Summary: Though the musical establishment try to stop it, the Church will have music that gives primacy to the Word of God
Monday of 2nd Week of Easter
May 2, 2011
The coincidence of these readings with the Feast of St. Athanasius is, I believe, unique in our lifetime. That’s because Easter is rarely this late. It helps us understand that controversy is not unique to our age, and that controversy in the Church is something that has been going on from the beginning. Moreover, controversy about Church music is not new to our age either.
Jesus, our Holy Father says in his newest book, Jesus of Nazareth, was often seen by the early Church as the new David. That’s because Jesus is the Son of David, a direct descendant and one destined to be King of the renewed Israel. But in a special way, Jesus is David because of his love for the psalms of David. Jesus sang a psalm as his last action at supper before He went to the Garden of Gethsemane. It was a Passover psalm. Jesus had crossed the Jerusalem crowd once too often. It’s not clear what was the action that pushed them into the plot to murder the Messiah. Was it raising Lazarus? Was it running the merchants out of the Temple? Was it curing one too many of the needy poor on the Sabbath? Jesus shook the very foundations of Jewish leadership, so He had to die. But the earthquake that ripped the Temple veil at the moment of Jesus’s death, and the temblor that shook the house where the early Church was praising God after the release of their leaders, were just the first establishment shakeups. God was making a mighty work happen–one that was destined to bring the whole world into right living and right worship–and though the nations raged and their leaders set themselves against the Lord and His anointed, God’s will would prevail.
As we have seen over the past couple of weeks, Catholic church music has been taken over by what Benedict calls “the cult of the banal” and by light rock, which he calls a kind of prison of the self. That is why much of what we hear in church is so off-putting to people of culture. There is no real connection to the culture of our 2,000 year old Church. The Holy Father calls for a renewal from within, and offers principles of solution that “have emerged from our look at the inner foundations of Christian sacred music.”
Music must be related to the Logos, the Word of God, in three senses: it was and is the Word of God who became and becomes flesh so that we can be brought into His saving passion, death and resurrection through the sacraments. “IN liturgical music, based as it is in 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. . .of experiencing the reality of the Resurrection, and so it brings with it the joy of being loved, that gladness of heart that Haydn said came upon him when he set liturgical texts to music. . .That is why singing in the liturgy has priority over instrumental music, though it does not in any way exclude it. It goes without saying that the biblical and liturgical texts are the normative words from which liturgical music has to take its bearings.” (149)
We can deduce much from this truth. I reflect on what I hear Sunday after Sunday as we, for instance, use the responsorial psalms from the Green Gather Hymnal. First–and I am right in the firing line of the piano–I hear mostly the percussive sound of hammers striking strings. The piano was never designed to lead congregational singing, and it interferes with hearing the words of the psalm. Second, the melodies of the psalm verses are usually so fast-paced, so leaping in melody, and the words so poorly articulated that if I had not memorized most of the psalms, I would have no idea what is being proclaimed. If the people of God cannot hear the Word of God, then something is wrong. The Word must come through. If that means the music must be simpler and less exciting for the singer, then so be it. We are ministers of the word, not crooners. We serve the people of God with the Word of God.