Since about September this year, at the start of the Sung Mass on Sundays here at Holy Family we have replaced the opening hymn with a chant that changes each week. If you come to Mass on a weekday you will hear, even before the Priest says “In the Name of the Father,” a similar short text very often taken from the psalms or some other part of scripture. This text, whether sung or said, very often presents the ‘theme’ of the Mass. For instance at a Mass for the Dead we sing, “Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.” And on Christmas Day, “Today Christ is born, today the Saviour has appeared.” The text is called the Entrance Antiphon or Introit, because it is supposed to be sung as the Sacred Ministers enter the church for the start of the Mass.
It is always a very great pleasure for me to come to this parish and to visit a place that has such a wonderful and rich liturgical life. Your Pastor has helped to create for you here a place in which we can truly experience what a mediæval English carol called “heaven and earth in little space.” In the beauty and reverence of the Sacred Liturgy we come into the realm of the natural and peer into the realm of the supernatural. We catch a glimpse of the reality of heaven through the signs and symbols of the liturgical celebration on earth, and so understand more and more what it is to be members of the mystical Body of Christ, joined as we are in our worship to the worship of the saints in the kingdom of heaven. We experience in the “little space” of our church building the worship of heaven here on earth.
The season of Lent and the three Sundays of Septuagesimatide that precede it are marked by a certain liturgical character of restraint. Certainly, in Lent itself we intensify our individual practice of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, but the sacred liturgy itself is also affected by this penitence, in perhaps a more communal and ecclesial way, most markedly by the omission of the Gloria in excelsis on Sundays, and the insertion of a Tract in place of the usual meditative chant before the Gospel. The texts of all of the propers are intrinsically linked to the music to which they have been set, and vice versa. They are a form of cantillation: “a song which arises from the text, a song which is essentially a heightened proclamation of a verbal message.” The promotion of, and principled use of the propers given for every Eucharistic celebration was a central tenet of the twentieth century liturgical movement, together with the restoration of the chant as the musical language of the Church’s song of praise. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, even stated: “Gregorian chant [is] specially suited to the Roman liturgy . . . it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC 116). Thus the propers, by which we mean principally the text, but also the music that serves it, is part of the Church’s law of prayer, the lex orandi, that informs and articulates her law of faith, the lex credendi.
This is the first of a series of reflections for Advent, which I aim to post here in the coming weeks:
As she begins again the round of feasts and fasts that decorate her character, the Church today enters once more into the half-light of Advent, groping toward the New Dawn with the voice of the prophets as guide. This season is marked by the twofold coming of Christ: at his nativity and at the end of time; and so these weeks are themselves layered with meaning, pointing toward both the event of the birth of Christ and his coming-again in glory at the culmination of all things. During these days he is very much the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and this is drawn out for us in the very first thing we hear as we come to the altar today.
The other morning I was presented with a copy of the new Hymanarium published by the Saint Joseph Province of the Order of Preachers. I was fortunate to get to know some of the Dominicans in Oxford during my time there, and I have to say that same infectious zeal, good sense, good humour, and love for the sacred liturgy is present in their brethren at the exceptional Dominican house of studies here in Washington. For the feast of All Saints, for example, a chapel packed with young adults sat through an hour of readings, chant and motets, a fine sermon, and then processed around the cloister singing the litany of the saints. The DC house is full, and they have only just completed another extension. Do the math, as they say.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, last week I gave the first of two talks on Sacred Music at the parish of Ss Francis and Anthony (The Friary) in Crawley, West Sussex. We spoke first about the nature and purpose of the Sacred Liturgy, drawing on the documents of the second Vatican Council and the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, before turning to the nature and purpose of Sacred Music. Why? Because as both Pope Saint Pius X and Sacrosanctum Concilium point out, the music performed in the Sacred Liturgy is intrinsic to the rite itself. To use the phrase coined by Mgr Andrew Wadsworth, “We need to sing the Mass, not sing at Mass”.
One of the questions that came up in the Q&A session touched on the appropriateness of differing styles of music in the Mass. Theologically sound music of a high quality can be found in genres other than plainchant and polyphony; hymns of good quality can be found (if we search hard enough!). So why can’t these pieces be used in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, be it the celebration of the Eucharist or the Liturgy of the Hours? Reading over Archbishop Alexander Sample’s talk to the recent CMAA conference in Salt Lake City, we see this exact question answered by placing alongside all performances of music in the liturgy three specific criteria.
First, Sacred Music is holy – it is sacred. Sacred Music is music set apart for the worship of God alone and, therefore – in the words of Pius X – must “exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it” (Tra le Sollecitudini §I). This means that the music performed in the liturgy cannot simply be secular music – either in origin or style – ‘baptised’ by Christian worship; it must be set apart for the worship of the Almighty, just as a chalice is never to be used for profane purposes once it has been consecrated for the offering of the Mass.
Secondly, there must be an intrinsic beauty in the music performed in worship. It must be ‘good’, in the sense that it must of the highest standard of music and of performance, and it must also be ‘Good’, in the sense that it has within itself some transcendental element. The sheer beauty of the performance, of the music itself, should generate a desire for God within the one listening; this is why concerts of Sacred Music are always an opportunity for evangelisation, and why listening to Sacred Music outside the sphere of the liturgy is a way of deepening our desire for God, and our sense of his fundamental right to the worship we offer.
Thirdly, Sacred Music must have a universal character. Obviously plainchant embodies this perfectly (at least in our Latin context), but it would also be naive to suggest that only the chant can exemplify such a character. Certainly it does so in an unambiguous way, but music that is universally recognisable as sacred and intrinsically beautiful – even when it is drawn from a particular culture or context – can also embody such a characteristic. Victoria is pure Spanish renaissance, but utterly suited to the liturgy; Zoltán Kodály’s exquisite Missa Brevis is a work of twentieth century genius, but equally meets the required characteristics of beauty and sacredness. Neither draws on a secular idiom or style, neither seeks anything other than the objective worship of God.
If the music in our liturgical celebrations doesn’t meet these three criteria, then we are falling somewhat short of offering to God the best that we are able. Even with limited resources, if we attempt to apply these criteria to our worship, we will not fail to see more clearly the essential and true purpose of the Rites which we celebrate. In doing that, we will also see more clearly the essential and true object of our worship – the God who has loved us and known since before time and who, even now, desires nothing more than our presence with him in the full splendour of our heavenly home, where we will (we pray) worship him for all eternity.