HE ROLE OF MUSIC in the liturgy can be explained at different levels. We can speak about the use of music to “cover” liturgical actions. We can theorize about liturgical music as a means of participation on the part of the people. We can consider the way in which chant contributes unique solemnity to the act of worship.
At its highest, though, music for the liturgy transcends the earthly side of the liturgy and becomes a bridge to that which lies beyond our sight and hearing. The art of music, indeed, can be understood as a catalyst for renewing the divine harmony of creation established by the Word of God at the very beginning.
This is an idea treated by Saint Athanasius in his Discourse Against the Pagans. The great fourth-century bishop of Alexandria and “Champion of Orthodoxy” writes this:
Think of a musician tuning his lyre. By his skill, he adjusts high notes to low and intermediate notes to the rest, and produces a series of harmonies. So, too, the wisdom of God holds the world like a lyre and joins things in the air to those on earth, and things in heaven to those in the air, and brings each part into harmony with the whole. By his decree and will, he regulates them all to produce the beauty and harmony of a single, well-ordered universe. (St. Athanasius, Oratio contra gentes, 42; PG 25, 83-86)
Athanasius further extends the image, beyond the tuning of a lyre to the collaboration of a choir:
To illustrate this profound mystery, let us take the example of a choir of many singers. A choir is composed of a variety of men, women, and children, of both old and young. Under the direction of one conductor, each sings in the way that is natural for him: men with men’s voices, boys with boys’ voices, old people with old voices, young people with young voices. Yet all of them produce a single harmony. . . . Although this is only a poor comparison, it gives some idea of how the whole universe is governed. The Word of God has but to give a gesture of command and everything falls into place; each creature performs its own proper function, and all together constitute one single harmonious order. (St. Athanasius, Oratio contra gentes, 43; PG 25, 86-87)
Consider this the next time you sit down at the organ bench or take your place on the choir risers. Participating in the work of sacred music is to participate—in some small, but magnificent way—in the restoration of that harmony which governed the universe at its very inception.