The Fourth Communion Service – A Note from our Choirmaster Bryan Kirby

How are you coming with the Fourth Communion service so far this Advent? 

As long as we’re receptive, it’s usually a good thing to get our brains and hearts working out the details of something new. Several of us have mentioned how the responses require us to really concentrate! 

Part of their newness is the fact that they’re so old. 

At the turn of the last century, there was a renewed interest in ancient plainsong. Winfred Douglas collected several chants and published the “Missa Marialis” in 1915, which eventually made its way into our Hymnal as the Fourth Communion service. In his preface Douglas writes, “The Kyrie, which attains, both in mastery of musical form and in beauty of conception, the highest level of perfection reached by medieval melodic music […]” dates back to about the 11th century. In another preface to a later edition, he encourages each of us to sing, because to be “mute spectators” would be “a grave loss to personal religion, and is most uncatholic.” (Not a problem at St. George’s — we are indeed a singing church!) The long lines of the chant echo the penitential nature of this season and also our longing for our Messiah’s Second Advent. In his conclusion, Douglas ends with: “the hope that these lovely and venerable melodies, the exquisite flowering of worship through many centuries, may again bring to a fresh blossoming the praise of God in the hearts of men […].” 

Instead of our usual Gloria, we’ve also been singing another ancient text and melody, “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright.” This marvelous text has been attributed traditionally to St. Ambrose, who lived in the 4th (!) century with the melody from Sarum Plainsong (13th century), which was the English outgrowth of Gregorian chant centered in Salisbury. 

It’s indeed a wonderful thing not only to reconnect with these riches from the past, but also with the saints, who composed, collected, and worshipped with them. There’s a bidding prayer in our Book of Common Prayer that concludes: “Finally, ye shall yield unto God most high praise and hearty thanks for the wonderful grace and virtue declared in all his saints, who have been the choice vessels of his grace and the lights of the world in their several generations, and pray unto God, that we may have grace to direct our lives after their good examples; that, this life ended, we may be made partakers with them of the glorious resurrection, and the life everlasting.” Amen.

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