Ash Wednesday was a little different for me this year, since I put together and directed the music for tonight's Mass, the first time I've ever conducted a Mass like this. Mr. Applegate, my beloved choir director of ten years, was very much in my mind as I waved my arms about in an unconscious echo of his conducting style. Despite my own schedule and the various schedules of the students in my intrepid band of choristers, we were able to rehearse some Lenten gems on three different occasions. College students having their own idea of what constitutes sufficient notice of absences, there was a moment earlier in the week when I felt sure that I was going to pull together this program through sheer will power alone. But from the moment those haunting chords of Allegri's Miserere thrilled through the church, I knew Providence had sanctified our efforts.
Miserere domine, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam
So many of the treasures in the Church's storehouse of liturgical music have that uncanny ability to trap the meaning of the words in unforgettable phrases and chords that inevitably re-echo in your head once you happen upon the prayer in a different context. Measured, sad, inexorable, and shot through with just a hint of supernatural beauty, Allegri's Miserere encapsulates the cry of the penitent throwing himself upon the unfathomable mercy of his Creator. The repetitive nature of the verses captures the essence of persistence in prayer, while the soprano solo (the one facet of the piece that defies any listener's apathy) seems almost to leap from the church itself to the gates of Heaven, begging admittance with its unexpected and agonizing beauty. When the notes of the final resolution fade from the sacred space which suspends them, one ineluctable thought takes hold of every mind in the congregation:
Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris