If you get distracted you might miss it, the beautiful Easter Sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes. It’s a mere eighteen lines long and usually, no matter the tempo, it’s over in about a minute and a half. Then you will need to wait until next year to hear it again – the Church allows this hymn only from Easter Sunday through the octave thereof, inclusively. For me, it is the highlight of all the chant I hear the year round. Another Sequence, just a bit longer, which many think of still greater beauty, is the Veni Sancte Spiritus (may be the work of Pope Innocent III), sung only at Pentecost and again, through the octave of Pentecost.
There are five Sequences – these include Lauda Sion Salvatorem, written by St. Thomas Aquinas for the feast of Corpus Christi and Dies Irae, attributed to the friend of St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas of Celano, for the Requiem Mass. The Stabat Mater, sung on Friday in Passion Week and again on September 15th, the Feast of Mary of the Seven Sorrows, is the fifth one. If I’m not mistaken, the Novus Ordo retains only the Easter and Pentecost Sequences although frequently you hear them recited rather than sung.
By a rough calculation, you can trace the first Sequences to the ninth century. They became widespread by the tenth, and were at their zenith in the fourteenth century. Gathered into collections, in some places, their popularity eclipsed Gregorian chant. Each Sequence has its own characteristics, depending on its author and time of composition, but there are a few commonalities. Unlike hymns, which properly speaking you find in the breviary, these chants are not primarily poems. Rhyme does occur in some, especially the Veni Sancte Spiritus, where every third line of the Latin ends in ium. The melody is generally not repeated. Each stanza or couplet of stanzas enjoys it own. All are designed for back and forth choir singing, with the telling of a dogmatic truth as the goal, rather than an offering of praise.
The real beauty of the Sequences lies in their simple music and the concrete ways these occasionals bring home to us the profound truths of the Faith. Their strategic inclusion at major feasts draws us into the seasonal cycle of the Church, itself reflective of the life of Christ. Like much of the Mass, they remind us of the centuries-old practices of believers long forgotten.
Thus, at Easter we remember that Christ the Lamb has ransomed us, sinners all, and reconciled us to His Father. The Magdalene did truly see the sepulcher of the Risen Christ – Angels did witness His Resurrection. Now we believe and affirm these truths – now we beg for mercy.
Or consider, from Lauda Sion:
Lo! Beneath the species dual
(Signs not things), is hid a jewel.
Far beyond creation’s reach!
Though His Flesh as food abideth,
And His Blood as drink – He hideth
Undivided under each.
What could be more instructive or clear? Similarly, the Holy Ghost, whom our Veni Sancte Spiritus implores to come, will truly grant the sevenfold gifts of grace so that we may die in peace and rest forever in joy before His face. With the Stabat Mater we beg to join in Mary’s sufferings just as she joined in Christ’s: At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping … make me feel as thou hast felt. And nothing quite captures the urgency in contemplating the final judgment like the words of the Dies Irae during a Requiem Mass:
O just, avenging Judge, I pray,
For pity take my sins away,
Before the great accounting-day.
I groan beneath the guilt, which Thou
Canst read upon my blushing brow;
But spare, O God, Thy suppliant now.
There is so much more to know, especially if you have an interest in music and its history or are curious about the development of the Mass.