A shared Lenten experience

Image: R. Formidable/Shutterstock
Image: R. Formidable/Shutterstock
Published February 16, 2016

As part of my Lenten journey this year, I engaged in the rewarding practice of listening to several CDs from my treasured box of sacred choral music produced by the choir of King’s College Cambridge. That brought back some good memories to share with you.

I chose to spend quality time with “Evensong for Ash Wednesday” (recorded in 1964) and J.S. Bach’s “Hymns and Sacred Songs” (1962).

What should be immediately obvious is that the Evensong/penitential hymn tradition is something that Anglicans and Lutherans have celebrated in common for many years—perhaps without knowing it. Now, it is a reverential practice available to other Christians.

Many may forget that this tradition has a rich, mutual heritage that pre-dated by many decades any discussion about formal ecumenical co-operation. The seeds were sown centuries ago and have only come to fruition more recently.

Some personal history might be helpful. When Lutherans from northern Europe began settling on our continent in great numbers, most of them were confronted with the challenge of worshipping in the English language.

My home congregation—St. James Church, St. Jacobs, Ont.—had been founded by German settlers to Upper Canada before Confederation. As much as the original members wanted to preserve “the language of their faith” through liturgical worship, it soon became evident that, to retain the young, faith was going to have to be expressed in English. How could this be done? My people looked south to states such as Pennsylvania, where German Lutherans were already becoming comfortable using some of the great services and hymns from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

My thoughts return to special “mid-week Lenten services” that I attended with my parents at St. James. Although I did not realize it then, the liturgies and hymns that formed the essence of those services reflected both Lutheran and Anglican traditions at their best.

In those days, the tone was “penitential” and “doleful.” The spirituality reflected was strong on the majesty of God, the vileness of humanity and our great need for forgiveness. Hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” which advocated that I “pour contempt on all my pride,” and “There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” which rhapsodized about our Lord “hanging and suffering” upon the cross, provoke my spiritual quest to this day.

The profound piety of my parents and their friends at those mournful liturgies made a big impression on me. Now, when I attend to those classic selections I use the advice recalled from a former choir director. “We can still sing what we can’t say,” she would suggest. In other words, the profound beauty and meaning of the experience trumps any purely rational approach to it.

I can only hope that the ecumenical sharing of great liturgy will continue to expand denominationally and globally. But for me, at this time in my life, I remain deeply moved by Ash Wednesday Evensong and the penitential hymns from King’s and J.S. Bach.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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