Lent is passing so quickly and we are in the final days before Holy Week. I don’t know about you, but I always find the emotion of Holy Week quite hard to take. Perhaps it has a greater intensity in a religious community, when the whole community experiences disorientation together: familiar timetables are altered, familiar statues are covered, and the Lord is removed from his familiar place in the tabernacle. Holy Week, this journey through desolation towards the unspeakable joy of Easter, is best lived communally – each Christian home, each parish, each nation, and the whole people of God experience the same agony and the same ecstasy, because they recognise the same Lord.
How to enter into this communal experience of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ? Needless to say, active participation in the liturgy is top of the list, and preparing for the liturgies by reading the Scriptures in advance is especially helpful. I also find it helpful to read meditations and classic texts from the tradition: St Bonaventure’s writings on the passion of Christ are a favourite of mine.
In the Internet Age, these possibilities are extended: now I like to listen to Holy Week music from Serbia, Greece, Russia, the Middle East. These songs of the Christian people help me move beyond my own preoccupations to enter into ‘fellowship with ages past’, to participate in the common emotion of the people of God. But in searching for the more exotic expressions of the Holy Week experience, I have discovered a few gems which were polished up closer to home, especially the Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire (‘Lament of the Three Marys’) from the Irish ‘sean nós’ (‘old style’) tradition of singing.
This song is typical of the Irish tradition of reflection on the passion, which takes the little crowd at the foot of the Cross – and especially Christ’s Mother – as our eyes and ears on Calvary. While the 8th-century Irish poet, Blathmac, writes a long poem on the passion with Mary by his side (‘Come to me, loving Mary, that I may keen with you your very dear one’), the singer of this sean nós song goes a step further and sings as Mary, or rather, as the three Marys at the foot of the cross (John 19:25). Christ is so bruised that he is hardly recognisable:
Is this the little son nourished at Mary’s breast […]
And is this the little son I bore for three seasons?
We see Christ through the teared-up eyes of his mother, as the tenderness of Bethlehem meets the violence of Golgotha:
Is this the little son born in the stable […]
My son, my darling, your nose and little mouth are cut.
Throughout the song, the mournful refrain (or ‘keen’) is repeated, and its agonised syllables give musical form to the Good Friday anguish of every Christian generation. Together these assembled generations stand at Calvary, side by side with the three Marys, gazing at the Cross in Good Friday shock: óchón agus óchón ó…
This Holy Week, let us stand, sing, and grieve with them.
[The version of Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire in the video above is taken from Hymns of Passion and Resurrection, the inaugural album of the ‘Céli Dé Collective’, under the guidance of a Dominican friar of the Irish Province. The album is due to be released on 12 April, and can be bought in record stores (Ireland), online at www.celide.ie, and on iTunes.]