I listen to the radio a lot, always the local classical station. Usually I don’t seem to hear much choral music except in December and on the Sunday program featuring Baroque music, but lately I’ve heard a few more, and oddly, most of them seem to be selections from various requiems. I started thinking about it the other day and suddenly saw what might be connections between the requiems and the upcoming Holy Week. Perhaps tenuous and erroneous connections but nonetheless, it seemed worth thinking about.
Requiems are Roman Catholic masses for the repose of the dead, musical compositions of those services, and memorial compositions and works written in honor of a particular person. They can also be used at memorial surrounding death or mourning. Most of the major (and a bunch of the minor) composers have written versions of the requiem, whether for a special occasion or memorial for a famous person, or sometimes as a concert piece. Like writers are drawn to write about subjects that speak to them, composers often find something in the liturgy that suggests a musical exploration. They are no less beautiful or meaningful, and quite often they are incorporated into memorial services or funerals.
The word requiem is a form of the Latin requies meaning repose or rest. The opening of the traditional service is Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, (Grant them eternal rest, O Lord) and is a prayer for the dead and a comfort for the mourners. When we pray for the dead, we are asking that God look with mercy on them and give them eternal rest. The various prayers of the requiem mirror the confidence we have in that mercy but also sort of hedging our bets on behalf of those being memorialized; we tend to be forgetful, and while we’re sure God isn’t, we aren’t taking chances.
The Kyrie eleison and the Agnus Dei are familiar, at least in translation, from liturgies we celebrate during Advent and Lent. They represent both requests for mercy for the dead but also for ourselves. While we pray for the dead, we also pray for ourselves. Especially during Lent we are reminded again and again of our mortality and our inability to evade sin. We are encouraged to penitence for what we’ve done wrong and determination to avoid sin in the future. Of course, we may be penitent but most of us have some jolly little sins we’re relatively fond of and others we really would like to do without except they are too convenient at times. Still, we go to church, confess our sins, promise we’ll change, and pray for those who are now beyond any earthly redemption, for that redemption only God can provide.
I know that we hear requiems around November 1st and 2nd, the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, and that makes sense. We remember those we loved who have died and we pray that they will rest in peace and rise in glory. But why would we hear requiems during Lent and Holy Week? Whose death are we mourning?
Holy Week, which begins tomorrow with Palm Sunday, traces the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, moves through the events at the temple, the celebration of the first Eucharist, the night in the garden, the arrest. trial and finally crucifixion of Jesus. There we have a dead man for whom we might well pray for God’s mercy upon him. But hold it. Jesus rose from the dead – and you can’t sit shiva or raise prayers for the dead if the person isn’t dead! So therefore it has to be a reminder for someone — maybe us.
We pray for the dead and, perhaps, we hope deep down inside that someone will do a requiem or pray for us after we have died. We can’t pray for ourselves or ask for mercy so we hope we have paid it forward in the prayer department by praying for others. Hopefully someone will do the same for us.
During the season of Lent and Holy Week, we draw closer to the cross, the instrument of death, and find that it isn’t about death but about life. It’s about Jesus but it is also about us. It’s about our mortality and the promise of rest and resurrection. Perhaps the sound of the requiem is to be a comfort to us. The march to the cross leads not to a requiem but rather a celebration of life.
By Žiga (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons