by William Mahrt
The Sunday which heads the Lenten season takes its theme from the paradigm of all Christian fasting: Jesus’ forty-day fast in the desert and his temptation by the devil there. In tempting Jesus to show his divinity by casting himself down from the parapet of the temple, the devil quoted Psalm 90, “He hath given his angels charge over thee, and in their hands shall they bear thee up, lest perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone.” This quotation is such a powerful memory of the event of the temptation that the psalm is the source of all the Propers of the Mass for this Sunday. Rarely are Mass Propers so unified; moreover, the place of this psalm is even more emphasized by the fact that the tract for the day comprises most of the verses of the psalm.
The tract is direct psalmody—the singing of successive verses of a psalm without refrain, and it is sung in alternation by two halves of the choir. By replacing the alleluia sung in the normal seasons, it represents a kind of fasting from the wordless jubilation of the alleluia. While the tract normally comprises three to five verses of a psalm, the tract for this day has thirteen verses. Only two other days have these long tracts: Palm Sunday and Good Friday. On these days, the Passions are sung, and the tract serves as a long preparation for these extended Gospels. Today, however, the long tract simply stands by itself, and its function could be seen as an intense entry into the Lenten Season, a turning to God as refuge and protector. Throughout the Lenten season, the tracts can be the point of recollection in the liturgy and a meditative preparation for the hearing of the Gospel.