How to Celebrate/2: Music and Song

Author: Father Paul Gunter, O.S.B.


How to Celebrate/2: Music and Song (CCC 1156-1158)

Column on Liturgical Theology; Coordinator: Father Mauro Gagliardi

By Paul Gunter, O.S.B.*

Singing and beautiful music have provided an interface with the heights and depths of human emotion since time immemorial. However, where such are formative of the liturgy, their higher purpose is that of giving glory to God in worship which, inevitably, eclipses the noble but limited destiny fulfilled by a primary desire for polished performance. Since it is oriented towards God, above all, “the musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater than that of any other art. The main reason for this is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 1156 and Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC] 112). The Old Covenant lay store, not only by psalms and hymns that remain central in Jewish and Christian liturgy, but by the different musical and symbolic registers of various musical instruments (CCC 1156). From a modern perspective, it is hard to establish what all of the instruments were, though a sense of their symphony can be absorbed by our appreciation of the versatility of a pipe organ which announces, so ably, the distinctive atmospheres of the liturgical year. One should never lose sight of the appeal of SC 120 in support of the particular esteem that should be afforded the pipe organ even when other instruments are permitted in the liturgy on the basis that they are suitable for sacred use.

The varieties of mood expressed by different genres of musical instruments in the liturgy of the Old Testament are indicated by their range. Among string instruments, the lyre, cithara or kinnōr was heard in the temple during festivals as well as at banquets, as indicated in 1 Chronicles 15:16 and in Isaiah 5:12. No less, was the same instrument used by David to refresh Saul as noted in 1 Samuel 16:23. The nebel or harp was frequently played together with the lyre as suggested in Psalm 108 (107). The ten-stringed nebel as found in Psalm 144 (143) may be comparable to a zither and dissimilar to a lute. Among wind instruments were the trumpet in Numbers 10 and used for feasts and other important ceremonies; the flute, listed in the group of instruments in Daniel 3:5 and the halīl or reed pipe which was used to symbolise grief in Jeremiah 48:36 and to proclaim joy in1 Kings 1:40. No less present were percussion instruments such as the cymbals of Psalm 150 and the bells on the robes of Aaron in Exodus 28:33-35.

The treasures of the liturgy breathe life when they are celebrated and dignify the song and music of worship. The very act of the exchange between ourselves and God makes present a place where God dwells and in which human beings are touched by the unique life of God. That dwelling-place of God is to be found in the liturgy. The liturgy is not a mere symbol of Divine mystery or a mere symbol of the truth of Catholic revelation. It renders them present before us in and through the liturgical celebration. These essential components within liturgy point out that our celebrations cannot be limited by how we feel or by an emotional imperative to feel good about what we celebrate and how we celebrate it, no matter how important these aspects are in the means of how we deliver God’s message. Liturgy must communicate the mind of the Church and, at the same time, her mind among its participants who, in turn, will be nourished in Spirit and in Truth. Fidelity in what seems like a long-distance relationship in a liturgy will be a temporary feeling as people adjust to the sacred language of the Mass. Not underestimating the people will involve recognising that, with time, they will grow to love texts as they come to know them more and more. Three criteria need to be present for song and music to fulfil their potential: “beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and the solemn character of the celebration” (CCC 1157).

The liturgy describes and forms relationship. Relationships need persevering with and within them there can be misunderstandings. Liturgy is the meeting place where God shows the depth of the covenant of his love, so that “fallen men may rise again on wings of prayer” (Stanbrook Abbey Hymnal, “Lord God, your light which dims the stars”, verse 2, published 1974). In the liturgy God meets anthropos (man) on holy ground. Hence “religious singing by the faithful is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises as well as in liturgical services”, in conformity with the Church’s norms, “the voices of the faithful may be heard” (SC 118, CCC 1158). Therefore, our service to the liturgy in liturgical celebration does not envisage our putting personal tastes and particular agendas ahead of what the Church has handed down to us. Authentic liturgical participation will celebrate truths transcendent of time and space since “the Holy Spirit leads the Christian faithful into all truth and causes the word of Christ to dwell abundantly within them, and the Church perpetuates and transmits all that she herself is and all that she believes, even as she offers the prayers of all the faithful to God, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit” (SC 33; Liturgiam authenticam 19).

* Father Paul Gunter, O.S.B., is a Professor at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of Rome, a Consultor of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff and Secretary to the Department of Christian Life and Worship of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

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