“Brothers and sisters: In this instruction I do not praise the fact that your meetings are doing more harm than good.” (1 Cor. 11:17)
I have always loved the first reading for Mass today, from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. First, it demonstrates Paul’s fiery spirit; one can hear the passion of the Apostle to the Gentiles coming through clearly (maybe a little too clearly for those whose behavior he speaks against).
Secondly, and more importantly for me, he’s fired up about the liturgy, about getting the way we do liturgy right. I think of this passage, and hope I’m standing with St. Paul when I advocate for or against some seemingly insignificant liturgical observance or practice. Too often, eyes glaze in response. “Surely it doesn’t matter that much,” many argue. “If our hearts are in the right place, if we’re participating with gusto, who cares about the details?”
This is an argument I’ve heard a lot lately with regard to the music we use in liturgy. Why can’t we sing more songs from this or that Christian radio station, or from this or than experience of charismatic youth camp? The young folks love them! And isn’t that the point, to evangelize? To engage the youth, to get them excited about Mass?
Everyone (especially me) values youth and desires their full participation in Catholic liturgy and life. But no, actually, that is not the point of why we gather to celebrate the liturgy. The point of the liturgy, as the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy makes clear, is the glorification of God and the sanctification of the people (para. 7, 10, etc.).
This means that neither is evangelization the point of the liturgy. Bear with me: I’m a big fan of evangelization. I think everyone should do it, and often. But from the Church’s earliest traditions, the celebration of the liturgy was an experience for those who had already been evangelized, and contained (still does) elements in which the unChurched are not meant to partake (such as the Prayer of the Faithful and everything that follows).
Now one might argue we are in a different pastoral context in this day and age, where the distinction between the evangelized and the non-evangelized (or as I recently heard Bob McCarty from St. Mary’s Institute call them, the “UnGospelled”) is less clear. I’m sympathetic to that argument, and I do agree that liturgy should never be an arcane experience for a spiritual elite. But to suggest that the point of liturgy is to appeal to those who have yet to hear the Gospel (or those who have yet to appropriate it) is to fundamentally shift our understanding of liturgy away from 2000 years of Catholic tradition, which is the sort of thing that should give us pause.
We need good music for Mass, this much is true. But since when is the fare on contemporary Christian radio (also known as “Praise & Worship” music) the only option for good, inspiring, Spirit-filled music? And yet I have heard this argument quite a lot lately where I live (well within the sphere of charismatic influence created by the Franciscan University of Stuebenville).
Now is the time to address this concern for “good” music for liturgy. I plan to make thorny issues in pastoral music a cornerstone of content for this blog, so do stay tuned if that sort of thing interests you.
For now, some basic descriptions of liturgical music and a song recommendation for this coming Sunday’s Mass.
Liturgical music, unlike devotional music, is music which transcends our personal, momentary wants and desires. It is not formed “in the moment” as so much Christian contemporary music seems to be, but pulls us beyond our individual needs – even beyond our individual selves! – into one Body, one Spirit in Christ. “Our [sung] participation in the Liturgy is challenging… [but] Christ always invites us, however, to enter into song, to rise above our own preoccupations, and to give our entire selves to the hymn of his Paschal Sacrifice for the honor and glory of the Most Blessed Trinity.” (Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, para. 14)
For this coming Sunday, I have chosen Tom Kendzia’s “Now Is the Time” for our opening hymn. The music is upbeat and rhythmic, with a vaguely Gospel-ish feel and is musically accessible in terms of its rhythms and key (G). The point of view (POV) represented by the lyrics is strongly “We-Thou”, which means in it, we are speaking to God clearly and unequivocally (sometimes a song’s POV is vague, where God really isn’t addressed at all, but rather the singer seems to be speaking to themselves). Finally, in these recent weeks of challenging Gospels from Mark (my favorite evangelist!), the lyrics of “Now Is the Time” beg God to be with us, to help us understand his mysterious teachings, his equally mysterious desires for us, and to transform us into his very Self to do the work of his Body. In fact, the lyrics seem to prompt or set up the entrance antiphon of the day: “I am the salvation of the people, says the Lord./Should they cry to me in any distress,/I will hear them, and I will be their Lord for ever.”
As a bonus, the verses of “Now Is the Time” implore God as Holy Spirit (Spirit of love, hope, peace, life, etc.) which is somewhat rare in liturgical hymnody and song, and yet prized as a vehicle for helping us express the fundamentally Trinitarian nature of the liturgy.
“Take hold of us, our hearts, our mind, our whole being./Make us your own, now is the time.” (from Tom Kendzia’s song “Now Is the time”, published by Oregon Catholic Press) (click the link to listen to the song on YouTube)
I offer this song as an example of one which has the potential to do it all (while still acknowledging that timeless liturgical principle that you can’t please everyone). But this song has the potential to please and engage those who desire more emotive, engaging music that appeals to all ages, yet can fulfill the obligation which all liturgical music has to draw us beyond ourselves into the Paschal Mystery of Christ.
Stay tuned for more ideas, resources and discussion about liturgy and life here at Liturgy and Life!