What Is the Significance of the Veil Moses Wore?

The readings toward the end of the week in daily Mass come from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In it, he spends substantial time developing the fact that Moses wore a veil to cover the afterglow of God radiating from his face.

In most traditional Catholic settings, we think of the veil as something a woman wears as a sign of traditional modesty. In this sense most of us consider it something good and positive, though perhaps some are less enthusiastic than others.

In Exodus, however, the veil is presented in far more ambivalent terms:

As Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the commandments in his hands, he did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while he conversed with the LORD. … the children of Israel … were afraid to come near him. … he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses entered the presence of the LORD to converse with him, he removed the veil until he came out again. On coming out, he would tell the children of Israel all that had been commanded. Then the children of Israel would see that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; so he would again put the veil over his face until he went in to converse with the LORD (Exodus 34).

The mere afterglow of God’s glory was something that the people of old could not tolerate, so Moses wore a veil to shield them from it. Man, in his sinful state, is incapable of withstanding even the afterglow of God’s holiness.

The humility that they demonstrated is in many ways admirable. Unlike many people today, the ancients knew that God was utterly holy, and they were not. Many and varied were the rituals they carried out that recalled God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness.

An often repeated (but disputed) tradition is that the High Priest who went into the Holy of Holies once a year on the feast of Yom Kippur entered with much incense lest he catch a glimpse of the Holy One and be struck dead on account of his sins. It is also said that he wore bells sewn into his garment so that when he prayed, bowing and moving as he did so, those outside the veil knew that he was still alive. It is further said that he had a rope tied around his ankle so that if he were to be struck dead, he could be dragged out without others having to enter the inner sanctum and risk their own death in order to retrieve the body!

Whether this is true or not, it is clear that the ancient Jews understood that it was an awesome thing to be in the presence of the living and holy God, for who can look on the face of God and live? (cf Exodus 33:20)

How different this understanding is from that of us moderns, who manifest such a relaxed and comfortable posture in the presence of God in His holy Temple! Almost any sense of awe and holy fear has today been replaced by an extremely casual disposition, both in dress and in behavior. If the ancient Jewish practice was at one extreme, we are clearly at the other.

However, it would be a dubious position to hold that God expects the kind of fearsome reverence manifested in ancient Israel. Jesus came to grant us access to the Father through the forgiveness of our sins. Scripture says that as He died on the cross,

… Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split (Matt 27:50-51).

Yes, the veil in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. Extra-biblical traditions (e.g., Josephus) also hold that after the earthquake the large brass doors of the temple swung open and stayed that way.

Isaiah said, On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the shroud that covers all nations (Is 25:7). This prophesy is fulfilled at the moment that Jesus dies on the cross on Mount Moriah (Golgotha) and the veil of the Temple is rent. On account of the cleansing blood of Jesus that reaches us in our baptism, we gain access again to the Father. Therefore, we have a perfect right (granted us by grace) to stand before the Father with hands uplifted to praise Him.

The veil is parted, torn asunder by Jesus. Thus, the veil that hid Moses’ face has a dual quality. While it does symbolize a great reverence, it also signifies a problem in need of resolution. We were made to know God, to be able to look on His face and live. Sin made us incapable of doing this, so the veil that Moses wore was one that ultimately needed to be taken away.

St. Paul speaks of us as looking on the face of the Lord with unveiled faces:

Setting forth the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. … For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:2-6).

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. … And we, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:13-18).

For some the veil remains; it is a veil that clouds their minds. It is not a veil of modesty or reverence; it is a veil of “unknowing,” which must be removed by the gift of faith.

In the Exodus account we have a kind of “veil in reverse.” Most of us, at least those with a traditional bent, think of the veil as something beautiful and reverent—and it is—but the veil of Moses spoke of the sins and sorrows of the people; it was a veil that needed to be removed.

That said, I think that we moderns must find our way back to a greater degree of reverence and awe before the presence of God. Even in the New Testament and after Jesus’ resurrection, there are stories of both St. John and St. Paul encountering the glory of the Lord Jesus manifested from Heaven. So awesome was this theophany that both of them were struck down. Paul, as yet unbaptized, was also blinded. John, though not blinded, fell to his face.

The removal of the veil of Moses is both necessary and prophesied. Cringing fear must give way to hopeful confidence and joy in the presence of the Lord. Especially in these proud times, when self-esteem is an inordinate focus, we must come to realize that we are in the presence of the Holy One of Israel.

As the ancient hymn from the Liturgy of St. James says, All mortal flesh must keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand, pondering nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in His, Christ our God to Earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.

The veil of Moses is removed, but the “veil” of reverence, whether physical or metaphorical, must remain.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  What Is the Significance of the Veil Moses Wore?

The Role of the Angels in Every Liturgy

Ghent Altarpiece – Jan van Eyck (1429)

This is the second in a series of five posts on the angels and their role in our lives. The content of these posts comes from a series I have been teaching at the Institute of Catholic Culture on the mission of the angels. Angels are ministering spirits mystically present and active throughout creation, in the events of Scripture, in the liturgy, and in our lives. The fundamental source for these reflections is Jean Cardinal Danielou’s book The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church. The references to the Fathers in my posts are fully footnoted in his book, but some of the scriptural passages below represent my own additions. In today’s post we ponder the presence and role of the angels in the Sacred Liturgy.

Origen reasons that if the angel of the Lord shall encamp round about them that fear Him and shall deliver them (Psalm 34:7), then it is probable that when many are assembled legitimately for the glory of Christ, the angel of each that fears God encamps around him. Thus, when the saints are gathered there is a twofold Church: that of men and that of angels.

We cannot see the multitude of angels because our eyes are dimmed due to sin; nevertheless, Scripture attests to their presence. For example,

When the young servant of Elisha the man of God got up and went out early in the morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. So he asked Elisha, “Oh, my master, what are we to do?” “Do not be afraid,” Elisha answered, “for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw that the hills were full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6:15-17).

So, there are multitudes of angels who gather with us, though our eyes, blinded by sin and sensuality, cannot see them. Scripture says further and thrillingly,

The chariots of God are tens of thousands and thousands of thousands; the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary. (Psalm 68:17).

Because the Mass is a participation in the heavenly liturgy, we are further assured that there are myriad angels and many saints round about. Scripture says of the Sacred Liturgy,

You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to myriads of angels in joyful assembly, to the congregation of the firstborn, enrolled in heaven. You have come to God the judge of all men, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:22-24).

The Fathers, tapping into these traditions, speak of the angels’ presence:

  • Origen warns that the angels are listening to the homily and judging it.
  • Theodore of Mopsuestia sees in the deacons who arrange the sacrifice on the altar an image of the invisible powers of the angels also ministering.
  • St John Chrysostom says that the angels surround the priest, and the whole sanctuary is filled with angels honoring Christ, present in the Eucharist. He adds that we, though lowly, have been deemed worthy to join the powers of Heaven in the worship of the Lord.
  • The Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer also attests to the presence of many angels. For example, “And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts …” (Common Preface I). St John Chrysostom says of the Preface, “Reflect upon who it is you are near and with whom you are about to invoke God—the Cherubim! Think of the Choirs you are about to enter. Let no one have any thought of earth (sursum corda). Let him lose himself of every earthly thing and transport himself whole and entire into heaven. Let him abide there beside the very throne of glory hovering with the Seraphim and singing the most holy song of the God of glory and majesty.”
  • St John Chrysostom further notes that the Gloria is the song of the lower angels and that even catechumens can sing it. The Sanctus, though, is the song of the Seraphim in the very sanctuary of the Trinity and is reserved for the baptized.
  • John Chrysostom also says, “For if the very air is filled with angels, how much more the Church! Hear the apostles teaching this when he bids women to cover their heads with a veil because of the presence of the angels. … The angels exult, the Archangels rejoice, the Cherubim and Seraphim join us in the celebration of [the] feast … What room is there for sadness?”

In this last point St. John seems to suggest that because a woman’s hair is her glory, it should be covered in the presence of God and the angels. Men, who tend to indicate rank and status with their hats, should similarly shed such distinction in the presence of God and the angels. This is why bishops, priests, and all clergy remove their head coverings prior to entering the sanctuary for the Eucharistic prayer.

Here, then, is but a brief reflection on the role and presence of the angels in the Sacred Liturgy. Tomorrow’s post will be a short treatise on the role of the angels at the Last Judgment.

 

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Role of the Angels in Every Liturgy

Sacraments, Not Social Events

A common pastoral problem today is that many people have reduced the liturgy and the sacraments to ceremonies. To be sure, they have ceremonial aspects, but they are not mere ceremonies. Sacraments change reality; they affect us and effect a change in us that is necessary, real, and glorious. Too often the effects of the sacraments are forgotten in favor of the externals. The sacraments most affected by this mentality are Baptism, Holy Matrimony, and the Mass itself.

As an illustration, consider a man who is about to be ordained a priest. He receives a letter from the bishop calling him to this order; it indicates the date of the ordination Mass approximately two months in the future. What if the man said to himself, “It’s just a ceremony,” and began presenting himself as a priest, even going so far as to hear confessions and celebrate Mass in local parishes? This of course would be an egregious violation and sacrilege because he is not in fact an ordained priest. Something far more than a ceremony takes place on the day of his ordination. A sacrament takes place that actually changes him and configures him to Christ. He is changed such that he is now able to act in the person of Christ and confect the sacraments.

It is similar with Holy Matrimony. In it, God effects a miraculous change in the bride and groom: the two become one. Genesis says that in marriage a man clings to his wife and the two of them become one. Jesus says, “They are no longer two, but one. And what God has joined together, let no one divide.” Thus, a new reality comes to be for both of them. This is also what makes their sexual union true and holy. Prior to the wedding they were two, not one, and thus sexual intercourse would be a sinful lie. After the wedding, the two are one and their sexual union is an expression of the truth, a holy sign of what they really are. The wedding is no mere ceremony, it is a sacrament that changes the couple.

The Sacrament of Baptism was once thought so essential and urgent that mothers seldom attended the baptism of their children. Within a day or two after birth the godparents (often accompanied by the father) whisked the child off to church for the baptism while the mother was still recovering.

This is because something essential and necessary is provided by baptism: the child, fraught with Original Sin, needs the healing power of Jesus to wash away that sin and make him a child of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and transfer him from kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Light. While this urgency was primarily driven by high levels of infant mortality, there was still the sense that the Sacrament of Baptism did something so essential that it could not be delayed, even by the absence of the mother, who was usually welcomed back after her convalescence, forty days later, through a liturgical rite known as the “Churching of Women.”

Today baptisms are too often delayed until a large cast of characters can be assembled. It seems that everyone just has to be there! I have seen families delay baptisms for years because certain extended family members “can’t make it.” Everyone seems to matter more than the child. How can the family gathering go well if Aunt Ethel can’t be there? The party seems more the point than the baptism.

Holy Baptism is a sacrament not a ceremony or an excuse for a party, a family gathering, or photographs. St. Paul says that prior to baptism we are dead in our sins (see Ephesians 2:1). That seems pretty serious! St. Peter says, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). That seems pretty glorious! Something essential is needed and it happens in Holy Baptism. The party, the pictures, and the other ceremonials are secondary. Baptism is a glorious sacrament that should be celebrated without delay. Canon law states that parents should provide for Holy Baptism within the first weeks after birth. St. Cyprian expressed surprise when someone wrote to him wondering if baptism should be delayed to the 8th day after birth since it replaces circumcision. He said,

But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man (Epistle 58.2, to Fidus).

Too many people today don’t just wait eight days, they wait eight months. I often ask them why. They usually respond by saying that so-and-so can’t make it until June. “Then send pictures,” I counter. They look at me, dejected. This kind of attitude attempts to reduce Holy Baptism to a ceremony and a social event.

Allow these few examples to illustrate that the sacraments are not merely ceremonies. They are not merely opportunities for a party, family gathering, or group photograph; they are transformative encounters with Christ. When we receive a sacrament, something happens to us; we are changed. Permit this small reminder of the reality of the Sacraments. Some might say that the point made here is obvious, but in my experience, it is unfortunately not so obvious to many people.

A Pre-Lenten Preparation for Priests and a Request for Prayers from the Faithful

Priests need to prepare for Lent too. The Book of the Prophet Malachi provides a kind of mini-examen for them.

As we consider the sins of the priests enumerated below, please understand that neither the biblical text nor my commentary should be construed as meaning that all or even most priests are like this. Sadly, though, sins and shortcomings are far too common among the clergy. As priests must strive to be better and more holy, so must the laity remember to pray for us.

With that in mind let’s consider the sins of the priests (as described by Malachi) in three basic areas.

Shoddy Sacraments

A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? So says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. You say, “How have we despised thy name?” By offering polluted food upon my altar. And you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that no evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that no evil? Present that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the Lord of hosts. Oh, that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire upon my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and the food for it may be despised (Malachi 1:6-12).

Those are strong words indeed. While the injunction regarding blemished and polluted animals has changed, the intrinsic problem remains: careless celebration of the Liturgy and the sacraments.

One of the most common complaints from the faithful regards priests who violate liturgical norms and/or allow others to do so. Few things offend charity and unity as much as the open, sometimes egregious violation of liturgical norms. Although some violations are minor, why not just celebrate the Liturgy as it is set forth in the books? There are of course options, and not every complaint of the faithful is accurate or fair, but God’s people have endured several decades of exotic and often egocentric liturgical experiments, which are not approved and which take the focus off God and the proper worship due Him.

A priest cannot be expected to clear up every problem in the Liturgy the day he walks through the door, but proper liturgical formation of the faithful with due regard to charity and patience is one of his essential tasks as pastor of souls—and he should begin with himself. The liturgy, both its mechanics and its spiritual significance, should be his study and his great love.

Another problem that can emerge is inattentiveness to the dignity and beauty of the Mass and the sacraments. Proper attire and decorum are important ways that we communicate our love for God and one another. Priests should be properly vested, prepare their sermons prayerfully, and avoid mannerisms that are inappropriate or overly casual. Opulence is not necessary, but priests should ensure that liturgical appointments are clean, in good repair, and of proper dignity.

Decades ago, poor immigrant communities sponsored the construction of some of the most beautiful churches. They also supplied some of the finest art and liturgical implement. It is important that we keep what they have bequeathed to us in good repair. Further, priests can and should teach the faithful to follow the example of these recent ancestors of ours by seeking to build and maintain worthy churches, erected for the glory of God and not just the utility of man. In the recent past, many of the faithful have been shocked and hurt by the senseless “wreckovation” of sanctuaries and altars. Thanks be to God, many people today are growing in their appreciation of older churches and are seeking to preserve them.

If God was offended by the offering of a lame or sick animal, why should we think He is pleased with just “any old stuff” in the Sacred Liturgy? God does not need our gold chalices or our tall churches, but He knows that the shoddy, perfunctory, “anything goes” celebration of the Sacred Liturgy says something about our hearts, our priorities, and what we value.

Priests must avoid all conscious violation of liturgical norms, make central the devoted study of liturgy, and inspire respect among the faithful for the Sacred Liturgy. St. Paul summarizes well his liturgical teaching of 1 Cor 11-14 by concluding with this: But all things should be done decently and in good order (1 Cor 14:40).

Burdens not Blessings? Behold your Barrenness!

“What a weariness this is!” you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts … And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him, that he might fear; and he feared me, he stood in awe of my name (Malachi 1:13, 2:1-5).

The priests of that ancient time had families, and God warned that if the fathers did not obey, their children would suffer many curses. While priests today do not have children of their own, many call us “Father”!

In our day, the sins and omissions of priests surely have brought trouble upon the faithful. We have been through a period in which too many priests have been rebellious, unfaithful to Church teaching, slothful, unprepared to preach, un-prayerful, and irreverent. Some have even been guilty of grave sins and violations of their state in life. In addition, far too many priests and religious have left the sacred call they agreed to live for life.

All of this has resulted in many troubles for the faithful. Some are discouraged and angry; most are poorly catechized and ill-informed on critical moral issues. Many are confused by priests and bishops who have openly dissented, who do not listen to God or lay to heart His teaching and stand in awe of His name.

In this way, the flock is often harmed by this poor priestly leadership and example. Eighty percent of Catholics no longer attend Mass. Many of those who do attend are barely in communion with the Church’s teaching and struggle to live the glorious vision set forth in the Gospel.

Sadly, this text from Malachi echoes a similar one from Zechariah: Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered (Zech 13:7). This is why the sins of priests are so serious and why the faithful must pray for them fervently. Not only are priests subject to targeted attack by Satan, they are also especially susceptible to grandiosity, pride, and the sin of craving human respect.

Pray that priests do not become weary of exhortation or speak of their office as a burden. Pray, too, that they do not succumb to modern notions that the Gospel is too burdensome for the faithful and therefore fail to preach it or to encourage the faithful to live it.

Sacerdotal Silence

True instruction was in [Levi’s] mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction (Malachi 2:6-9).

Silent pulpits are all too commonplace in the Church today. Some priests prefer to “play it safe,” fearing to preach about the issues of the day out of human weakness. Others do not believe certain teachings themselves or think them impractical in modern times. Still others have turned aside from the truth, preaching and teaching outright dissent; by preaching corruption they cause many to stumble.

It is tragic as well that so many priests are permitted to mislead the faithful without being disciplined for it by their religious superiors.

The text says that a priest should guard knowledge. That is, he should protect it from those who would distort it; he should refute error. He must also guard it from misunderstanding and see that it is presented in balance with other truths in Scripture and Tradition. St. Paul says this of a presbyter: He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9).

The text of Malachi also warns against partiality, wherein a priest chooses which truths he will teach or emphasize and which he will not. St. Paul said to the elders at Miletus, Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27). Yes, the whole counsel, the complete truth, is to be taught by the priest.

Some of these rebukes concerning partiality must still be made today. Encourage your priests when they speak confidently and clearly. Thank them; give them support even if they challenge you. The job of a priest is not to be popular but to be a prophet. It’s tough work and it isn’t always welcomed. Even the prophets needed support from the 7000 who had still not bent the knee to Baal or kissed him (cf 1 Kings 19:18). Pray for priests and encourage them to announce the whole counsel of God.

These are some of the sins of priests that God sets forth, but let us not forget that the world has many hard-working, dedicated, loyal, and holy priests. Yet, as these passages remind us, priests can lose their way. They can forget the glory of the liturgies they celebrate, refer to their office and the gospel as burdensome, and grow silent out of fear or laziness.

Pray for priests!

A Sobering Reminder on the Liturgy from the Book of Leviticus

There is a sobering passage in the Book of Leviticus that speaks to the need for priests to be faithful to the prescribed liturgical norms. While the offense described in this passage is complex, the main point is clear enough: The liturgy is revealed by God and is not the personal plaything of the priest or the congregation. Although some of the liturgical edicts of the Old Covenant have been fulfilled and are therefore no longer binding, only the Church, in careful discernment, can set liturgical norms; God’s priests and people must not stray from them.

Let’s take a look at the text consider its sobering reminder:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Wow, two priests struck dead by God for a liturgical violation! The severity of this moment ought to make us more cautious about brushing off liturgical abuses as “no big deal.” And while not all liturgical errors are equally serious, intentionally dispensing with sacred norms is highly displeasing to God.

The sin of Nadab and Abihu is complex and the nature of their offense is somewhat debated. A common explanation sets forth the following problems with what they did:

  1. Although the wording is not completely clear, it is likely that Nadab and Abihu each took “his” own censer rather than the sacred thurible of the sanctuary. However, it is also possible that the “his” referred to Aaron, and that Nadab and Abihu each took Aaron’s censer (see # 3 below).
  2. They seem to have offered it together, whereas the incense was generally offered by only one priest at a time.
  3. They intruded upon the functions of the high priest, who alone burnt incense in a censer (see Leviticus 16:12-13; Numbers 17:11). (Although ordinary priests sometimes burnt incense, it was only on the golden altar in the holy place (Exodus 30:7-8) or on the brazen altar as a part of the memorial (See Leviticus 2:2-3; Leviticus 2:16).)
  4. They offered the incense at an unauthorized time (apart from the morning and evening sacrifice).
  5. They offered “strange fire,” meaning that they filled their vessels with common fire instead of taking it from the holy fire of the altar, which was always to be used in burning incense. (Others think that the phrase “strange fire” denotes fire not offered according to the prescribed law (see Leviticus 9:24; Leviticus 16:12).)
  6. Later on in Leviticus, the text indicates that Nadab and Abihu had partaken too much of the drink offering and were likely intoxicated (see Leviticus 10:9).

The above enumeration may seem like “inside baseball” and the technicalities described arcane, but we should be most concerned about the last line of the Scripture passage: Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’”

In other words, the purpose of the liturgy is not to glorify man. It is not to entertain. It is not to serve as an occasion for priests to boast or to engage in unauthorized and egocentric displays. The purpose of the liturgy is that God be glorified and known as holy.

Sadly, many people today see the liturgy as a stage upon which man is to be exalted and entertained. Much time is devoted to announcements, self-referential hymns, self-congratulatory outbursts. Liturgical norms are often set aside in service of human preference or the ego of a priest who thinks his own words and gestures far outshine what the “institutional” Church and sacred tradition have directed. Speed, convenience, and comfort seem to far outweigh any notion that the liturgy involves offering a sacrifice to God in gratitude and obedience.

This does not mean that the sacred liturgy has to be unreasonably severe, slavishly robotic, or wholly unconcerned with the good of God’s people. Charity and prudence both require that the liturgy also manifest God’s mercy, goodness, and truth in ways that are intelligible and helpful to God’s people. In general, though, the balance has tipped so far away from glorifying God that we must constantly reminded ourselves that God is the point, not us. When He is the point we are blessed, for we look beyond our often petty and vain pursuits and come to find our true selves in God.

This passage from Leviticus should remind us that misconstruing the sacred liturgy is displeasing to God—not because He has a big ego, but because such abuse harms us. We were made to glorify God and find true happiness in so doing. Liturgical abuse in service of anthropocentric interests makes our liturgies small-minded and insular. Ultimately it is we who are deprived of our truer and greater joy, which is God Himself.

The Biblical Roots of the Assumption of Mary

While the actual event of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven is not recorded in the Scriptures, there is a biblical basis for the teaching that, considered as a whole, confirms Catholic teaching as both fitting and in keeping with biblical principles. Let’s ponder this feast in stages:

The Assumption Explained To be “assumed” means to be taken up by God bodily into Heaven. As far back as the Church can remember we have celebrated the fact that Mary was taken up into Heaven. We do not just acknowledge that her soul was taken to Heaven, as is the case with the rest of the faithful who are taken there (likely after purgation); rather, Mary was taken up, soul and body, after her sojourn on this earth was complete. There is no earthly tomb containing her body, neither are there relics of her body to be found among the Christian faithful. This is our ancient memory and what we celebrate today, Mary was taken up, body and soul, into Heaven.

The Assumption Exemplified – While Mary’s Assumption is not described in Scripture, several other “assumptions” are; thus the concept itself has a biblical basis. The actual event of the Assumption is not described in Scripture. However, there are “assumptions” recorded in the Scriptures and thus the concept is biblical.

EnochEnoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away (Gen. 5:24). By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God (Hebrews 11:5).

ElijahAnd as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven … And he was seen no more (2 Kings 2:11).

Moses – Some say that because the location of Moses’ grave is not known, he too was taken up into Heaven. We read in Monday’s first reading at daily Mass: He was buried in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is (Dt. 34:6). The text of course does not say that his body was taken up, and if it was, it occurred after death and burial. The Book of Jude hints at this: But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses … (Jude 1:9). Some further credibility is lent to the view of Moses being assumed by the fact that he appears with Elijah in the account of the Transfiguration. Some of the Church Fathers also held this opinion. Further, there is a Jewish work from the 6th century A.D. entitled The Assumption of Moses. In the end, though, the assumption of Moses is not officially held by the Church.

The Assumption Evidenced (John Sees Mary in Heaven) There is one other scriptural account that may provide evidence of Mary’s whereabouts. Today’s second reading, a passage from the Book of Revelation, features John’s description of his sighting of the ark of God:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm. A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads …. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter (Rev 11:19 – 12:5).

The woman in the passage is clearly Mary, since the child is obviously Jesus (although she also likely represents Israel and Mother Zion). And where is Mary seen? In Heaven. Some argue that this does not necessarily indicate that her body is in Heaven; they say that it might be referring only to her soul. However, the physical description of her seems rather strong to support such a view.

Others believe that because John mentions the ark and then continues on to describe Mary (the woman clothed with the son), that he is in fact still describing the ark. (I have written on this elsewhere: Mary: The Ark of the New Covenant.) If Mary is the ark described, then she is clearly in Heaven.

So, the Bible, while not specifically recording Mary’s Assumption, does present other assumptions, thus showing it to be a biblical concept. Further, Mary’s physical presence in Heaven seems at least hinted at, if not directly described, in the Book of Revelation.

The Church does not rely solely on Scripture. In this case, what we celebrate is most fundamentally taught to us by Sacred Tradition; the memory of Mary’s Assumption goes back as far as we can remember.

The Assumption Extended to Us The Feast of the Assumption is of theological interest and provides matter for biblical reflection, but eventually these questions are bound to arise: So what? How does what happened to Mary affect my life? What does it mean for me? The answers are bound up in nearly every Marian doctrine. Simply put, what happened to Mary will also happen to us in the end. As Mary bore Christ into the world, we bear Him in the Holy Communion we receive and in the witness of His indwelling presence in our life. As Mary is (and always was) sinless (immaculate), so too will we one day be sinless with God in Heaven. As Mary cared for Christ in His need, so do we care for Him in the poor, suffering, needy, and afflicted. Finally, as Mary was assumed, body and soul, into Heaven, so too will we be there one day, body and soul.

After our death and subsequent purification, our soul goes to Heaven; our body, though, lies in an earthly tomb. But one day, when the trumpet shall sound, our body will rise and be joined to our soul.

For we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” … Thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:51-57).

So our bodies shall rise; they shall be assumed and joined to our soul.

Improved model! An older woman once said to me, upon hearing that her body would rise, “Father if this old body has to rise, I’m hoping for an improved model!” Yes, indeed; me too! I want a full head of hair, a slim build, and knees that work! I want an upgrade from this old, general issue model to a luxury edition. In fact, God will do that. Scripture says,

  • He will take these lowly bodies of ours and transform them to be like his own glorified body (Phil 3:21).
  • But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body …. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power …. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven (1 Cor 15:35-49).
  • I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another’s (Job 19:25-27).

The assumption of our bodies, prefigured by Christ in His own power and also in Mary by the gift of God, will one day be our gift too.

The following song is an African-American spiritual and describes that “great gettin’ up morning” when our bodies will rise. If we have been faithful, our bodies will rise to glory!

I’m gonna tell you about the coming of the judgement (Fare you well) There’s a better day a coming …. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well! Oh preacher fold your Bible, For the last soul’s converted …. Blow your trumpet Gabriel …. Lord, how loud shall I blow it? Blow it right calm and easy Do not alarm all my people …. Tell them to come to the judgement …. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well. Do you see them coffins bursting? Do you see them folks is rising? Do you see the world on fire? Do you see the stars a falling? Do you see that smoke and lightning? Do you hear the rumbling thunder? Oh Fare you well poor sinner. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well.

How the Liturgy is Healing Medicine for Strident Times

One of the most concise and cogent descriptions of these often strident times came from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986. It is contained in, of all places, his treatise on the theology of sacred music in a book called The Feast of Faith (Ignatius Press, 1986). His comments have been republished in a larger compendium of his works, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2014, Vol 11).

It is hard to describe our times as anything but contentious. Loud, strident protests often predominate over reasoned discourse and thoughtful argumentation.

To be sure, every era has had, and has needed, protest and public opposition to injustice. There is a time and a place for loud protest and the use of memorable sound bites.

However, it is the predominance of loud protest and civil disobedience that stands out today. Sound bites, slogans, and simplistic “war cries” have to a large extent replaced thoughtful, reasoned discourse. Volume, power, and visually flashy techniques are prized; they are being used more and more. Such approaches too frequently produce more heat than light.

Consider, then, this remarkable analysis by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, written back before the Internet and social media had turned up the volume even more. Ratzinger paraphrased an insight of Gandhi’s, applied it to his analysis of our current times, and then proposed a healing remedy to restore balance:

I would like to note a beautiful saying of Mahatma Gandhi … Gandhi refers to the three habitats of the cosmos and how each of these provides its own mode of being. The fish live in the sea, and they are silent. The animals of the earth scream and shout; but the birds, whose habitat is the heavens, sing. Silence is proper to the sea, shouting to the earth and singing to the heavens. Man has a share in all three of them. He carries the depths of the sea, the burden of the earth, and the heights of the heavens in himself. And for this reason, all three properties also belong to him: silence, shouting, and singing.

Today – I would like to add – we see only the shouting is left for the man without transcendence, since he only wants to be of the earth.

The right liturgy, the liturgy of the Communion of the Saints, restores totality to him. It teaches him silence and singing again by opening him to the depths of the sea and teaching him to fly, the angels’ mode of being. It brings the song buried in him to sound once more by lifting up his heart. . . .

Right liturgy … liberates us from ordinary, everyday activity and returns to us once more the depths and the heights, silence and song … Right liturgy … sings with the angels … is silent with the expectant depths of the universe, and that is how it redeems the earth (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11, Theology of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, p. 460).

This is a remarkable analysis and an insightful application of liturgy and cosmology to the issues and imbalances of our day! It is in the vein of “Save the liturgy, save the world.” For indeed, only in the worship of God do we find our true selves. Only in the liturgy is our true personality formed. The human person in his glory unites the material and spiritual orders. We are capable of pregnant, expectant silence; of the joyful shout of praise and the Gospel going forth; and of the song of Heaven.

As Ratzinger pointed out, though, we too often are preoccupied with and value only one aspect: the shouting of the earthbound creatures of this world. But the liturgy – good and proper liturgy – trains us in all three and accomplishes the balance that is so often lost today. The liturgy is a training ground, not only for our heavenly destination, but also in what it means to be truly human.

Read and carefully consider Cardinal Ratzinger’s reflection. It will bless your soul; I know it has blessed mine.

Here is a song of the heavens:

What is Sacred Music? The History Is More Complex Than You Might Think

sacred music

sacred musicNote to readers: The following article is long (3500 words). This is because I have been adding to it over the years as my research has continued. I am by avocation a church musician. Before my ordination, I was a Choir director and an organist. Like most of you, I have my preferences in the area of Church music, but we must be careful not merely to dogmatize them. If we are going to talk intelligently about Church music, knowledge of history is important. It would certainly be incorrect to think that the debates about music in the liturgy began in 1965. In fact, such debates go back to the very beginning of the Church. In order to provide some historical perspective (and a context for the reflection on what is and is not appropriate music) I have been writing and expanding upon this essay for several years. Since it is long, I want to provide a PDF, which you may find here, so that you can print the article out and read it at your leisure.  If you do not have the time or the interest to read this full article, you can get the gist of it in the summation at the end.

With the exception of chant, almost every form of music that is today regarded as sacred initially had a stormy reception in the Church before being admitted to the ranks of music commonly called “sacred.”

That music is controversial in the Church is nothing new, as we shall see in this modest survey of the history of music in Catholic liturgy. Some of my sources are listed at the end of this post, but it is really the product of many years of reading and studying.

On some level, I hope to provide some perspective on the claim that is often made today that certain modern forms of music are inadmissible because they are not “sacred.” In no way do I intend to approve of all forms of modern music nor to encourage the admission of all of them into the liturgy, but it is worth appreciating that the definition of “sacred music” has changed over time. New forms have been admitted— sometimes reluctantly—to the exalted class we refer to as “sacred music.”

Here, then, is a brief look at the history of Church music in terms of what has been considered sacred and what has not.

I.   The early, pre-Constantine period: Chant reigns supremeWhile little if any music survives in written form from the earliest days of the Church, it seems clear (as Johannes Quasten records) that the leaders of the early Church (the Fathers and bishops) preferred monophonic music. This seems largely due to the association of harmony with the excesses of the pagan world and pagan worship.

Frankly, there was in the early Church a very persistent theme that music itself was problematic. Many ancient bishops and Fathers of the Church barely tolerated it, sought to limit its influence, and/or were deeply suspicious of any singing at all.

In his essay “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” Cardinal Ratzinger (drawing from sources such as Pope Gregory the Great, St. Jerome, Gratian, and even as recent as St. Thomas Aquinas) describes the rather negative opinion in the early Church of any music involving instruments, harmony, or anything deemed “theatrical.” He writes,

Instrumental music, understood as a Judaizing element, simply disappeared from the early liturgy without any discussion; the instrumental music of the Jewish temple is dismissed as a mere concession to the hardness of heart and sensuality of the people at that time. What the Old Testament said about music and worship could no longer be applied directly; it had to be read by them allegorically; it had to be spiritualized

(Ratzinger, “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” quoted from Collected Works Vol XI, pp 425-432).

Summarizing the views he had received from the earlier Church, St. Thomas wrote, “In the praise of God, the Church does not employ musical instruments … lest she appear to be falling back into Jewish ways” (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 91 a 2 ad 3).

Cardinal Ratzinger continues,

Analyzing the texts, not infrequent in the Fathers, which are critical of music or even openly hostile to it, one can clearly identify two constant and governing factors:

A.  In the first place there is the one-sidedly “spiritual” understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments … [So] Christian liturgy … took on a more or less Puritan form. … The idea that God can only really be praised in the heart means that no status can be accorded to music … In Christian worship … music must be relegated to a secondary level. Augustine is a splendid example of this. His sensitivity to music causes him much torment because his mind is dominated by a spiritualizing theology that ascribes the senses to the Old Testament, the old world; he is afraid of “sinning grievously” when he is “moved more by the music then by the reality to which the singing refers” … and would prefer “not to hear singing at all.” Fortunately, his rigorism is dampened when he recalls the profound stirring his soul experienced when he first heard Church music in Milan. [He thus adopted a view of music later stated by St. Thomas, which held that among the reasons for Church music was that] “Thus the minds of the weak be more effectively summoned to piety.”

B.  The second group of ideas that stood in the way of a positive the valuation of Church music … is put in a nutshell in Thomas’ fundamental article on the praise of God, where he says that vocal worship is necessary, not for God’s sake, but for the sake of the worshiper (Ibid).

Cardinal Ratzinger argues in the essay that this tended to lead to a utilitarian view of Church music: necessary to some degree, but somehow less than ideal. He reflects that this created a barrier to any satisfactory theology, not only of Church music, but of all prayer whatsoever.

He also adds (in a later essay) another reason for the restrictive notions about music in the early Church:

To the extent that it distanced itself from the Semitic world, the development of Christological art songs [also] threatened more and more to turn into an acute Hellenization of Christianity … The fascination of Greek music and Greek thinking [now excluded] … so that the new music rapidly became the domain of Gnosticism … For this reason [too] the Church immediately and rigorously rejected the poetical and musical innovation and reduced Church music to the psalter … This limitation of liturgical singing which gradually began asserting itself from the second century … led to a forbiddance of private song compositions and noncanonical writings in liturgical services. The singing of the psalms also came to be restricted to the choir whereas others “should not sing in church” (See canon 59 of the Synod of Laodicea 364 AD) (Ratzinger, Ibid, p. 505).

Thus music in general, given its Semitic and pagan associations, was widely resisted in the early Church and tolerated only in limited ways. Music with any harmony was altogether excluded and would not reappear until the Late Middle Ages.

As a final sample of the Patristic skepticism of music or demonstrative worship, consider St. Cyprian, who wrote the following early in the 3rd century:

When we pray, our words should be calm, modest and disciplined. Let us reflect that we are standing before God. We should please him both by our bodily posture and the manner of our speech. It is characteristic of the vulgar to shout and make a noise, not those who are modest. On the contrary, they should employ a quiet tone in their prayer ….

When we gather to celebrate the divine mysteries with God’s priest, we should not express our prayer in unruly words; the petition that should be made to God with moderation is not to be shouted out noisily and verbosely. For God hears our heart not our voice. He sees our thoughts; he is not to be shouted at …

(Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer by Saint Cyprian, bishop and martyr (Nn. 4-6: CSEL 3, 268-270)).

So much, it would seem, for demonstrative prayer and exuberant singing.

Another reason that the early Church seems to have favored non-harmonic singing was somewhat rooted in the cosmology of the time, wherein there was an emphasis on the unity of all things. Whatever diversity was discovered was viewed as coming from the one hand of God. Monophonic music seemed to better express this unity, at least to the ancient Christian mind.

This cosmology of unity still finds its expression in the way that most Prefaces in the Mass are concluded. The Latin text speaks of the multitude of the choirs of angels, joining with the voices of the many saints (cum Angelis, et archangelis, cum Thronis, et Domininationes … et òmnibus Sanctis). Yet despite the vast multitude of voices, at the end of the Preface it says that they all sing “as with one voice, saying” (una voce dicentes), “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.”

And so at the earliest stage, music was limited, and to the degree it was it was largely what we today call chant. To the ancient Church, harmony was widely considered to be secular, even pagan.

II.  The Church after Persecution: Chant developsThe earliest chants were quite simple and largely syllabic (one note per syllable); there were few elaborations. However, after the Edict of Constantine (321 A.D.) as the Church came out of a more hidden worship, the use of large, cavernous buildings started to influence the singing.

Cantors began to elaborate on the chant, making full use of the echoes in the larger, basilica-like buildings. Vocals became increasingly melismatic (multiple notes per syllable) rather than syllabic, especially during festival seasons. Syllables (such as those in the word “Alleluia”) began to be extended over more and more notes.

Singers also “yielded to the spirit,” and the long melismata became a kind of ecstatic “singing in tongues.” Though at first any elaboration was resisted, certain chants did begin to develop in some areas. As these melodies became increasingly complex, they were written down and collected by Pope St. Gregory (among others), hence the modern name, “Gregorian chant.”

As these chants became more and more elaborate, their sacredness was only gradually conceded. In fact, they became so complicated that the faithful in the congregation, who were already being discouraged from singing at all, had great difficulty joining in most of the chants. For this reason, special choirs called “scholas” were formed.

III. The High Middle Ages: Harmony entersThe next major development in Church music took place during the High Middle Ages, generally speaking in the 13th century. The first developments of harmony occurred in the musical schools in France, particularly around Paris. It was here that we saw the first widespread introduction of harmony into Church music.

Several factors influenced the introduction of harmony. First, there was the reintroduction of Greek philosophy and some of its views back into the Western world through scholasticism.

Among the Greek notions was a cosmology that spoke of the planets orbiting the sun in perfect circles, each of them ringing out a different tone and creating a beautiful celestial harmony in the heavens as they did so. This was the “music of the spheres” and the idea of a great and beautiful harmonic sound in the heavens. Thus the association of harmony with the sacred began to seem more plausible in the minds of Christians.

The first experimentation with harmony seems to have been singing the Gregorian melodies and adding a hollow harmony of a fourth or fifth. Sometimes this involved several singers singing the words in those harmonies. Other times the harmonizers simply “droned” in the background, somewhat like bagpipe drones.

Architecture was another factor that influenced the harmonies. The soaring new cathedrals with their vaulted ceilings that began to dot the landscape of Western Europe seemed to demand more soaring music. These cathedrals were the skyscrapers of their day.

As harmony began to sound more pleasing to the ears, scholars worked to study it using, of all things, the Pythagorean Theorem, to mathematically set forth the harmonic scale. Thus mathematics and music came together to quantify a kind of music theory. Gradually, as the years just prior to the 16th century ticked by, we came to have what we know of today as the 12-tone scale.

The introduction of harmony in the Church (as with most things musical) was not always without controversy. Some thought that it made the words harder to understand, a complaint that would plague polyphonic music in its early stages.

Nevertheless, as a general rule, the new harmonies from the Paris school swept through Europe to widespread acclaim. People flocked to the cathedrals to hear this splendid new music.

IV.  Late Middle Ages to Renaissance: Musical revolution and a growing crisis for polyphonyIt is hard to describe what took place in music from the late 1300s to 1500 as anything less than revolutionary. The modern harmonic scale as we now know it came into full realization. Harmony went from two-part, to three-part, and then to four and more parts, amazing listeners everywhere.

The incredible development of music during this period paralleled the remarkable developments in painting: increasing use of shadow, light, perspective, and depth. By the early 1500s, Renaissance polyphony was in all of its glory. Composers such as Isaac, Lassus, Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, and Byrd brought this art form to an amazing richness.

But the music was not without controversy. There were two main problems with this new style called polyphony.

The first problem was the intelligibility of the text. With multiple harmonies being sung, the Latin text, often staggered across many parts and voices, became harder and harder to understand. Clergy in particular complained of this, arguing that the sacred text was taking a backseat to musical flourishes. In addition, the “theatrical showiness” seemed secular to many.

The second troubling issue was that many of the composers of the day drew from secular melodies that were often heard in taverns, in theaters, and on the streets. They would often take these recognizable melodies and set them as a cantus firmus (musical theme or foundation) of sacred compositions, including the parts of the Mass.

Heinrich Isaac, as early as the 1400s in his Missa Carminum, drew from many of these tavern songs. But perhaps the most egregious example of this, and something that almost caused polyphony to be banned completely from the Catholic Church, was a Mass composed by Orlandus de Lassus.

The Mass in question was his Missa Entre Vous Filles. The main melody of both the Kyrie and the Gloria came from a secular piece by the French composer Jacob Clemens non Papa, the words of which bordered on the pornographic. As the Mass grew widely popular (for it is a lovely melody), Church authorities discovered its source and a great uproar ensued.

This controversy took place during the years of the Council of Trent, and though some scholars are dubious of all the details, it is reported that there were Council Fathers who were serious about seeing that sacred polyphony was forever banned from the Catholic liturgy.

Among those who came to the rescue, I am happy to report, was my patron saint, Charles Borromeo. He assembled some increasingly dubious bishops and cardinals who were attending the sessions of the Council of Trent so that they could hear the Pope Marcellus Mass by Palestrina. This particular Mass seems to have been specifically composed to address some of the critiques about the intelligibility of the text and the secular origins of many melodies. The presentation calmed some of the fears regarding this new music and the crisis largely passed.

This incident demonstrates that what many today consider a very sacred sound (namely Renaissance polyphony) was actually quite controversial in its day. It was only thought of as sacred in a widespread way later on. After surviving this first crisis, polyphony became less “florid” and gave greater emphasis to the intelligibility of the text. Secular melodies were also excluded. For these reasons, later works by Palestrina are more austere than those from his earlier period.

Thus we see how the definition of what makes for sacred music had already passed through two major periods. In the first, harmonies were considered too secular; in the second, harmony was introduced but only slowly accepted as sacred in nature.

V.  The Renaissance to the Baroque: New controversies, old problemsIn the period of the middle Renaissance, a new cosmology began to replace the idea that the planets revolved around the sun in perfect circles. Astronomy started to reveal that most of the planets revolved around the sun in elliptical orbits, some of them quite elongated. The notion of the circular orbits of the planets, symbolized by the “music of the spheres” and imitated by Renaissance polyphony, began to give way to the understanding of the mathematical progression of elliptical orbits—a kind of Bach fugue in the sky. This change in cosmology helped to usher in the rather more elaborate, yet mathematical, music of the Baroque period.

In this period, we find the wonderful and mathematically precise music of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Gabrieli, Schubert, Scarlatti, and many others. Perhaps the fugue best exemplifies the kind of mathematical cosmology of the time. In a fugue, mastered by Bach but not wholly unique to him, a musical theme is set forth. For example, quarter notes may announce the theme of the fugue. This theme is then repeated in the left hand and then in the feet (of the organist). It also progresses mathematically: into eighth notes, then into sixteenth and even 32nd notes. Math meets music! Other musical forms like canons emerged similarly. Symphonies also grew to have movements, which were often named for their tempo (e.g., allegro, adagio, presto).

The classical and baroque periods brought the great orchestral or “Classical” Masses, by composers such as Mozart, Schubert, and Scarlatti. Even Bach and Beethoven set the Catholic Mass in great symphonic and orchestral renderings.

Much controversy accompanied these newer forms. Once again, the principle concern was the intelligibility of the text. Another concern was the length of many of these Masses; in some, the Glorias and Credos could go on for twenty minutes or longer.

Some complained that these musical settings of the Mass made it sound more like being at the opera than at Mass. Indeed, they often broke the sacred text into movements sprinkled with soprano or tenor solos and duets, grand choral sections, and often with full symphonic accompaniment. It was quite a feast for the ears! These Masses were generally so elaborate that they could only be performed in the larger, well-endowed, city churches.

The controversy concerning these kinds of Masses continued for many years. Even as liturgical reforms began in the early 1900s, Pope Pius X frowned on their usage, referring to these orchestral Masses as “theatrical” (see Tra Le Sollecitudini # 6). This led to a de facto banishing of the form from the Catholic liturgy at that time. Only after the Second Vatican Council was this form rehabilitated in a small way.

Here, too, we see that what many Catholics today consider unquestionably sacred (e.g., a great Mozart Mass) had to survive much controversy and even a kind of banishment. What is thought of as sacred today has not always enjoyed that rarefied distinction!

VI.  The Modern Era: New musical forms, new controversies This leads us to the modern era. As we have seen, those who think that debates about what constitutes sacred music are new are simply mistaken. These disputes have been quite a constant part of Church life almost from the beginning. To place them at the feet of the Second Vatican Council is to lack historical perspective.

It is true that two documents of the Second Vatican Council (Musicam Sacram and Sacrosanctum Concilium) opened the door to newer forms with a greater freedom toward enculturation (e.g., MS # 18, 63), but they also reasserted the special accord to be given to chant (# 50a), polyphony, and the pipe organ (# 4a).

Although debate continues about newer forms of music and whether or not they are sacred, such tensions have long existed. Some newer forms have already been tried and found wanting (e.g., Polka Masses). Other forms such as “folk,” gospel, or contemporary music, with adaptions over time, have remained.

Summation:

  1. Historically, no form of music currently considered sacred achieved that status without controversy.
  2. Indeed, music itself was controversial in the early Church and was barely tolerated by many of the Church Fathers.
  3. Time ultimately proves where wisdom lies and ultimately mediates for us what is sacred in a way that transcends mere passing tastes or preferences.
  4. Music has made several revolutionary leaps during the age of the Church.
  5. Provided necessary rational limits are applied, there is no need to rush to exclude every newer form.
  6. If we were to do so, only chant would exist in the Church, and we would be deprived of a great treasury of music from the era of polyphony and the classical period.

In saying this I do not mean to indicate that all music is just fine, or that all modern forms are here to stay, or that newer forms should not be questioned; it is clear that some forms are wholly inimical to the Sacred Liturgy. Rather, I seek to remind people that what is called “sacred music” is historically quite complex. It is the result of long and vigorous discussions, refinements, and other factors as diverse as cosmology, architecture, mathematics, and culture.

We do well to let some of the conversations and controversies work themselves out, lest in too quickly ending them by judicial fiat we impoverish ourselves and block what might bless others and even our very selves.

These are just a few of my sources for the above article:

  1. Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (Johannes Quasten)
  2. Theology of the Liturgy (Joseph Ratzinger)
  3. Papal Legislation on Sacred Music (Msgr. Robert F. Hayburn)
  4. Sacred Music (a four-part production of the BBC)
  5. Coming of Age in the Milky Way (Timothy Ferris)
  6. Why Catholics Can’t Sing (Thomas Day)

Here are the Kyrie and Gloria from the Missa Entre Vous Filles by Orlando de Lassus, the polyphonic Mass setting that almost torpedoed polyphonic music in the Church. To our “distant” ears it is delightful and melodic. At the time, however, it engendered great outrage as nearly pornographic, because it drew from the melody of a “racy” song of the time.