ITURGY IS, FIRST AND FOREMOST, an act of public worship. It also happens to be a skilled teacher. That’s the great thing about being Catholic. Our liturgy doesn’t patronize us by conforming to what we like; it challenges us by giving us what we need.
Of course, liturgy sometimes exalts the spirit beyond what we think possible. A perfect example is the Alleluia chant for the upcoming Octave of the Nativity (Extraordinary Form).
Now, if you asked me to list my favorite Alleluias of the liturgical year, I’ll admit I would have to put Pascha Nostrum (Easter Sunday) in the top position. Even if Holy Mother Church had given us a pedestrian melody for this chant, the fact that we get to sing it on Easter morning—after 40 days of suffering—would increase its poignancy. But the Church has provided for us musically. Pascha Nostrum is nothing short of dramatic. Something about the incipit has always made me want to start it off pianissimo as if our ears can hardly believe we’re hearing the “A” word again. The verse is stunning. The melisma on “immolatus” is one of the most florid of the entire liturgical year. The fireworks are justified; our Pasch has been sacrificed. Our Lord has paid the debt of our sins. Satan loses—then, now, and forever.
But Multifarie Olim (Octave of the Nativity) would be a not-too-distant second. Based on sheer musical merits, it’s easily the equal of Pascha Nostrum. The jubilus is brimming with energy. The verse begins with the same melody but then….soars. The text ties up the Christmas Octave perfectly:
God, who in divers manners spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all in these days hath spoken to us by His Son. (Heb 1: 1-2)
At this point you might ask, “Why do we sing such straightforward Alleluias for each of the three Masses of Christmas and put off this gem until the Octave?” This is where the Church teaches us. Even as our neighbors began tossing their Christmas trees onto the curb on December 26, we Catholics knew that the Christmas celebration had just begun. Big feasts have octaves, during which we’re encouraged to maintain the festivities for a full eight days.
The Octave of the Nativity underscores this point by prescribing propers identical to those of the Christmas Mass of the Day—except for this spectacular Alleluia, which it has kept hidden away like a final surprise gift.
The Gradual and Alleluia are supposed to prepare us to hear the Gospel. If the Alleluia encourages us to listen attentively, then it has done its job. That’s exactly what Multifarie Olim does. In fact, I remember singing it in Fresno years ago while I had guests in town. Both were non-practicing Catholics, but they came to the sung Mass with me. As the Alleluia verse soared higher and higher, the melody moved them to tears.
If you’re attending an Extraordinary Form Mass for New Year’s Day 2021 and live in an area where you’re allowed to sing, savor this Alleluia. May we all sing it with gusto on New Year’s Day 2022.