This essay is being released as churches are having to make decisions about the forms of music that are necessary and possible for a fitting celebration of the liturgy as we prepare to return to public worship during the Coronavirus Pandemic. We hope that this detailed explanation of liturgical participation through music can help in those deliberations.
ESPITE the fifty years that have passed since Vatican II, the concept of active participation that was so central to its project for the liturgy continues to elude definition. This stems from the conflicting interpretations of its constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (“SC”). However, the constitution’s scriptural allusions and footnotes provide one way of determining an authentic reading. In this month’s article I’m going to apply the concept of active participation we can interpret from scripture to liturgical music. The polemical nature of the discussion encourages the cherry picking of quotations from scripture that support a particular view, but this “proof” quoting usually ignores context, can rely on spurious translation and achieves little. Alongside the references to scripture from the Council, I will survey examples of music in scripture to infer what can be learned about our own liturgical musicking as a means of active participation.
The phrase “active participation in the liturgy” needs to be addressed in reverse. We should understand the nature of the liturgy first (its ontology), then understand how one can know and experience its nature in participation (epistemology) and finally look at the specifics of what that activity entails (methodology).
Objective participation: the ontology of cosmic liturgy
Sacrosanctum Concilium’s most scriptural section (in the sense of that which most explicitly references scripture) is its account of God’s saving work through history and its culmination in Christ’s presence in the Church and the liturgy, which is the work of God in his Church and the privileged place of his presence on earth (SC ¶5-7). The constitution cites 1 Timothy 2 in which St Paul gives Timothy instructions on public worship in Ephesus and explains that our salvation is achieved through the mediation of Christ (1 Tim 2:4-5), so we approach God the Father through Christ’s presence in the liturgy. Since we are members of the Christ’s body (1 Cor 12:27), we take on that mediating role ourselves and so pray for pray for society and the world, making supplications, prayers, intercessions and offering thanksgivings (1 Tim 2:1-2).
The word translated as “thanksgiving” here is “eucharistia”, which appears in the earliest account of the last supper (1 Cor 11:23-24) and is the name used for the liturgy in the Didache (9:1) and by St Ignatius of Antioch (Epistle to the Ephesians ¶13; Epistle to the Philadelphians ¶4; Epistle to the Smyrnaeans ¶7). Eucharistia may be the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew “berakhah” which are blessings which typically begin “blessed are you, Lord our God”, and include the Khaddish in which wine and bread were blessed. The early followers of the Jesus Movement within Judaism followed the traditions of their forefathers (Acts 15) and seem to have included singing in their liturgies (1 Corinthians 14:15), following the pattern established by Christ and the apostles at the Last Supper which culminated in singing (Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26). The singing marks the liminal moment between the sacramental Passion enacted at table on Maundy Thursday and the actual Passion Christ enacted from then until Easter Sunday. In this liminal moment between the two, Jesus devoted himself to prayer to the Father (Matt 26:39 & 42).
The liturgy is not only the place where we encounter Christ, but it is the place where we most perceptibly become Christ. Augustine explains this liturgical “theosis” in his Exposition of Psalm 85: Jesus “prays for us, as our Priest; He prays in us, as our Head; He is prayed to by us, as our God.” (PL 37:1081). Liturgical theosis is the key to understanding liturgical participation. The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek for “ministry” (“leitourgos”), which is a combination of “leitos” (“of the people”) and “ergon” (“work”), which denoted a public service performed by a wealthy citizen for the community. Often this is put as a binary between “work done by the people” and “work done on behalf of the people” (Meyers, 2013, p. 205), but in the liturgy, our action takes part in Christ’s saving action: : the song of the lamb is the new song of the Redeemed (Rev 15:3). Just as Paul has a part in the work of God accomplished on the cross (Col 1:24), we have a role in that same work of God which is being accomplished in the liturgy. “The point is that, ultimately, the difference between the actio Christi and our own action is done away with.” (Ratzinger, 2014, p. 108).
Sacrosanctum Concilium quotes the Rule of St Benedict (§19) in upholding the importance of the participant’s subjective dispositions, “that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain” (SC ¶11). It cites 2 Corinthians 6:1 which follows on from a section in which St Paul writes of Christ atoning for our sins and handing on the service (“diakonian”) of reconciliation (5:16-21). St Paul describes himself as “working together with” Christ (“synergoúntes”) so that God’s grace might be received fruitfully. Something comparable happens in the liturgy. We work together with God to make his grace effective in our lives.
Vatican II picks up this same thought from Pius XII’s thought in Mediator Dei (¶144) when it says that
“Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise. For he continues His priestly work through the agency of His Church, which is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world.” (SC ¶83)
There is no scriptural reference given, but it would seem to be an extension of the image in to the book of Revelation where in his vision, John enters the throne room of heaven (Rev 4:2) where he is overawed by what he sees and hears (Rev 5:11). The seven hymns that appear in this section are all introduced by the Greek word “legontes” which should not be understood in its base meaning of “said” but rather, in a language that does not use punctuation, should be treated more as speech marks introducing a direct quotation (Krause, 2009, p. 177-8). It should be taken within the context of a heaven that the reader already understands is permeated with music (Job 38:7; Ps 19:1-6; Isa 6:3), as expressed in the word “adousin” (“they sang”) which is attached to three of the hymns in the book of Revelation (5:6, 14:3, 15:3). We belong to the same Church as those who participate in the heavenly liturgy, and so participating in the liturgy is our access point to heaven and the activity of the Church in Heaven.
Sacrosanctum Concilium‘s extension of this image can be understood as follows:
In the comprehensive sense of the heavenly liturgy, the “hymn” stands as an image of that ever new and festive “Yes” – because said from great joy and overflowing love – of one Person to the existence of the other two, which the three divine Persons in the inmost life of the Trinity have always said and are saying to each other, and which through Christ in the Holy Spirit finds an extension onto created reality. (Kunzler, 2002, p. 22)
Jesus is “the centre of the heavenly liturgy, a liturgy that, through Christ’s Sacrifice, is now present in the midst of the world” (Ratzinger, 2014, p. 22). That liturgy is Jesus’s hymn to the other persons of the Trinity in which we, as members of his body, have a voice. In participating in the liturgy, we join with the saints in heaven who have been “raised up to perfection by the manifold grace of God, and already in possession of eternal salvation, they sing God’s perfect praise in heaven and offer prayers for us.” (SC ¶104) They do not merely acclaim God’s praise, but in the Constitution’s image they express their praise in song. It implies more than words express on their own, and implies the beauty of their praise. “What one cannot talk about one can, indeed must, sing and make music about if one cannot be silenced. (Harnoncourt, 1991, p. 13)” The Church’s part in this song is indicated by the literary structure of Revelation, with its seven letters to the seven churches in Chapters 2 and 3 corresponding to the seven songs of chapters 4 to 7 (Krause, 2009, p. 178). The churches each have an angel which are held in Christ’s hand (Rev 1:20) and so have a voice in heaven with which to participate in their heavenly hymn.
It is this hymn that unites the liturgies of heaven and earth, giving the heavenly members of the Church a participatory role in the earthly liturgy and vice versa. Furthermore, it associates the liturgy with the hypostatic union of Christ’s human and divine natures; the Person of divine immanence and transcendence; the only high priest and mediator between God and humanity. For us as liturgical musicians and as musical people, the image of a hymn that stands for this cosmic force that unites heaven and earth in the person, presence and action of Christ, is worth further reflection.
St Paul refers to “hymns” twice (Col. 3:16, Eph 5:19), using the formula “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”. These are the Septuagint’s translations of the titles given to the poems in the Book of Psalms: “shir”, “tehillah” and “mizmor” (Keddie, 2003, p. 34). St Paul also uses the word “psalmon” as one of the gifts that may be brought to the liturgical assembly (1 Cor 14:26). Singing hymns appears to have been an important activity in early Christian ritual practice (Acts 16:25; 1 Cor. 14:15, 14:26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). St Augustine defines these hymns very broadly as “praises of God with song; hymns are songs containing the praise of God… If it is to be a hymn, it must include three things: praise, [addressed to] God, and song” (PL 36:914). While one could read Sacrosanctum Concilium’s image of the liturgy as Christ’s hymn (¶83) as a mere synecdoche, it can be understood more deeply as a comprehensive metaphor when one considers what a hymn is.
We should avoid any uncritical ressourcement or reconstructionism that imagines a trajectory of Church history that moves away from a mythically pure foundation and denies the possibility of positive development. Rather, we can call on early sources to provide structures for present reflection and to understand the familiar concepts in greater depth.
In St Paul’s context of early Christianity’s worship and the developing self-identity in the Second Temple Period, the psalms were the models for new compositions which reflect the new movement’s devotion to Jesus as maximally important. That they became controversial so early in the Church’s history points to the importance of the theological content of these hymns (Ratzinger, 2014, p. 89). We find orthodox examples of these new compositions incorporated into the New Testament, notably in the four hymns in Luke 1 and the hymn to the divine Logos in John 1 (Harkins & Dunkle, 2018, p. 613), but also in the epistles (Phil 2:6-11, Col. 1:15-20, Eph 5:14, 1 Tim 3:16). Here they take on the same antiphonal form seen in the hymns of the Book of Revelation (Blount, 2009, p. 123) and attested by Pliny the Younger who writes that he knew of Christians gathering to “meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing a hymn back and forth between themselves to Christ as a god” (Epistles 10.96).
Antiphonal singing in the early church may be an inherited practice from the Jewish liturgy, in which context we can read hints towards antiphony as far back as the fifth century BC in texts such Nehemiah (12:27) (Gunkel, 1998, p. 311). Socrates of Constantinople (writing in about 439AD) recounts a story of Ignatius of Antioch (who died in the first half of the second century AD) being inspired to introduce antiphonal singing into the Antiochene church so as to mimic the singing of the angels which he had witnessed in a vision (PG 67:689-692). Socrates goes on to say that from Antioch, this practice then flowed to all the churches (PG 67:692), so that by his day we may reasonably infer that this was a widespread (if not universal) practice.
These Christocentric antiphonal hymns are the new song that has been put in the mouth of the earthly worshipper (Ps 30:4) and sit alongside the psalms of David, who is a type for Christ who is the high priest. Since the psalms are sung as hymns to Christ and we are embodying his own voice,
“Christ himself thus becomes the choir director who teaches us the new song and gives the Church the tone and the way in which she can praise God appropriately and blend into the heavenly liturgy.” (Ratzinger, 2014, p. 497)
The answer to the question of “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Ps 137:4, that is, the land exiled from God, cf Gen 3:24), is Christ.
This antiphony indicates something about the metaphor of the liturgy as Christ’s hymn. Christ cannot sing a hymn on his own since (at least in the early church) hymn singing is a communal action (Harkins & Dunkle, 2018, p. 615). He needs others who reply to him as if antiphonally. The dynamic participation involved in antiphony holds the tension of unity and difference together, since the different participants sing the same hymn: hymns draw their singers into unity. On one level, that is the relationship between Christ and his bride the Church, and the liturgy is the love song sung by one to the another. Christ sings and the Church responds; the Church sings and Christ responds. The Eucharist, in which Christ gives his body to the Church, is the consummation of that relationship (cf Ratzinger, 2014, p. 88).
On another level, it is the antiphonal hymn between the persons of the Trinity. This brings out an association of song with the Holy Spirit, the “breath” of God which carries the song, and which St Augustine calls the “chain of the Trinity and love”, holding that the Holy Spirit is himself the love between the Father and Son (PL 40:820). He uses similar terminology for the liturgy, calling it the “chain of love” (PL 35:1613, also quoted in SC ¶47). “[What good is it] to have a new song without a new love? To sing is a lover’s thing. The voice of this singer is the warmth of holy love” (PL 38:1472). To participate in the liturgy is to undergo theosis, taking part in the love of the Trinity in the body of Christ and the breath of God.
Both ways of understanding of the liturgy as a hymn involves two overlapping modes of participation: receptivity and activity. Inasmuch as the liturgy is the love song of Christ to his Church, then the Church must receive his song. Inasmuch as the liturgy is the love song of the Church to Christ, we have to sing it. In an antiphonal hymn one listens more than one sings because for half the verses one only listens and for half the verses one listens and sings. Listening is the primary form of liturgical participation. After all, “faith comes from what is heard” (Rom 10:17) and the liturgy is an act of faith. Christ, the Word of God, started this hymn in the beginning (Jn 1:1), and now we respond to his initiative.
When a really good hymn finishes, it gets stuck in your head after the liturgy ends and so we listen to it internally. Sacrosanctum Concilium teaches that “the liturgy daily builds up those who are within into a holy temple of the Lord, into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit” (SC ¶2, referring to Eph 2:21-22). With a good hymn it is as if music echoes around inside of us like a building: our internal soundscape matches the soundscape of the temple and of heaven. It extends our experience of the liturgy beyond the specific moments in which it is taking place and allows us to carry the liturgy around with us in our daily lives.
That hymn also echoes through salvation history as an anamnetic link between the Old and New Covenants.
There are two passing and inconsequential references to music in Genesis (Gen 4:21 and 31:27), but the first significant reference comes in Exodus 15 when God delivers Israel from their slavery to the Egyptians, they believe in Moses and God (Ex 14:31), and express their thanksgiving (Ex 15:1-17) and hope (Ex 15:18) in song. This typology of the Christian escape from the slavery of sin, led by the new Moses, leads the Church to include the Song of Moses in the Easter Vigil liturgy, an arrangement that may be very ancient given Athanasius’s reference to the canticle in the context of celebrating Easter in 342 AD (PG 26:1419). At the Easter Vigil, it becomes apparent that song is a response to baptism. The Song of Moses is sung in the Book of Revelation after the visionary sees “a sea of glass mixed with fire” (Rev 15) which St Bede equates with the “fount of Baptism, which is consecrated by the fire of the Holy Ghost” (PL 93:477). The song of Moses and the Israelites, Jesus and humanity, the priest and congregation, sing in response to the work God accomplishes for his people.
The Song of Moses is quoted in Revelation (15:3) as part of a larger section (14:1-15:8) which is made up of two highly structured parallel visions (see de Villiers, 2004). The visions function as parallel “panels”, both referring to the Lamb, song, harps, conquerors and play out before the throne of God (Fenske, 1999, p. 257). In the first, the 144,000 who are the first-fruits of redemption, sing the “new song” (Rev 14:3) and the author ratchets up the tension by giving no details as to its content. When the second vision (15:1-8) begins by answering the question which has gripped the reader as to the meaning of the new song spoken of in Chapter 14 (Fenske, 1999, p. 255), the heightened tension that breaks and we are captivated by the song of Moses. It is sung by the same singers, but they now stand on “a sea of glass mixed with fire” (Rev 15:2) which St Bede equates with the “fount of Baptism, which is consecrated by the fire of the Holy Ghost” (PL 93:177). By virtue of the redemption wrought by blood (Rev 14:20) and baptism (Rev 15:2), the Song of Moses (which the first readers of Revelation would have known since childhood) has become a “new song”. This phrase from the first vision (Rev 14:3) comes from Psalm 40 (to which I will return later). Augustine addresses his congregation on the effects of regenerative grace saying: “Perhaps you used to sing hymns to strange gods; old hymns, because they were uttered by the old man, not by the new man; let the new man be formed, and let him sing a new song” (PL 36:435). The song of Moses and the Israelites, the Lamb and the redeemed, the priest and congregation, sing in response to the work God accomplishes for his people.
Sacrosanctum Concilium teaches that the active participation of the Christian people in the liturgy is a “right and duty by reason of their baptism” that “is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy”. This is the Christian response as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people” (SC ¶14 quoting 1 Pet 2:9). This refers back to Exodus 19 which links the foundational event of the Jewish people at the Red Sea (Ex 14:21-31) with their new identity as kohanim (“priests”). Philo of Alexandria (De Vita Mosis 2.170-173 commenting on Ex 32:29) explains that this identity was limited to the tribe of Levi alone after they violently defended God’s honour (Ex 27-28) against those who had worshipped the Golden Calf, killing about 3000 of their “brothers, friends and neighbours”. This command from God to brutal slaughter is deeply disturbing, a sense heightened when it becomes clear that Moses treats the bloodlust of the Levites as an act of worship (Boyd, 2018, p. 10). The tradition of the Church shows us that this requires a careful Christological reading (Rev 5:6-9). The Levites are sent by Moses as the means by which to eradicate sin from the people of Israel as Christ sends his ordained ministers to do the same for the people of God (CCC 1539). The role of the Levites in the temple included singing. As Dominic White points out (here and 2015, p. 99), the atonement of the Old Covenant was located in the song of the Levites, the cosmic song of the Christian Levitical priesthood which is united to the Song of Moses, the prefiguration of the Hymn of Christ.
Subjective participation: the epistemology of affective liturgical music
God is eternally immanent, so we are in contact with him in and out of the liturgy, but the liturgy is the place where his presence is most perceptible to us and where we can play our part in “activating” his grace. Music has a part to play in that: its ministerial function. Music’s ministerial function (SC ¶112) is as a mediator between the individual and the liturgy, between the assembly and the liturgy and between the individual and the assembly. St Paul writes that (a) Christians should “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among [them]selves” (Eph 5:19a), an act of the assembly. (b) He says that the individual should also be “singing and strumming in [their] heart to the Lord” (literal translation, Ephesians 5:19b). (c) It is while singing these songs of the Spirit we are in contact through Jesus Christ with God the Father (Eph 5:20). That is to say, music can be used (a) to draw the liturgical assembly into fuller corporate participation, (b) by the individual to draw himself or herself into deeper participation in the liturgy and (c) it can be used to heighten the individual’s perception of their integration into the body of Christ assembled in the liturgy.
We participate corporately in Christ’s hymn (SC ¶26), but that body is incarnate by individual Christians who are called to unity in the Church. Sacrosanctum Concilium cites St Cyprian who called the Church the “sacrament of unity and inseparable bond of concord” (PL 4:504). This musical image of strings sounding together in “concord” explains the role of the individual as a note within a chord of many sounds, literally a “polyphony”. There can be no “concord” unless there are individuals sounding together like the strings of a musical instrument, and so the subjective experience of the liturgy, our ability to perceive its objective reality, is worth meaningful attention. This implication may be implied by St Paul’s combination of “psalmois” alongside other songs (“odais”) in his letters to the Ephesians (5:19) and Colossians (3:16), since “psallo” is to pluck a stringed instrument whereas “odais” comes from the verb to sing (“ado”). Where odais was homophonic (or antiphonal homophony), psalmois is more likely to have been notes sounding together.
This nouning should draw attention to the fact that I have so far discussed the liturgy as if it were an object (noun) that could exist independently of the action (verb) of its participants (among whom I include the Trinity). In the metaphor of the liturgy as a hymn, I have deliberately spoken of it in this way so as to focus more easily on the nature of what it is we are participating in. That “thing”, however, does not exist without participation because, like a hymn, its essence is action: the action of Christ and the action of the Church. The individual participant’s action takes part in both the action of Christ and of the Church.
Indeed the individual’s action is a duty. It is by virtue of the priesthood Christians share in baptism that we are obliged to take a fully conscious, and active part in the liturgy (SC ¶14), which draws us into the life and mystery of God. We approach this mystery as humans with body and soul, and not as angels who are pure spirit, so we need sensory prompts to help us participate in something which is beyond the senses (cf Arinze, 2006, p. 57). Song allows us to delve into those depths of human experience that words alone cannot reach. Kathleen Harmon explains the experiential difference between speech (for which we articulate phonemes making consonants in our mouths) and song (where we articulate pitches by making vowels from our larynx). Song literally comes from a deeper place within our body, and we have a greater awareness and need to control our breath. (Harmon, 2008, p. 38). It is heightened sensory experiences such as this that allow us to perceive the reality encased in the sacramental signs in which we participate.
It is in the Eucharist that this reality is most perceptible. The sacramental signs contain the reality of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, which are brought out of eternity into particular moments on the altar. These events are the means by which we are set free from the slavery of sin. The reality of our escape from that slavery is overwhelming and so to experience it, we must organise its meaning. Song facilitates this because singing expresses that which we cannot put into words.
“In singing a man [sic] becomes, as it were, a pouring-out and a gift, because song, compounded of the breath which he breathes out from his inmost self and of the sound of his voice which cannot be held or imprisoned, is the free expression of himself, the manifestation of his interior being and the gratuitous giving of his personality… song is the living portrayal of spiritual self-giving.” (Gelineau, 1963, p. 17)
The breath the liturgical participant exhales is more than just their own breath because it is the breath of life which was breathed into us at our creation (Gen 2:7). There, and at the Great Flood when God takes it away, it is referred to as “nishmat chayim”, though elsewhere in Genesis this formula substitutes the word “ruach” for “nishmat” (Gen 6:17, 7:15, 7:22). The Septuagint translates both “nishmat” and “ruach” with instantiations of the noun “pnoe” (Gen 2:7 and 7:22 with “pnoin” and 6:15 and 6:17 with “pneuma”), which is the same word used for the Spirit of God. For example, when St Paul teaches that when we cannot pray, the Spirit can pray within us without words (Romans 8:26) or when Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that God is Spirit (John 4:24). The breath upon which liturgical song depends is a sacramental sign of indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the baptised person and in the Church.
It is through that breath that the Spirit speaks through us. All songs are by their nature songs of breath, but in the context of the liturgy those songs are transformed into songs of the Spirit. St Paul urges us to sing these songs from the Spirit (“odais pneumatikais”) to one another (as indicated by the use of the dative “eaftoús”) so as to “make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:19-20). The external participation happens as a corporate act so as to foster internal participation which is worship directed towards God.
But liturgical song is more than breath alone. That specific symbol is used in the liturgy at the Chrism Mass where the bishop breathes on the oil to symbolise (or indeed, as medieval Christians believed, that it was to effect) the transmission of the Holy Spirit. In liturgical song, however, breath is united with the Word of God, the Divine Logos to which we give audible voice in the liturgy. St Augustine refers to the practice he knew of ululation (or even perhaps the ecstatic babbling of glossolalia) as synonymous with the psalmist’s injunction “jubilate Deo” (Ps 99). He explains that
“one who jubilates does not speak words, but it is rather a sort of sound of joy without words, it is the voice of a soul poured out in joy and, as well as it can, expresses feeling, without understanding the sense.” (PL 37:1272).
Although the link is questionable (see the extended discussion in Poirier, 2010, p. 136-141), Martien Parmentier (1999, p. 71-73) suggests that this ecstatic glossolalia has a vestigial remnant in today’s liturgy, surviving in the jubili of Gregorian alleluia verses. In these verses words are momentarily suspended and a stylised version of the ululation of the Early Church can be collectively remembered. This is perhaps a more ordered expression of the spiritual emotion which was so strong that it had a hold over the worshipper who was lost in glossolalia. St Paul expresses caution towards that practice, saying that unguarded use of the gift of tongues is less than the gift of prophecy because it betrays an inward looking spirituality that is not shared with the rest of the community (1 Cor 14:2-25), unlike song which is a means of speaking to or for the benefit of each other. This wordless glossolalia is perhaps the opposite of the reasonable worship (“λογικὴν λατρείαν”) Paul commends in the letter to the Romans (12:1).
Liturgical music affords a place for the affective aspect of active participation. It regularizes and orders personal affectivity towards the worship of God and puts it into the context of a communal act (Ratzinger, 2014, p. 97). Indeed, Sam Barrett (2011, p. 188) suggests that the dominance in the liturgy of the psalms written in the first person may be a means of maintaining the personal aspect of the pre-Constantinian Early Church’s highly affective worship within the more standardized corporate form of worship that developed in the post-Constantinian Church. The Psalms are often in the first person and expound the widest possible range of profound emotions. Thus they include the individual participant’s voice within the liturgy assembly, yet at the same time, they are embodying the voice of Christ. Where St Paul was suspicious of glossolalia because of it served only to build up (“οἰκοδομεῖ”) the self (1 Cor 14:4),
“the best liturgical music deflects attention from itself towards the particular act in the sacred drama. The words sung are essential because they are the prayer, but, paradoxially, the music points not to them but to Whom they are directed” (Swain, 2012, p. 183-184).
This conjunction of the Word and Breath of God in the act of liturgical singing is a sacramental sign of our participation in the hymn of the Trinity. Hans Urs von Balthasar points out that in the Gospels (and by inference, in the dynamic relationship of the Trinity), “the Son always prays to the Father through and in the Spirit” (1986, p. 187). If we, as members of the body of Christ, become the Son in the liturgy, our theosis is a prefiguration of being in Heaven. Referring to the postcommunion prayer on Corpus Christi, Sacrosanctum Concilium talks of the liturgy being a “foretaste of Heaven” (SC ¶8), so we can think of musical participation as a fore-hearing of the heavenly praise. Not only a fore-hearing, but joining our liturgical singing to the song of heaven crosses the boundary into the liturgy of the saints and angels.
In short, liturgical participation allows us to participate in the music of heaven (cf The Common Preface), it is the means by which we can know what is really going on. When we fore-hear the liturgy of heaven, it is as if the ear (which in the baptismal rites received the Jesus’ command to open as much as the mouth does) is the symbol of the liturgy. “In music, the ear is not situated between two radically different worlds, separated by an unbridgeable gulf; rather, the events on this side of the sense organ (if one may put it this way) do not differ in kind from the events on the other side” (Zuckerkandl, 1973, p. 158). The new song sung before the throne of God in Heaven (14:3) is not different to that heard by those of us on earth (Rev 14:12). We are not participating in radically different liturgies from heaven and earth, rather our subjective experience of the liturgy in this layer of reality is the means of knowing the objective reality that is hidden deeper in the heavens (cf White, 2015, p. 174).
Conclusion: a methodology of active participation
There is a certain paradox in my view that the liturgy is a fore-hearing of Heaven in which the principle mode of participation is listening (an internal action) when all the way through this essay I have written of singing (an external action) as a metaphor for liturgical participation. St Paul writes
“if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.” (1 Cor 14:15, “sing” here being “psallo”, from the verb “to pluck”).
He is perhaps playing again on the double meaning of “πνεύματι, pneumati” as “breath” and “spirit”, and so it could be interpreted to mean “I will sing praise with the breath, but I will sing praise with the mind also”. In this preferable case, Paul’s external action (the production of a sound with the breath) is united with the action of his mind. This is in contrast to the undesirable option of praying in tongues where there is a great deal of external action but there is no internal action. We need to urgently reconsider where action takes place in the liturgy, where our place is in the overlap between receptivity and activity.
We have nothing to offer God except what we have received. Harmon (2008, p. 71) argues that “the activity of singing remains the fullest expression of the assembly’s participation in the music of the liturgy… [but] [t]he act of listening, whether to the song of the assembly or to the sound of choir or instrument, is an act of musical presence”. Though acknowledging the dialectic that exists between the two modes of musicking, for Harmon, it seems that singing is primary and listening is secondary. Ratzinger (2014, p. 472) calls the idea that all liturgical singing must involve the congregation “primitive actionism and prosaic pedagogical rationalism”.
Instead he defends the role of the liturgical choir by arguing that to participate in church music “presupposes a new listening to the whole richness of the Logos” since church music comes “from the Word of God and the silence perceived in it” (2014, p. 471). He quotes Harnoncourt (1991, p. 17) who gives room for choral liturgical music by challenging the performer-audience paradigm of the western concert hall and replacing it with the idea that the choir substitutes for the congregation’s singing. This is itself a sacramental sign, since the internal action of the congregation is incorporated into the external action of the choir in the same way as all our liturgical actions are incorporated into the action of Christ. Conversely, the external action of the choir becomes the internal action of the congregation as they hear it. “Musical hearing obliterates the division between inside and outside, subject and object, self and other” (Harmon, 2008, p. 71). That relies on an open ear (Ps 40:6).
We can use the first two sections of Psalm 40 as a guide for a methodology of musical participation in the liturgy. For our purposes, we can interpret the first section (vv. 1-3) Christologically to see the participation of the Trinity in the liturgy, the hymn which is sung between the three persons, revealing and binding their interiority (Harmon, 2008, p. 25) as if with a chain of love.
I waited patiently for the Lord;
and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.
He brought me up also out of an horrible pit,
out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock,
and established my goings.
And he hath put a new song in my mouth,
even praise unto our God:
many shall see it, and fear,
and shall trust in the Lord.
Christ waits patiently on the cross and cries out to God who seems to have forsaken him (Matt 27:46). He waits further still for the Resurrection as he descends into Hell, the desolate pit from which he is drawn out, securing forever his dominion over the earth. The saving act of Christ’s Passion and resurrection are the essence of the liturgy. The Resurrection transforms the cry of desolation into Christ’s cosmic hymn of praise. It is through our participation in that hymn, joining with and trusting in the choir director who teaches us the new song, that we can know its reality.
We can interpret a chronology of active participation from the psalm’s second section (vv. 4-10).
Blessed is that man that maketh the Lord his trust,
and respecteth not the proud,
nor such as turn aside to lies.
Liturgical participation of any kind is preceded by the assent of faith, of a relationship with God which is exclusive and intentional.
Many, O Lord my God, are thy wonderful works which thou hast done,
and thy thoughts which are toward us:
they cannot be reckoned up in order unto thee:
if I would declare and speak of them,
they are more than can be numbered.
God initiates the liturgical action. Christ accomplishes the wondrous deed of our redemption and God “multiplies” it by turning towards the perennial “us” of the Church spread throughout history in the liturgy. These deeds are beyond the comprehension of the human language, but it is our baptismal duty of consciously participate in them.
Many, O Lord my God,
are thy wonderful works which thou hast done,
and thy thoughts which are to us-ward:
they cannot be reckoned up in order unto thee:
if I would declare and speak of them,
they are more than can be numbered.
Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire;
mine ears hast thou opened:
burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.
Initially there can be no verbal response to this saving act. All we can do is listen, since we have nothing to offer in return. Even the grace of being able to listen is the result of the action of God.
Then I said, ‘Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.’
We hear sound in a space: acoustics locate us physically because sound reveals the interiority of spaces in a way that sight cannot. When that sound is a voice, it reveals its owner’s physical and psychological interiorities, revealing their presence to themselves (Harmon, 2008, p. 45). The essence of participation is theosis, and this is indicated when the voice of God is heard in our hearts, the interiority of God is revealed in our own self. We delight in that beautiful voice and realise that it is not so much that it is in us, as we are in it, we are taking part in the great cosmic hymn of praise. “Before the beautiful—no, not really before but within the beautiful—the whole person quivers. He not only ‘finds’ the beautiful moving; rather, he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it.” (von Balthasar, 1982, p. 247) This internal participation is the means of knowing the essence of the liturgy, and it means using music as a means of internalising our faith so that it can be part of our lives outside of the church building.
I have told the glad news of deliverance
in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O Lord.
The essence of the liturgy is the action of Jesus by which we are delivered from death, made present on the altar. By participating in those actions, we are incorporated into his body, the great congregation of the Church in heaven and on earth. Our internal participation gives way to the external participation of song. As rational creatures, our worship cannot be the wild glossolalia of the early Church, so instead music orders that affective passion towards the reasonable worship owed to the Creator of the kosmos.
Patrologia Graeca (PG), ed Jacques-Paul Migne, vl 26 & 37 (Paris: Gallice, 1864)
Patrologia Latina (PL), ed Jacques-Paul Migne, vl 35-38, 40 & 93’ (Paris: Gallice, 1845)
Francis Arinze, Celebrating the Holy Eucharist (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2006)
Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vl 1, Seeing the Form (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982)
― Prayer (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1986)
Sam Barrett, “Music and Liturgy”, in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Music ed Mark Everist (Cambridge: CUP, 2011), pp. 183-204
Brian K Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009)
Gregory A Boyd, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2018)
Wolfgange Fenske, “«Das Lied des Mose, des Knechtes Gottes, und das Lied des Lammes» (Apokalypse des Johannes 15,3 f.): Der Text und seine Bedeutung für die Johannes-Apokalypse”, Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 90(3-4), (1999), pp. 250-264
Joseph Gelineau, Voices and Instruments in Christian Worship, trans Clifford Howell (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1964)
Herman Gunkel, Introduction to Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel completed Joachim Begrich, trans James D Nogalski (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998)
Angela Kim Harkins and Brian P. Dunkle “Hymns and Psalmody”, in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Ritual, eds Risto Uro, Juliette J. Day, Rikard Roitto, and Richard E. DeMaris (Oxford: OUP, 2018), pp. 610-626
Kathleen Harmon, The Mystery We Celebrate, the Song We Sing: A Theology of Liturgical Music (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008)
Philipp Harnoncourt, “Gesang und Musik in Gottesdienst”, in Die Messe: Ein kirchenmusikalisches Handbuch, ed Harald Schützeichel (Düsseldorf: Patmos, 1991), pp. 9-25
John W Keddie, Sing the Lord’s Song: Biblical Psalms in Worship (Pittsburg, PA: Crown & Covenant, 2003)
Mark S Krause, “The Seven Hymns of Revelation 4, 5 and 7”, Leaven 17:4 (2009), pp. 177-183
Michael Kunzler, The Church’s Liturgy trans Placed Murray, Henry O’Shea & Cilian O Se (London: Continuum, 2002)
Ruth A. Meyers, “Mission” in The Study of Liturgy and Worship eds Juliette Day & Benjamin Gordon-Taylor (London: SPCK, 2013), pp. 202-211
Martien Parmentier, “The Gifts of the Spirit in Early Christianity”, The Impact of Scripture in Early Christianity eds J den Boeft & M L van Poll-can de Lisdonk (Leiden: E J Brill, 1999), p. 58-78
Philo of Alexandria, De Vita Mosis, pp. 58-78
John C Poirier, The Tongues of Angels: The Concept of Angelic Languages in Classical Jewish and Christian Texts (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010)
Joseph Peter Swain, Sacred Treasure: Understanding Catholic Liturgical Music (New York, NY: Pueblo, 2012)
Josef Ratzinger, Collected Works 11: Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2014)
Pieter G. R. de Villiers “The Composition Of Revelation 14:1-15:8: Pastiche Or Perfect Pattern?”, Neotestamentica 38:2 (2004)
Dominic White, The Lost Knowledge of Christ: Contemporary Spiritualities, Christian Cosmology, and the Arts (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015)
Victor Zuckerkandl, Man the Musician: Sound and Symbol 2, trans Norbert Guterman (Princeton University Press, 1973)
Scriptural quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (Anglicised Catholic Edition), Eberhard Nestle’s 1904 Greek New Testament and the Westminster-Leningrad Codex, with reference to Strong’s Concordance; except for Psalm 40 in the conclusion which is taken from the King James Version for copyright reasons.
With thanks to George Gillow (University of Cambridge) and Katharine Ambrose (University of York) for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
Copyright © 2020 Wilfrid Jones