In liturgical music, based as it is on biblical faith, there is, therefore, a clear dominance of the Word; this music is a higher form of proclamation. Ultimately, it rises up out of the love that responds to God’s love made flesh in Christ, the love that for us went unto death. After the Resurrection, the cross is by no means a thing of the past, and so this love is always marked by pain at the hiddenness of God, by the cry that rises up from the depths of anguish, Kyrie eleison, by hope and by supplication. But it also has the privilege, by anticipation, of experiencing the reality of the Resurrection, and so it brings with it joy of being loved, that gladness of heart that Haydn said came upon him when he set liturgical tests to music.
Joseph Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy
Reflection – So we continue with excerpts from this fantastic book from Pope Benedict. I’m only giving short excerpts of his treatment of the subject of music and liturgy—just enough to give a flavour of it, not the full argument. As I have said more than once on this blog, this really is the best book you could buy on the subject of liturgy, if this is something that you want to really understand better.
In this passage, though, we do see the fundamental principle of liturgical music that has to be applied carefully to every discernment around a given composition: sacred music must be at the service of the Word, must be in its essence a proclamation of the Word, a ministry of the Word.
This is why, for example, I believe rock music itself, with its drums and loud volume and amplified guitars, is not a suitable genre for liturgy. It seems to me that the purpose of rock music is to draw attention to itself through its aggressive pounding beat and power chords, and not to the Word being proclaimed in the liturgical action.
It is not only rock music that is like this. Some kinds of classical music are problematic, such as operatic arias. I recall once trying to distribute communion at a Mass while the cantor, a professionally trained singer, belted out at full volume some quasi-Wagnerian piece a few feet away from me. It did not create the most reflective and meditative atmosphere to receive the Body of Christ in.
Liturgically speaking, there is little to separate that kind of performance from Spinal Tap. No, the music at Mass has to be at the service of the sacred text, and also of the sacred action. This is why the Church had a serious reservation against the use of polyphony at Mass—the text is obscured by this type of music, the artistic bona fides of which are beyond question.
The other consideration in this excerpt is the content of the Word that the music is to support. It is meant to be reflective of the great dialogue of love of God and man, the love coming down from heaven, the supplication coming up from the earth, God entering our human reality from within, the Son’s prayer to the Father becoming the prayer of all mankind to God, and in that, that prayer becoming suffused with the joy of the Resurrection and the anticipated joy of the heavenly liturgy.
All of this is meant, according to our best abilities, to be reflected in the music we croak out at Mass. This implies that the music we use have a certain gravitas to it, even if it is simple and plain. Scriptural texts are best—at Madonna House, we really do use psalm settings quite a bit in our liturgies, for example.
It is better—and I know I may be treading on some toes here—to avoid texts that are all about ‘me and my love for Jesus’. Those are fine for other settings, like praise and worship sessions, prayer meetings, and so forth. But when we enter liturgy, we are leaving behind the simple level of ‘me and my love for Jesus’ and entering into Christ’s own love for the Father, the Trinitarian action of love and offering and gift, and the whole Paschal Mystery—Cross, tomb, Resurrection, the ascended Christ, the descending Spirit.
It is all so much beyond our personal level, yet coming to us at that personal level to draw us up and out—out of ourselves and our subjectivity and up into the heart of the Trinity. This drawing, this movement, which is the real ministry of the Word at its deepest level of understanding, is not well served by songs that continually throw us back to the subjective level, to my feelings and my experience and my desires and my love and my pain and my, my, my…
As I say, all of this can be very good music and very good in other contexts, but in the liturgy it is to time to say goodbye to my and open up to Him and in that opening to Him, to Us, to the corporate worship of the Body which is essentially the worship given by the man Jesus to his Father in which the whole life and love of the Trinity is made available to us.
Music must at least palely reflect that essence of liturgy, and so we have a real challenge given us here, to see how we can shape our liturgical musical culture better in light of the reality of the liturgy we have been given.