N OUR human frailty and imperfection, it is salutary to remind ourselves that not all depends on us. At times we are in need of this “reality check,” and this is an important one—personally and spiritually. If our entire physical, emotional, and spiritual well being depends solely on us, we are all surely doomed in this life—and perhaps the next! Thank God that God is good.
This comes as a great relief. It is also a relief that our greatest prayer, the Sacrifice of the Mass, is indeed the work of God. Nor is God alone in His work, but does so joined with us—the Church, His Body. That God would deem us worthy to be united in this work is a thought impossible to comprehend in its mercy and compassion.
Vatican II answers directly and profoundly this question of who performs this work: “…in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.” (SC 7 §4)
Vatican II also reaffirms that there is no greater prayer than the Mass: “[B]ecause it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, SC 7 §4) The Mass is truly a great gift to be treasured!
If that were not enough to be joyful about, Vatican II reminds us that Christ is present in the Mass in multiple ways: Christ is present “in the person of his minister”, the priest. Christ is present in the Eucharist. Christ is present in the Word. Christ is present in the people “…when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).” (SC 7 §1) Such presence is overwhelmingly joyful. As such, the impact upon our prayer and sacred music is deeply profound.
OPE BENEDICT XVI states the “work of Jesus” is “the real content of the liturgy.” (Lecture delivered During the Journées Liturgiques de Fontgombault, July 2001) The nature of this statement seems self-evident, but its implications tremendous. Benedict asserts that this “work of Christ” in the liturgy is not simply the historic events of his His Death and Resurrection and the paschal mystery of the Sacrifice of the Mass itself. The paschal mystery is the redemptive act of love for humanity. It is through liturgy in “which the work of our redemption is accomplished.” (SC 2)
When we consider the redemptive power of the Mass, our eyes, hearts, and minds are opened wide! What must follow calls for deep consideration.
Reflect upon the music we sing: As Christ is present in our prayer and in our song, He is also present in the Word. Therefore, singing the scriptures, in particular the psalms, is full of redemptive power. The Entrance, Offertory, and Communion Antiphons are all from scripture. The Entrance and Communion Chants in particular are paired with specific Psalms as verses. The communion antiphons in particular and often point back to the Gospel or liturgical season, and as such, Communion is often an excellent starting point for singing the antiphons. Many of these texts are increasingly becoming available in the vernacular and in accessible styles.
Many well-known hymn tunes and songs are based closely on scripture, but many are not. Some contain poor, vacuous, or even erroneous theology. This presents a challenge and requires close inspection of texts we sing at Mass. No matter how well known or beloved a melody may be, theology matters. When singing scripture—God’s Word—we are greatly graced with God’s presence in the Word.
When the priest, acting in persona Christi, sings the texts of the Mass including the dialogues with the people, Christ is present in prayer, song, and in the Word.
To consider the “work of Christ” as the greatest act of love, one cannot consider but pour out our love for God in songs of praise. Pope Benedict XVI states, “…the cross is not primarily an action but a passion…transformed into the active dimension of love.” (Lecture delivered During the Journées Liturgiques de Fontgombault, July 2001) Such love transforms and guides our prayerful sacred song.
ONVERSELY, there are pitfalls to avoid. One is to mistake the gathered assembly as “the subject of the liturgy.” (ibid.) While we are members of the Body of Christ, it is Christ’s sacrifice that redeems us. Such focus upon ourselves has found its way into popular practice evident in many popular published hymns and songs. It has misguided some to believe it acceptable to “manipulate the liturgy according to each individual’s understanding of it.” (ibid.)
Some may find this point of view stifling or limiting. Liturgical experimentation was ubiquitous especially in the decades following the Second Vatican Council. Much still remains on various levels. When Christ is replaced as the center of the liturgy, the people are not evangelized, renewed, or nourished. It is “understandable that they desert the liturgy and with it the church.” (Ibid.) Placing the focus fully where it belongs on God will draw and engage more people, young and old, to the Church.
The liturgy itself contains true gems throughout. As the redemptive “work of God and His Body, the Church” (Sc 7) the liturgy is filled with the wisdom of the ages. It is replete with scripture. Our sacred music—in particular when we sing the texts of the Mass and the scriptures—amplifies God’s presence in the Word.
Perhaps it is hubris, however well intended, to indulge in personal preferences in determining the course of the liturgy. (I write this to remind myself as much as for anyone else.) Perhaps the wiser course of action is to allow the sacred liturgy to unfold and accomplish its work of redemption within our souls.
Neither stifling nor limiting, the result is true freedom, true joy.