in my head.

Sunday morning when I prayed Liturgy of the Hours, as soon as one of the psalms contained a word or phrase that’s also in the Exodus 15 responsorial, my brain immediately switched to Easter Vigil mode.

I had to keep dragging myself back to the right words.

As I prepared and ate my breakfast, Exodus 15 was running through my mind.

But I’m not irritated about it. I’m grateful.

My last Easter Vigil was two years ago. We had many musicians and singers, all there to make a joyful noise. We had a Baptism that year, so we did all the readings and all the psalms. We made so much joyful noise that our voices were tired before the Communion hymn. And most of us showed up the next day to do it all again.

It was good.

Last Easter our parish had livestream issues (the technology was still new and frequently hiccupped) so we didn’t even get to see the whole Mass; we finally were able to view the stream from a neighboring parish.

And here we are, a year later, slowly adding back music to Masses where we can’t invite the assembly to sing with us — because they have no hymnals (who knows when the bishop will let us bring those back?).

People wave at us on their way out as we seize the opportunity to sing more than one verse of something, flashing a thumbs-up since we can’t see them smiling behind their masks. Some have stopped us in the parking lot to thank us for providing even the little bit of music we have, because “it makes things feel normal.”

All that to say: it’s been a long time since I’ve had a psalm stuck in my head because I’m learning it for Sunday.

Easter is coming. Easter music is coming. More music is coming.

And there will be great rejoicing.


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Photos copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz, all rights reserved.
Main image created in Stencil Pro.

Urbi et Orbi: An Extraordinary Blessing

I’ve never watched a papal blessing or weekly Angelus before, but the extraordinary blessing Pope Francis offered Friday was not one I wanted to miss.

After all, I’m missing Mass. I’m missing Adoration. The suspension of all public activity is a bitter consequence of the novel coronavirus — and I pray that it minimizes the spread of the disease.

I have seen pictures of past papal events, though. There is always a crowd, even on a rainy day.

On Friday, there was no crowd in St. Peter’s Square. There was a pope. There was a priest. There was a crucifix.

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Screen shot of Urbi et Orbi blessing, March 27, 2020.

The square was so empty, with only raindrops filling the space where people would gather to pray.

The Gospel told of another storm: a storm through which Jesus was sleeping until his distressed disciples woke him up and begged him to help them. And the wind and the sea obeyed (Mark 4:35-41).

As we struggle through the storm of fear, anger, isolation, uncertainty, and loss, we were reminded Friday that we do not struggle alone.

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Screen shot of Urbi et Orbi blessing, March 27, 2020.

More eloquent than the Pope’s words: the silent moments of prayer.

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Screen shot of Urbi et Orbi blessing, March 27, 2020.

The moments of reverence.

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Screen shot of Urbi et Orbi blessing, March 27, 2020.

The Adoration Chapel at my church is temporarily closed. Being present — thanks to an internet connection — at Adoration and Benediction with the Pope was a reminder that I shouldn’t take my ability to attend Mass and Adoration for granted.

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Screen shot of Urbi et Orbi blessing, March 27, 2020.

It is a gift to the faithful to be invited to a moment of private prayer made public.

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Screen shot of Urbi et Orbi blessing, March 27, 2020.

It is a gift to know that our Pope, our bishops, our priests, pray for us and with us. That, too, is something we take for granted.

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Screen shot of Urbi et Orbi blessing, March 27, 2020.

The scene of Pope Francis holding the monstrance and offering the triple blessing over an empty square was an unforgettable moment.

His words that day were a comfort (and you should read them all) but his actions were even more so.

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Screen shot of Urbi et Orbi blessing, March 27, 2020.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith”? Faith begins when we realise we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we flounder: we need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies. (from Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi message, March 27, 2020)

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Screen shot of Urbi et Orbi blessing, March 27, 2020.

Read more about the miraculous crucifix venerated by Pope Francis during that moment.


Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz