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Summary: As Mary poured costly nard over the feet of Jesus, so the Church sings its love song to the Bridegroom sacrificed for our sins.

Monday of Holy Week

18 April 2011

Spirit of the Liturgy

Mary loved her brother, Lazarus. When he took ill, she and Martha immediately sent word to Jesus, trusting that He would come and cure Lazarus. She waited, and waited, and watched her brother get progressively worse. Worse yet, the rumor mill had it that Jesus intentionally waited two full days to begin his journey to Bethany. In the meantime, Lazarus died and, after a few hours of mourning, was placed in the tomb. So when Jesus finally arrived, Martha–ever the gracious and busy host–went out to meet him. Mary was so upset she refused to come out until He summoned her. Even then, her first words to Jesus were “Master, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She knew something was up, because Jesus didn’t give her the usual condolences. Instead, He looked more troubled than she had ever seen, and even sobbed audibly. Then He called Lazarus to come out, and Lazarus came back to life and hopped out of the tomb.

This is the background for the Gospel scene today where the Servant of the Lord, Jesus, Son of God, is banqueted by Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Even those who don’t understand the meaning of “a liter of aromatic nard” are astonished by the tale. But when you understand that this stuff was so costly it was used, not by the liter, but by the microliter, you realize it took her whole life savings to do a five-minute anointing. That is the action of a lover, the gift of a Bride to the Bridegroom. Moreover, the fact that it ticked off Judas makes it even more significant. This was the last public celebration of the King before the ultimate battle of Good Friday. The battle lines are being drawn, but first the love of the King for His people must be celebrated.

This is a perfect day to talk about sacred music. The Holy Father reminds us that the song related in the Book of Revelation is a wedding song, that it is the song being sung at the heavenly wedding banquet. That is the banquet we are making real right now around this altar. The Eucharist is “the presence of the Bridegroom and. . .a foretaste of the wedding feast of God. In the Eucharist a communion takes place that corresponds to the union of man and woman in marriage. Just as they become ‘one flesh’ so in Communion we all become ‘one spirit’, one person, with Christ.” St. Augustine teaches us “Cantare amantis est,” translated “singing is a lover’s thing.” When we sing, we celebrate the love of God for man and man for God, but not in a kind of third-person way. We are the humans God loves and wants communion with. We, despite the fact that it was our sins that threw the Son of God on that cross and laughed and mocked Him as He died. But despite that history, the reality of our conscious rejection of God, God wants us to be His Bride. He wants to fill us with His Holy Spirit. “The Holy Spirit is love, and it is he who produces the singing.” We are Mary; we are Lazarus. We sing out of joy and gratitude for our rescue. We sing out of joy and gratitude to Jesus, our Rescuer.

There are practical sequellae to this reality, that our liturgical singing is a love song. Our song is logical, that is, it is driven by its relationship with the Logos, the Word of God. We use the words of God to sing to the Word of God. Hence we use the psalms as our text, the very Word of God set to music. It is also true that from the beginning, the song has been subordinated to the text, to that logos. “The singing was clearly related to a text and always, with regard to content, directed to a particular statement. It presumably involved a kind of speech-song that allowed changes of note in the melody only at the beginning and end.” In other words, it sounded a lot like the psalms as we sing them every Saturday and Sunday at Lauds.

Hymns were also composed in the early years; even Pliny, at the beginning of the second century, noted that Christians sang hymns to Christ as God. The Gnostic heretics took advantage of this tradition of hymn composition, and composed heretical hymns. The Arians did the same. This was such a problem that “the fifty-ninth canon of the Council of Laodicea”,[ a regional synod, in 364] forbade the use of privately composed psalms and non-canonical writings in divine worship.”

As we look forward to the “reform of the reform,” we can hope that something like that happens soon. A great deal of the so-called liturgical music we use are psalm paraphrases that are really meditations on the Scriptures. Many of these songs are insipid and some of them teach error. That is not the song of the Bride to the Bridegroom. He is Lord, and He is the Divine Spouse. Let’s reflect on that as we enter the most sacred time of our year.

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