Music for Confession

February 15, 2020
Three handbells on a table with music score in the backgroung

Do you use music to facilitate confession throughout the year? Or do you only use congregational music for confession during Lent? Is confession an opportunity to incorporate new music into your context?

It seems to me that there are several ways to include music in this portion of the liturgy. Music could be used as a corporate confession for forgiveness of faults or wrongs, or it could be interpolated into spoken prayers of confession. We can ask for mercy (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy”) or we can provide some music for personal reflection.

For corporate confession, we have many examples in our hymnals of stand-alone pieces of music with the theme of forgiveness. Some are for certain contexts, like before receiving communion (VU 462 “Before I take the body of my Lord”). Others are asking for renewal (MV 17 “God in the darkness”) or strength (MV 109 “My soul is thirsting for you”) or release from something like fear (MV 74 “When painful mem’ries”).

Many examples of music for confession are composed to accompany spoken confession. Some are refrains (MV 66 “Senzeni na?”) or requests to God to come and journey with us where the act of forgiveness is implied (MV 19 “Maranatha” or MV 75 “Veni Sancte Spiritus”).

The most obvious musical selections for confession are settings of the Kyrie text. This text has been connected with the Mass for centuries as a response to the penitential rite or the intercessory litany. Its musical roots are as a Gregorian chant that eventually grew into contrapuntal settings. The Kyrie usually has a ternary form, with settings of the text “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy” in three- or nine-fold, sometimes set in alternatum. Traditionally, the Kyrie was sung by the clergy; then later, the choir; and now it is often sung congregationally. There are five examples in More Voices (67–70 and 11).

Can confession be a time of quiet? A moment of personal reflection? Last year, I did a handbell piece with the Robertson-Wesley Ringers at a Maundy Thursday service. The selection was called “Father, forgive them” by William E. Gross, after the Gospel of Luke (23:34) when Jesus asks God for forgiveness for others. This musical interlude allowed the congregation to ponder their own personal confession. There are many instrumental pieces that would work really well in this context.

The reason there aren’t sung settings for absolution is that we can all participate in confession, but historically, only the clergy can absolve congregants of their sins. But we do have many hymns that speak of assurance, where we assure each other as a community that we should trust in God, that God holds us in our moments of need.

So, give some thought to how music can be incorporated into the liturgy for confession. It might be the perfect way to enable someone to ask God for mercy!