The final Friday of Lent means our Lenten series of weekly Friday evening parish “Fish Fry and Stations of the Cross” is also quickly coming to its end. (We’ll celebrate the Stations of the Cross at noon on Good Friday, but without fish!)
For many, surely one of the most memorable and traditional features of the Lenten Stations is the singing of verses of the Stabat Mater during the procession from station to station. There is, of course, no actual requirement to sing the Stabat Mater; but for many the Stations just would not be same without it. The popular, plain chant tune, to which it is typically sung, by its familiarity certainly lends itself to active participation even when the physical circumstances of the place preclude everybody actually joining in the walk from station to station. If the popular chant tune tends toward the lugubrious (at least in the way it is often performed) that too somewhat adds to the ambience and may be one of the hymn’s additional assets. And, well sung, it certainly captures the spirit of Passiontide particularly well, using our natural human sympathy for the Sorrowful Mother to guide us through the deep mystery of Christ's passion.
The actual hymn itself (attributed to the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi) dates back to the 13th century. The great 20th-century liturgical author Pius Parsch called it "one of the finest religious poems from the Middle Ages." Its liturgical function was to serve as a Sequence, sung or said at Mass on the feast of the Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which traditionally was celebrated on this day – the Friday before Palm Sunday. (The Lenten feast of the Seven Dolors was reduced to a commemoration in 1961 and eliminated entirely in the 1969 Missal, but its duplicate feast of the Seven Sorrows on the September 15 still survives, renamed Our Lady of Sorrows.) Meanwhile, the Stabat Mater has likewise managed to survive. Only a few sequences, the best of the lot, survived the liturgical pruning of the Roman Rite in the post-Tridentine liturgical reform that led to the 1570 Roman Missal. Only five in fact made that cut – Victimae Paschali at Easter, Veni, Sancte Spiritus at Pentecost. Lauda, Sion at Corpus Christi, Dies Irae at Requiem Masses, and Stabat Mater – all true spiritual, poetic, and musical masterpieces. (All but the Dies Irae are still in the Missal, although their frequency of use has been reduced considerably.)
The Stabat Mater has been set to music by many famous composers – among them Palestrina, Pergolesi, Scarlatti, Verdi, Vialdi, Rossini, and Dvořák. And, of course, there is that haunting and powerful plain chant melody - for a beautiful example of which, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IRfArKlcZ8.