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Mercy defines God’s relationship to humankind. From the rich Hebrew word hesed, used by the Torah and the prophets to describe God’s loving-kindness and fidelity, to the innumerable references to God’s merciful love in the Christian Scriptures, mercy is the heart of God. The prayer "Lord, have mercy" is a specific scriptural reference to several verses in the New Testament. (For example, Matthew 15:22, where the Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David."). The Greek phrase, Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy), has long been one of the most repeated phrases in the prayer of the Eastern Church. Barnett’s setting of the Kyrie is a typical ninefold form (Lord, have mercy 3x, Christ, have mercy 3x, Lord, have mercy 3x) modeled after the Trinitarian pattern. With each petition, the music becomes a bit more complex, with more moving parts, and louder, which is intended to convey a sort of passionate yearning.
The Gloria is an ancient hymn of praise to the Trinity, also known as the Greater Doxology. Its opening line is from Luke 2:14, where the angels announce the birth of Christ to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of goodwill.”
The poetry of the hymn uses parallel structure often in threefold iterations, different from the typical couplets of biblical psalms. For example, referring to God the Father: “We worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory…” and then to Christ, Son of the Father: “Lord God, Lamb of God; you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us; you are seated at the right hand of the Father, receive our prayer.” And in the last stanza, the prayer offers three divine attributes to each person of the Trinity: “For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.” In text and in structure, the Gloria honors and affirms the Triune God.
Barnett’s setting of the Gloria is in three sections, two of which are in a triple meter, to musically reflect these liturgical ideas. The tune is meant (for the most part) to express sheer joy. In the middle, more introspective, section the most dissonant chord is relegated to the word "sin".
In the liturgy, just prior to the consecration of the Eucharist, worshipers are invited to unite their voices with the “choir of angels in their unending song of praise” by singing the Sanctus. Deriving from praise-filled biblical images, the text is scriptural. The first part, from Isaiah 6:3 (“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”), describes a vision of the throne of God surrounded by six-winged seraphim. The second part of the prayer is taken from the account of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem in Matthew 21:9 (“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he (or "the One") who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”)
The word “Hosanna,” an obvious cry of joy by those who greeted Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem, is also left untranslated (in both Latin and English). The meaning of the word is “help” or “save.”
The rather abrupt crescendo from hushed awe to exuberance occurs on the word "Hosanna", which then becomes a joyful cry that recognizes the help we ask for from heaven is near – and is about to descend on the altar at the consecration.
Originally from a Syrian chant custom, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) litany hearkens back to the Kyrie and its three invocations for mercy. It accompanies the fraction rite of the Mass, where the consecrated bread is broken, and preserves the symmetry of the Mass by reiterating the cry for mercy and peace.
"Lamb of God" is a title for Jesus that first appears in John 1:29, where John the Baptist sees Jesus and exclaims, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." While there were many forms of sacrifice in Israel, the sacrifice of a lamb refers directly to the Passover. By pointing Jesus out as the Lamb of God, John identifies Jesus with his redemptive mission. Through the sacrifice Jesus offers, a new covenant is established. Jesus himself becomes the new Passover meal in the Eucharist.
The tune for the Agnus Dei is designed to conjure a sense of peace yet the rising sequence of notes suggest, again, yearning. The word "sins" is set with a subtle dissonance because text painting is fun.