In my life, I have learned that music is extremely powerful, often doing what mere words alone cannot.
There have been several times in my life when my soul was asleep morally, and it was music that called me back. Although I joined the church choir when I was young in order to meet girls, it was through the music that the Lord showed me a deeper desire in my heart for goodness, beauty, and truth—indeed, my desire for God Himself. The music awoke my sleeping soul to God.
More recently, and in a particular way, music awakens my soul to the deeper meaning of Sacred Scripture. I hear or read a Scripture passage that in the past has had only a marginal impact on me, but then when the choir take it up in song it is pressed indelibly into my heart. Through the music, my heart and soul are awakened to the deeper meaning of a particular text.
With humility I have also learned that though I may preach boldly, it is often the choir’s sung response that makes the words catch fire. I have learned to link what I preach to what is sung and to work carefully with the musicians, for while the spoken word may inform and even energize, the sung word strikes even deeper, imprinting the message into the deepest parts of the heart.
The following is purported to be engraved on the outside of an opera house in Germany:
Bach gave us God’s Word, Mozart gave us God’s laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s fire. God gave us music that we might pray without words.
Scripture says that the Lord puts music in our hearts and that by it, many will be summoned to faith. The Lord set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD (Psalm 40:3-4).
Yes, music can often reach where mere words cannot.
The video below shows the amazing effect of music on an elderly man named Henry, who had become fairly solitary and incommunicative. His very posture illustrated well St. Augustine’s remarkable diagnosis of the human problem of incurvatus in se (turned inward on oneself).
Henry’s daughter remembers a lively, vivacious man who quite literally danced through life, but who in the last ten years has shut down and turned inward.
Then came a near miracle, through something ordinary yet mystical: music. Wait until you see how it awakens Henry! The difference in him is astonishing. Suddenly it is abundantly clear that there is still someone “alive” inside Henry’s aging body—alive indeed, the human soul is still deeply touched by the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Henry says that when he hears music, “I feel loved … the Lord came to me and made me a holy man … so he gave me these sounds.”
It’s the old Henry, the real Henry, alive and joyful. Where mere words fail, music speaks. Where therapy struggles, music soars.
I remember an elderly woman I used to visit, Ms. Lorena; she died some years back at the ripe old age of 104. When I’d visit, there wasn’t much she or I could say, but when I would start to sing one of the old hymns “… by and by … yes, we’ll understand it better by and by,” Ms. Lorena would light up and join in. She’d sit up straight in her chair and suddenly she was young once again.
There’s an old spiritual with these lyrics:Over my head, I hear music in the air, there must be a God somewhere. Yes, Mr. Henry knows. Yes, Ms. Lorena knows. There is a God somewhere! When words alone fail, He still calls through music.
Catholicism has glorious liturgical and intellectual traditions, but because we have not excelled in training Catholics to give joyful witness to wonder of the Lord and our faith, they are among the best kept secrets around.
In certain denominations, giving witness is a major focus, and congregants are well-trained for it both through personal testimony (witness talks are common in Protestant liturgies) and in their musical tradition. Pastoring in African-American parishes for most of my priesthood has introduced me to this training ground. The “Black experience” is more relaxed with testimony and witness.
Even when I am in a store in an African-American area it is not uncommon for people to say to me, “You got a word for me today pastor?” They are interested in knowing about my church and tell me of their own. They ask for prayers and often engage in certain “call-response” acclamations. Someone will say to me, “God is good!” I reply, “All the time!” To which the response is “And all the time …” I then call back, “God is good!” Then we conclude the ritual with a joint “Amen.” Right there in the aisle of the local Safeway we “have a little Church up in here” as the expression goes.
The testimonies exchanged in this sort of tradition are not highly theological or complex, but they don’t need to be. It can be a simple and joyful statement such as this: “God’s been good to me,” or an expression of hope in a difficult moment: “God’ll make a way for you,” or “I know He’ll see you through.”
Much of this courage and relaxed sharing is the result of a certain kind of liturgical training. The giving of testimonies is common both in and out of church.
There is also the musical tradition that teaches worshippers to recall that God is in the blessing business and that His mercies are not exhausted. It also teaches that one’s relationship with God is transformative and that reform and healing should be expected.
The song “He’s Blessing Me” says,
He’s blessing me, over and over again, He’s blessing me, right here where I stand, Every time I turn around, he making a way somehow. Over and over again he blessing me!
You may not be able to see, just what the Lord is doing for me, but over and over again he’s blessing me!He’s in my heart and soul, from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes, Over and over again he’s blessing me.
The message is simple and yet attractive and beautiful. It trains people for joyful testimony and witness.
The song “He’s Done So Much for Me” says says,
He’s done so much for me,
I cannot tell it all….
He washed my sins away;
I cannot tell it all,
He walks and talks with me;
I cannot tell it all,
He gave me victory;
I cannot tell it all, I cannot tell it all!
Other songs speak to conversion. One song says, “Something on the inside, working on the outside, I’ve seen a change in my life.” Another song says, “I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be. A change, a change has come over me.” Yet another song goes like this: “Great change since I’ve been born! … Places I used to go, I don’t go no more. … Things I used to do, I don’t do no more. … Company I used to keep, I don’t keep no more. … There’s been a great change since I’ve been born.”
These are just a few examples of the kind of “training” that many receive in the evangelical denominations. Frankly, we Catholics have received far less of this. As result, many Catholics are uncomfortable speaking about the Lord and what He has done. Sometimes we simply lack the vocabulary and the models that others have. Even more tragically, many are not even taught to expect a great deal from their walk with Christ. How many Catholics are told to expect a “great change”? Not expecting much often leads to not experiencing much, and not experiencing much makes it pretty hard for a person to testify to what he has seen and heard.
The Catholic faithful need to be better prepared for evangelization. This is more than manifesting joy; it also includes the ability to witness to a moral renewal that also serves to call others to soulful repentance. If we know deep down that we have been rescued from sin and from this present evil age, we are grateful and joyful and we have an experience to speak of that will encourage others.
As a concluding model, perhaps the following song is of value: “I really love the Lord. I really love the Lord. … You don’t know what He’s done for me. He gave me the victory. I love Him, I really love the Lord!”
Many of you have likely read the classic description of the Church from the 1951 novel Dan England and the Noonday Devil, by Myles Connolly. It is a wonderful reminder that the Church is not an institution, but a Body, made up of members who, each in his own unique way, give witness to the one Body, which is Christ. Here is an excerpt from the book:
The Church to me is all important things everywhere. It is authority and guidance. It is love and inspiration. It is hope and assurance. It is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is our Lady and St. Joseph. It is St. Peter and Pius XII. It is the bishop and the pastor. It is the catechism and it is our mother leaning over the crib teaching us our evening prayers. It is the cathedral at Chartres and the cross-tipped hut on Ulithi. It is the martyrs in the Colosseum and the martyrs in Uganda, the martyrs at Tyburn and the martyrs at Nagasaki. It is the wrinkled old nun and the eager-eyed postulant. It is the radiant face of the young priest saying his first Mass, and the sleepy boy acolyte with his soiled white sneakers showing under his black cassock….
It is the spire glimpsed from a train window and the cruciform miniature of a church seen far below on the earth from an airplane. It is six o’clock Mass with its handful of unknown saints at the communion rail in the gray dark and it is pontifical High Mass with its crowds and glowing grandeur in St. Peter’s….It is the Sistine Choir and it is the May procession of Chinese children singing the Regina Coeli in Peking.
It is the Carthusian at prime on Monte Allegro and the Jesuit teaching epistemology in Tokyo. It is the Scheutveld Father fighting sleeping sickness in the Congo and the Redemptorist fighting prejudice in Vermont. It is the Benedictine, the Augustinian, the Passionist, the Dominican, the Franciscan. It is all religious and especially the great unnamed Order of the Parish Priest.
It is the Carmelite Sister lighting the tapers for vespers in the drear cold of Iceland and the Sister of Notre Dame de Namur making veils for First Communion in Kwango. It is the Vincentian Sister nursing a Negro Baptist dying of cancer in Alabama and the Maryknoll Sister facing a Communist commissar in Manchuria. It is the White Sister teaching the Arabs carpetmaking in the Sahara and the Good Shepherd Sister in St. Louis giving sanctuary to a derelict child, a home to a lamb who was lost. It is the Little Sister of the Poor salving the sores of a forgotten old man in Marseilles, the Grey Sister serving the destitute in Haiti, the Blessed Sacrament Sister helping a young Negro write poetry in New Orleans. It is the Sister of Charity… It is all the Sisters everywhere.
It is the crippled woman who keeps fresh flowers before our Lady’s altar and the young woman catechist who teaches the barefooted neophytes in the distant hills. It is the girl who gives up her bridge game to drive the Sisters to the prisons and the homes of the poor, and it is the woman who goes from door to door begging for help for the orphanage. It is the proud mother of the priest and the heartbroken mother of the criminal. It is all mothers and sisters everywhere who weep and suffer and pray that sons and brothers may keep the Faith.
….It is the bad sermon and the good, the false vocation and the true. It is the tall young man who says the Stations of the Cross every evening and it is the father of ten who wheels the sick to Mass every Sunday morning at the County Hospital.
It is St. Martin and Martin de Porres, St. Augustine and St. Phocas, Gregory the Great and Gregory Thaumaturgus, St. Ambrose and Charles de Foucauld, St. Ignatius and Ignatius the Martyr, St. Thomas More and St. Barnabas. It is St. Teresa and St. Philomena, Joan of Arc and St. Winefride, St. Agnes and St. Mary Euphrasia. It is all the saints, ancient and new, named and unnamed, and all the sinners.
It is the bursting out of the Gloria on Holy Saturday and the dim crib at dawn Mass on Christmas. It is the rose vestments on Laetare Sunday and the blue overalls of the priest working with the laborers in a mine in the Ruhr.
It is the shiny, new shoes and reverent faces of the June bride and groom kneeling before the white-flowered altar at nuptial Mass, and it is the pale, troubled young mother at the baptismal font, her joy mingled with distress as she watches her first-born wail its protest against the sacramental water. It is the long, shadowy, uneven line of penitents waiting outside the confessional in the dusk of a wintry afternoon, each separate and solemnly alone with his sins, and it is the stooped figure of a priest, silhouetted against the headlights of a police car in the darkness of the highway as he says the last prayers over a broken body lying on the pavement beside a shattered automobile.
It is the Magnificat and it is grace before meals. It is the worn missal and the chipped statue of St. Anthony, the poor box and the cracked church bell. It is peace and truth and salvation. It is the Door through which I entered into the Faith and the Door through which I shall leave, please God, for eternity.
So there it is: The Church. Somewhere in this picture is you, sharing your gift and serving in your role. The Church is Christ. And all of us who are baptized are baptized into Christ, members of His Body.
Somehow I sense the rhythm of a Bach fugue as I read the description above. You probably think I’m stretching things, but consider this:
In the video below, an organist plays Bach’s Fugue in C Major. As with any musical fugue, the organist begins by announcing the theme, playing it with his right hand. Soon enough the left hand answers and eventually the feet play the theme in the pedal. The fugue then takes the theme through a series of mathematical progressions. Eighth notes become 16th notes and then even 32nd notes, but the basic theme is always being developed.
Now think of the organist as Christ, the Head of the Body, and the organ as the Body of Christ. The organ, like any body, has many parts. Because the purpose of an organ is to make sounds, the different pipes are used to make different sounds. There are diapasons, the reeds, the flutes, and the string pipes. The reeds are made up of various sounds like the trumpet, oboe, and vox humana. The string pipes make different sounds as well, such as viola, salicional, and dulciana. The flutes also come in many varieties as do the diapasons. There are wonderful mixtures that give brightness. The deep, low notes of the pedal, sometimes as low as the 32′ contra Bombarde, make the whole building shake. This, too, is an image of the Church. Christ is able to make beautiful music with this wonderful variety.
How does Jesus make this music? Like an organist playing a fugue, Jesus announces the basic theme that underlies every other aspect of the song. This theme is the truth of the Gospel. Every voice of the Church takes up that theme and sings it out in its own sound, using its own gift—but it is Christ who plays. Jesus expands and enriches the theme in a kind of development of doctrine that He leads the Church to proclaim. Rich diverse sounds develop and build thematically, but there is always the basic theme, the fundamental truth.
Yes, here is an image of the Church in a Bach fugue and in a virtuoso organist making beautiful music through unity with a wondrous instrument.
Note 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 supreme – While 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 develops – The 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 enters – The 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 polyphony – It 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 problems – In 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.
Historically, no form of music currently considered sacred achieved that status without controversy.
Indeed, music itself was controversial in the early Church and was barely tolerated by many of the Church Fathers.
Time ultimately proves where wisdom lies and ultimately mediates for us what is sacred in a way that transcends mere passing tastes or preferences.
Music has made several revolutionary leaps during the age of the Church.
Provided necessary rational limits are applied, there is no need to rush to exclude every newer form.
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:
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.
I’ve got my Gospel glasses on and my holy hearing aids in; I’m seeing and hearing God in strange places. There are several Paul Simon songs that bring holy thoughts to me, even if he didn’t mean them that way. One them is this one (followed by my commentary):
When I was a little boy, and the devil would call my name I’d say, “Now who do … who do you think you’re fooling?”
I’m a consecrated boy Singer in a Sunday choir
Refrain:Oh, my mama loves me, she loves me
She get down on her knees and hug me
Oh, she loves me like a rock
She rock me like the rock of ages
And she loves me
She love me, love me, love me, love me
When I was grown to be a man and the devil would call my name I’d say, “Now who do … who you think you’re fooling?”
I’m a consummated man I can snatch a little purity
Refrain:My mama loves me, she loves me
She get down on her knees and hug me
Oh, she loves me like a rock
She rock me like the rock of ages
And loves me
She love me, love me, love me, love me
And if I was President and the congress call my name I’d say, “Now who do … who you think you’re fooling?”
I’ve got the presidential seal I’m up on the presidential podium
Refrain:My mama loves me, she loves me
She get down on her knees and hug me
And she loves me like a rock
She rock me like the rock of ages
And love me
She love me, love me, love me, love me
She love me, love me, love me, love me
She love me, love me, love me, love me
Here’s my commentary, wearing my Gospel glasses and with my holy hearing aids in:
When I was a little boy, and the devil would call my name.We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, with fallen natures. And even the youngest find that these thrice-fallen forces reach them. Scriptures are clear in saying that the devil is prowling through the world like a roaring lion seeking souls to devour. We are to resist him, solid in our faith (cf 1 Peter 5:8).
I’d say, “Now who do … who you think you’re fooling?” There is a power within the soul to refuse Satan’s voice. Where does this power come from? It comes first from our freedom, from our will. It also comes from the voice of our conscience, the voice of God that echoes in the depths of our soul saying, This is the way walk in it (Is 30:21). Even the youngest children know basic right and wrong. It is not hard to appeal to them to understand what they’ve done wrong. But because of the weakness of our human nature, our inclination to selfishness, and our tendency to justify sin, we need additional help.
I’m a consecrated boy; singer in a Sunday choir. This describes a young man who has been consecrated in Baptism and is walking within the life and sacraments of the Church. The Sacrament of Baptism and the life of the Church give us additional insight to understand that the voice of the devil is seeking to deceive us. But human soul and intellect—illumined by the consecration of Baptism, the other sacraments of the Church, and strengthened by the fellowship of the Church —further strengthen us to be able to say to the devil,
“Who do you think you’re you fooling? I’ve been consecrated and I’m living my life in the light of God’s truth as expressed in the Church. I see your darkness for what it is and I’m not fooled. It is error; it is deception. It is darkness, not the light! I am no fool because, consecrated in baptism, the wisdom of God has reached me.”
Oh, my mama loves me, she loves me. She get down on her knees and hug me, oh she loves me like a rock. She rocks me like the rock of ages, and loves me. She loves me, loves me, loves me, loves me. And this “mama” is Mother Church, who loves us as a mother. She is our mother because we have come forth from her womb, the baptismal font, having been conceived by the chaste union with her beloved spouse, Jesus.
She is Mother Church, Christ’s bride, and oh, how she loves us! Down on her knees in prayer for us, she reaches out and embraces us. Yes, she loves us!
It will be noted, that the word “love” occurs seven times in the song’s refrain. Mother Church loves us sevenfold. Is it the seven sacraments? Is it the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit? Is it the seven corporal works of mercy? Is it the seven spiritual works of mercy? Yes, and more besides! It is love in all its perfection.
And in her sevenfold, prayerful love that embraces us, she loves us like a rock. This is the rock of Peter upon whom Christ, the rock of ages, builds His Church.
When I was grown to be a man – All of us are called to the maturity of Christ.
We [must] all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. So may we no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of erroneous doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Eph 4:13-14).
Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults (1 Cor 14:20).
Our Mother Church raises us to be mature in the fullness of Christ’s truth.
And the devil would call my name – Still the devil calls. He does not give up, hence we must remain ever-vigilant. So the song still says, “… who do you think you’re fooling?”
I’m a consummated man.Yes, we are called to full maturity in Christ, as stated above.
I can snatch a little purity. The strength to resist the devil comes from the maturity and purity that come to us in our walk with Christ and by the ministry of His Bride and our Mother, the Church. The purity and maturity of our faith help us to see even more deeply how the devil tries to fool us. Then we can reject him in strength, and with certainty and clarity.
Oh, my mama loves me, she loves me.Yes, she does! The Church just keeps on loving us. Sadly, many walk away from the Church in young adulthood. For those who come to maturity in Christ, the ever-stronger devil requires an even stronger capacity on our part to say, “Who do you think you’re fooling?” This comes through our maturity, wrought in us by our Mother, the Church. She raises us up in the faith to be strong and mature, teaches us the Word of God, bestows His sacraments, and gives us Holy Teaching. Thank you, Mother Church, for loving me like a rock!
The last verse gets a little strange and must be interpreted allegorically, not politically.
And if I was President – In other words, even if I should rise to the highest worldly power, even should I become a great leader.
And the congress call my name – While to modern American ears this refers to the people gathered in Washington, D.C. (the U.S. Congress), the word “congress” itself comes from two Latin roots: con (with) and gradi (go or walk). “Congress” means “coming or being together with,” or more literally, “going with.”
Scripture often warns of those who gather against us, telling us that they are often gathered by Satan himself. Jesus warns of the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev 3:9; 2:9). “Synagogue” is just the Hebrew word that means gathering or “congress.” The Book of Psalms also warns of those who gather against us:
Rise up Lord against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice. Let the assembled peoples (Synagogus) gather around you, while you sit enthroned over them on high. Let the Lord judge these people (Psalm 7:7-8).
The devil often calls our name through pressure groups, through our desire to be popular, or through those who are together against us tempting us to do wrong. And thus this verse reminds me that even should I rise to the highest places, with many gathered about me pressuring me to do wrong or trying to intimidate me, yet still will I say to the devil, “Who do you think you’re fooling?”
I got the presidential seal. In other words, I have the highest seal, the seal of the Holy Spirit!
I’m up on the presidential podium. That is, I have the highest office, the office of prophet. I am one who speaks for God by this office! And despite the hatred of the world that comes to me from proclaiming God’s Word, and despite the gathering of my enemies all around me, yet still will I proclaim God’s Word as God’s prophet!
And through whatever hatred comes from those who gather against me,my mama loves me, she loves me like a rock. Yes, I have the love of my Mother, the Church, and my Lord, Jesus Christ, who is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer.
You may say, “Well, this is all a bit much. And your interpretation is surely far from what the lyricist probably ever intended.” That’s fair enough, but with my Gospel glasses on, I see Christ everywhere. With my holy hearing aids in, I hear Jesus all the time.
As we approach the Feast of All Saints this Sunday, we do well to meditate on one of the great English hymns, “For All the Saints.” It is a wide and sweeping vision of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. Its imagery is regal and joyful, its poetry majestic and masterful. A vivid picture is painted in the mind as the wondrous words move by. To me it is a masterpiece. Many people know the opening line, but most have never sung it all the way through and thus miss its wondrous portrait. A number of years ago I committed words of this hymn to memory, very much in the spirit of my father, who loved to memorize things that moved him.
Let’s spend a few moments reflecting on this masterwork. It was written in 1864 by William Walsham How, an Anglican Bishop. Ralph Vaughan Williams set it to a stirring melody in 1906. I love to play this hymn at the organ since it has a challenging but exciting “walking base” played by the feet and big rich chords in the hands. In his recent outreach to the Anglicans the Pope speaks of the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion as a “precious gift” and “treasure to be shared”. This hymn from the Anglican tradition is surely one of those treasures. Permit me to set forth each verse and then comment.
For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
As the hymn begins, we cast our eyes heavenward to the Church Triumphant. Stated in the first verse is the hymn’s purpose: that we sing to and praise God for all those saints who have finished their course here and entered into the rest of the Lord. Like the Lord, they can say, It is finished. Like St. Paul, they can say, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day (2 Tim 4:7-8). By their words and deeds, these saints declared to the world His holy and blessed name. They confessed and did not deny Him. To them and us, Jesus made a promise: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven (Matt 10:32). We, too, are called to take up the cry, “Blessed be the Name of the Lord!”
Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light. Alleluia!
Salvation and the living of a holy and courageous life are only possible by the grace of God. Only if God is our rock, our defender, and our strength do we stand a chance in the battle of this earthly life. Jesus said, Without me you can do nothing (Jn 15:5). St. Paul taught that the ancient Israelites made it through the desert only through Christ: they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them in the desert, and that rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:4). Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in a time of storm! Only in Christ and by His light could they have the strength for the battle and garner the victory.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Ah, this is the connecting verse. We here on earth (the Church Militant) share blessed communion with the saints in Heaven because we are one in Christ. The Body of Christ is one and so we have communion with the saints. We are not in separate compartments, unconnected to the saints in Heaven. We are one in Christ. And though we struggle feebly here on earth, we are strengthened by our communion with the saints and the vision of the glory they already share with Him. Referring to the saints in Heaven, the Book of Hebrews says, Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us! (Heb 12:1-2)
O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Having gazed heavenward and having derived strength from our mystical communion with the saints in Christ, we now face the trials of the Church Militant and are counseled to have courage.
We are told to be like courageous soldiers, holding firm and loyal to the end. We must often fight bravely in a world that is hostile to Christ and His truth. So fight we must, nobly, for the crown comes only after the cross. But the victory will one day be ours. Although it doesn’t always look that way to us, Christ has already won the victory. And even if this world deprives us, ridicules us, or even kills us, the victor’s crown awaits all who remain faithful. Jesus said, You will be hated by all because of me, be he who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 10:22).
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Now comes a call to courage, rooted in the song that faith puts in our hearts. Psalm 40 says, I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. It is a song that echoes from Heaven through the words of Scripture and the teachings of the Church: Victory is ours today!
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
For now it is God’s will that we hear the call to fight on. Now we are the Church Militant. But here the verses of the hymn direct us back toward heavenly things and the last things, because one day the battle will end for us. The hymn speaks elegantly of the “golden evening” of life and the “rest” that death will one day bring. And, likely through the purifying effects of purgatory, we shall one day pass where we will cast off our burdens, our sorrows and final sins. There the Lord will wipe every tear from our eyes (cf Rev. 21:4).
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
And then an even more glorious day breaks forth. The hymn closes the circle and we are back in Heaven again! There the saints are clothed in bright array. The heavenly liturgy is beautifully captured in two lines that describe the saints in worshipful praise as the King of Glory, Jesus, passes by in triumphal procession. What a glorious vision this verse provides!
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
The hymn takes one final look. We have come full circle from Heaven to earth and then back to Heaven again. We have made our journey but now the hymn bids us to cast our glance outward and see the magnificent procession that continues for all who will come after us. Jesus said, “And I when I be lifted from the earth I will draw all men unto me” (Jn 12:32). So now look, fellow Christians! Look outward from a heavenly perspective and see the harvest as Christ draws countless numbers to Himself.
Ah, what a hymn! What a sweeping vision and wondrous celebration of the Christian life! Though the battle be now engaged, victory is sure if we but stand firm and hold to God’s unchanging hand.
What we call the Sanctus, or the Holy, Holy, Holy of the Mass is not one prayer or one acclamation, but two. And this fact presents a teachable moment for us as well as providing a defense of a practice that is often scorned by modern liturgists.
The two parts of the Sanctus are as follows:
The Sanctus – Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and Earth are full of your Glory.
The Benedictus – Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest.
The first part comes from the Book of Isaiah:
I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Is 6:1b-3)
And thus this acclamation is that of the highest heavens and the highest rank of the angels, the Seraphim (“burning ones”), who stand before the throne of God in Heaven. It is their acclamation that Isaiah overheard in the vision he felt utterly unworthy to experience.
That we, mere mortals, take up this acclamation is bold indeed. We are enabled to sing it only on account of the saving ministry of Jesus, our savior. Through Jesus, and as members of His Body, we now have access to the Holy of Holies in Heaven!
But when Christ appeared as high priest of the good things that have come, passing through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption (Heb 9:11-12).
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Heb 10:19-22).
Yes our singing of this great acclamation of the highest angels is bold, but our boldness is only in Jesus. Otherwise, how could we dare to enter the Holy of Holies in Heaven and take up the song that only angels of the highest rank sing?
At every Mass, the priest (in the Preface Dialogue) bids us,Sursum Corda (Lift up your hearts). In other words: Brethren we are now in Heaven with Christ our Head and are swept up into the heavenly Liturgy. Therefore we give thanks to the Father through Christ His Son and our Lord. And with the Cherubim, the Seraphim, and all the heavenly hosts we, with one voice, proclaim, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts … This is an acclamation of great ascent of the Lord into the Holy Place.
The second half of the Sanctus is a very different acclamation. It is far more earth-bound and comes from a completely different Scripture. It is the song of the Hebrew children, who greeted Jesus as the Messiah when he entered Jerusalem, meek and humble, riding on a donkey:
Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven! (Mk 11:9-10)
How different this second half is! It is an acclamation of praise, but by men not angels. And though it resonates to the highest Heaven, it is an acclamation from the earth. It is in praise of the Lord, who has descended in the incarnation and is entering the earthly Jerusalem.
The first part of the Sanctus was of angels to the Lord who dwells in highest Heaven. The second half, the Benedictus, is of men to the Lord, who descended to these lower realms of our earth.
Thus what we call the Sanctus is a complex combination of two very different prayers, two very different scriptural acclamations, two very different contexts.
For this reason it was common in the Traditional Latin Mass (today, the Extraordinary Form of the Mass) to split the Sanctus, singing part one before the consecration and part two after it. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, speaking in 1996 at Regensburg, mentioned this practice and explained it in the following manner:
Whereas the Sanctus evolved from Isaiah 6 and was then transferred from the heavenly to the earthly Jerusalem and so became the song of the Church, the Benedictus is based on a New Testament rereading of Psalm 118:26. In the Old Testament text this verse is a blessing at the arrival of the festive procession in the Temple. On Palm Sunday it received a new meaning … When the youths of Jerusalem shout this verse to Jesus, they are greeting him as the Messiah, as the King of the last days who enters the Holy City.
[So] the Sanctus is ordered to the eternal glory of God; in contrast, the Benedictus refers to the advent of the incarnate God in our midst. For this reason the Benedictus is meaningful both as an approach to the consecration and as an acclamation to the Lord who has become present in the Eucharistic Species (Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol XI “Theology of the Liturgy” Ignatius Press, p. 477).
And thus the Lord, who dwells in the Highest Heaven, descends at the consecration to dwell humbly among us as our food. So, in the Old Latin Mass, it was considered the appropriate time to sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.” Yes, blessed is He who has descended from the highest Heaven and is now present among us in the Eucharist upon our Altar. May the highest praises be His!
It seems such a glorious acclamation in this sense and with this background. And so it’s no wonder that the united text of the Sanctus was “paused” midway and the second half routinely sung after the consecration.
In a way it is sad that this was altogether lost in the Ordinary Form. This seemingly perfect acclamation was replaced by newly composed acclamations called “The Mystery of Faith,” which imitate the Eastern Liturgies. They are not bad in themselves, but they wholly replaced something that was beautiful and also adequate. Most liturgists insisted that the old practice of splitting the Sanctus in two was to be stopped without exception. Cardinal Ratzinger continues,
The reformers of the Liturgy, following the Byzantine rite, composed an acclamation of the people “We proclaim your death, O Lord …” But the question of other possible acclamations … has been proposed.
It is evident to me that there is no more appropriate or more profound acclamation, or one that is more rooted in tradition than precisely this one: Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.
The pedantic proscription of such a split … should be forgotten as quickly as possible (Ibid, p. 478).
Most liturgists would severely frown on eliminating one of the Mystery of Faith acclamations from the Ordinary Form of the Mass in favor of splitting the Sanctus. But as the Cardinal, now Pope Emeritus, opines, we might wish to consider it as an option. For now, the option exists only in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.
Yet in the end, much is gained by reflecting on the text of the Sanctus. It is actually two texts, and shows the remarkable and beautiful tension of ascension and condescension, of transcendence and immanence, of the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly one, of angels and men.
Two texts, two songs, one Sanctus. A remarkable moment in the Liturgy!
The mysteries of Christmas are many. Among them is the mystery of the music heard that night. The angels shouted the great declaration, “Glory to God in the Highest,” and creation takes it up as a song. But why this music? Is it merely window dressing, or does it disclose a mystery to us? Is it merely for us, or do the angels also have need of the declaration?
As always with the things of God, there are realities far deeper than most of us imagine. But tonight’s Christmas feast weaves together, among many other mysteries, those of music and descent, and points up to music and ascent.
You see, over my head I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere. And the Lord descends to one song so that we might ascend to a new song in a new place: in the highest heavens. Let’s see how.
I. Divine Condescension –The text says, Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:8-12).
We look first to the divine descent of Jesus. Note that Jesus, who is called Savior, the Anointed One, and Lord, is said to be found wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a feed box, a trough from which animals are fed.
What sort of King and Lord is this? It is almost a divine comedy. Imagine the shepherds quaking in fear at the presence of an awesome angel. And then the angel tells them that they will find the Christ lying in a feed box, in a stable somewhere nearby. One can almost image one shepherd saying to another in a sort of whisper, “Did that angel say ‘feeding trough’?” And then the other nervous shepherd whispers back, “Yeah, that’s what he said.” It is comedic because it is so anti-climactic.
Indeed, there is a remarkable divine condescension here! The Lord did not merely descend from Heaven to earth. He descended to one of the lowest places on the earth, to a stinking cave, among animals, and has for His bed a feeding trough meant for animals.
And though Bethlehem was called the “City of David” it was hardly fit for a King. It was then, and is now, a run-down, dusty, ramshackle, poor town.
So here is the King of the Universe born, not in a stately palace, but in a stinking pen; not in a cozy cradle, but in a messy manger.
Yet God speaks eloquently in this poverty and condescension. Here is the Bread of Life, in a town called Bethlehem (House of Bread), lying in a feed trough. In His littleness and poverty He is approachable and calls to the poor.
But do not miss the radical nature of this descent! So radical was it, that this very thing is said in tradition to be the reason that one-third of the angels rebelled, turning against God and falling to the earth as demons (fallen angels). In both Jewish apocryphal writings as well as the writings of the Fathers of the Church, Lucifer, one of the highest ranking angels and among the seraphim, recoiled at the idea that God would choose to join Himself to His physical creation. Man was a mere mud doll to Lucifer, something and someone so far beneath him as to merit no real attention. The thought of God becoming flesh caused Lucifer to rebel, and he took a third of the angels with him in rebellion against so absurd a plan: God as mud doll, taking on human flesh and being joined to mere material creation. It was unbecoming, beneath the dignity of the spiritual world!
Condescension was unthinkable to Lucifer’s pride and he fell, refusing to accept such an absurd notion. Ever since that time, he and the fallen angels with him have envied the human person whom God was pleased to indwell, and by this envy have sought to destroy our truest dignity: an indwelling relationship with God.
Why this condescension? He condescends today to one song in order that we may ascend one day with Him to a new place and sing a new song. To what song does He descend and to what song will we ascend? Let’s read on.
II. Dancing Choirs –The text says, And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
But the angels who did not fall had rejoiced in God’s plan and longed for its day! Thus on this day, as the Lord is manifest to the world, the highest angels who descended with Christ at the Annunciation now send word through and to the lower ranks of angels and a great heavenly throng makes the declaration, Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth Peace! The great hymn that is sung (or more literally, declared) is not just for the human family; according to the Fathers of the Church it is also a signal to the lower ranking angels from the higher ranking angels. All Heaven has revealed to it the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his holy ones (Col 1:26). A mystery, a wisdom which is hidden, which God ordained before the world, unto our glory (1 Cor 2:7). …The things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:12).
Perhaps a little background will help understand the dance of the choirs and the communication that takes place.
The inner life of the Trinity, according to sacred tradition and the teaching of the Fathers, is not a mere static vision of the three persons for one another. The inner of the live of the Trinity is a movement of love. The Father loves the Son; the Son loves the Father; the Holy Spirit processes between them in this great movement which the Greek Fathers call the divine perichoresis, a kind of dance of love.
And the angels are arranged around God in ranks or choirs somewhat like concentric circles. And they, too, take up the dance of love, passing love and revelation from God through each rank or choir and back again. Yes, here is the great dance, the perichoresis of God’s inner love radiating out to angels, down through the ranks to us, and from us back through them to God.
The nine choirs (ranks) of angels are divided into three tiers, or triads, each with specific concerns:
The Highest Tier:Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, who concern themselves with contemplating the glory of God. It is the six-winged seraphim who sing the Sanctus, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:3).
The Middle Tier: Dominations, Virtues, and Powers, who are known as the “angels of creation” because they concern themselves with the ordering of the cosmos and the causes of things.
The Lower Tier:Principalities, Archangels, and Angels, who concern themselves with the minute ordering of the universe and with specific causes, including the welfare of people. Each human being, each church, and each country has a guardian angel.
Thus, the “Gloria in Excelsis” is a declaration of praise not just overheard and taken up by humanity; it is not just a hymn of praise, it is a dance and a passing of information down the chain of angelic choirs. The highest choirs of angels have descended with the Word made Flesh, Jesus, since it is their role to surround Him with perpetual adoration.
The Church Father, Origen, has the higher angels say,
“If he has put on mortal flesh, How can we remain, doing nothing!? Come Angels, let us descend from heaven!” That is why [Scripture says] there was a multitude of the heavenly Hosts praising and glorifying God when Christ was born. Everything is filled with angels! (Hom in Ex. 1:7)
And now at Jesus’ birth, the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones signal the lower angels: “This is He, who is Lord of all Creation; He who is ever to be adored and glorified.” The lower angels take up the information and cry out, “Glory to God in the Highest.”
Another Church Father, Pseudo-Dionysius, says of this great heavenly hymn that is declared,
The highest order composed of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, and which is closest of all, by reason of its dignity, to the secret sanctuary of God [instructs] the second order, composed of Dominations, Virtues and Powers. This order in turn reveals the mysteries to the lower tier of angels the Principalities, Archangels and Angels who are set in charge of the human hierarchies (Hier Ceol. 9,2).
And thus the great “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” resounds in the heavens, not just on the earth. The angels are given the good news along with us! An ancient hymn from the Liturgy of St. James says of this moment,
Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the shadows clear away.
At his feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluia, Lord most high!”
And to us on earth comes the call to hear the music, the great hymn of praise and instruction, and to respond with our souls!
I have it on the best of authority that as the shepherds heard the great song of the angels, one of them said, Over my head I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere!
All of creation echoed that night with the song of the angels communicating this truth to one another and to us.
Angels we have heard on high Sweetly singing o’er the plains, And the mountains in reply Echo back the joyous strains Gloria!
The animals, too, lifted their eyes heavenward, and one was said to say,
Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy, do you hear what I hear Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy, do you hear what I hear A song, a song, high above the trees With a voice as big as the sea With a voice as big as the sea!
But why all this music at the divine descent? Because the music (Gloria in Excelsis) and the descent are related and meant to signal and lead us higher. Christ descends to one song in order to lead us to an even nobler and higher song,
III Destiny of the Christian – The Psalm says, Sing to the LORD a new song, sing to the LORD, all you lands. Sing to the LORD; bless his name (Ps 96:1-2).
So again, this music (Gloria in Excelsis) and the descent are related and meant to signal and lead us higher. Christ descends to one song in order to lead us to an even nobler and higher song, a song sung in the highest heavens! And without this descent and this first song, the second song and our ascent are impossible. Christ descends to the song of the lower heavens so that we, by His saving grace, may ascend to the place and song of the higher heavens.
And what is this new song and place? Isaiah heard the music and saw the place:
I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven” (Isaiah 6:1-8).
Here is a our new song, a higher song, one sung only in the highest Heaven before the throne of God, one sung only by the redeemed: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts! At every Mass, our High Priest, Jesus, speaking through His ministerial priest says, Lift up your hearts! We reply that we have them lifted up to the Lord. In other words we are told to come up higher, to come into the Holy of Holies in Heaven, to come before the throne and sing the hymn of the highest in Heaven.
Our ascent to this highest place is made possible only by the Lord’s descent to the lowest places here: the manger, the Cross, and Sheol. In the early Church, only the baptized could sing the Sanctus at Mass. The unbaptized were not allowed to attend. The catechumens, though permitted to sing the hymn of the lower heavens (The Gloria), were dismissed prior to the singing of the Sanctus, the song of the higher heavens. Only when we are caught up higher by grace can we hear and join the Sanctus. And one day it will be fully our song when God, who descended, says to us, “Come up higher.” And then, by Him who descended, we will ascend and sing a new song to the Lord!
Over my head I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere. And the Lord descends to one song so that we might ascend to a new song in a new place, in the highest heavens. May HE, who descends to the manger today, cause you to ascend to the highest heavens to sing that new song.