Sunday, January 03, 2010

Music and the Historical Imperative

Today at my parish, we celebrated Epiphany and the visit of the Magi to infant Jesus, and the story was told once again in the readings and propers and also the sermon. The celebrant talked about the event itself and its meaning for us.

At that point, something suddenly struck me, a point that is probably very obvious but at this moment the significance became intense in my own mind. It is this: a vast amount our Christian worship is devoted to retelling and reliving history. Christianity is not merely an abstract series of theological claims; it is a narrative of real events.

The entire liturgical year is structured around the continual retelling of events in the life of Christ. We look forward to his birth, and we are there for it. We recognize his baptism. We go on the journey with Christ during his ministry and retell his parables and recount his miracles. We go to the desert with him and retell and relive the crucifixion.

We do this week after week. We need to do this constantly, which is why our liturgy is firmly rooted in this long series of historical events. We never stop living them, week after week and even day after day, again and again, over and over again. It is this history that is the core text of our liturgical life.

Even more profoundly, a unique aspect of Christianity that it is a faith rooted in a series of empirical events, which, if not true, would completely grind up the core of what we believe. This is why the anti-Christians are so anxious to debunk our history and discredit our texts and call the events that define our beliefs myths. If you gut the history, you gut the faith. This is also why the Church has us live this history again and again without ceasing. It is in these very real events, experienced so long ago, that we root our understanding of the faith.

Now, let us turn to the music question. As we know, the music is as attached to the Roman Rite as the liturgical calendar itself is attached to the rite. The music, like the events told in Scripture, can be traced to the earliest years of the Church. It is part of the way we live our faith, by hearing again and again the music is that is integral to the Christian story.

That doesn't mean that there is never any elaboration on the core music. Just as there are always new things to say about the visit of the Magi or Jesus's miracles, there are always new ways to sing Gregorian chant and new ways to express and elaborate on the chant. But a reflection on one of Jesus's miracles must be rooted in the event itself, lest the reflection lose all significance.

It is the same with music. There is the chant, the foundational song of the ritual. And there are elaborations on the chant with organ music and polyphonic music. We never stop hearing the chant, and we never stop elaborating on it. New compositions are themselves based on old ones in the same way that a homily on the Magi, no matter how many new insights it contains, is based on Scripture.

The musical story of our faith is as much part of our faith as the textual story. It is something we must relive every place and every time. It makes no sense just suddenly to impose some completely new music that has no connection to the rite, either in prescribed texts or the aesthetic sensibility.

To do this would be completely alien to the ritual itself. It would be just as discordant as breaking between Christmas and Epiphany to suddenly celebrate the Moon Landing or the invention of the light bulb. To be sure, the light bulb and the moon these are important things of mankind, but it is not mankind that is the subject of our worship.

And yet this is precisely what most parishes do with their music week after week, and this is the kind of music that most Catholic publishers publish. It is disconnected from the rite both in text and style. It is an intervention in the subject at hand, a diversion that detracts from the work we seek to do.

Now, what is the answer? Imagine for a moment that two centuries have gone by in which people, for whatever reason, left the story of the Magi untold. Everyone has forgotten about it. No one can remember it. No one really believes it anymore as a result. It is just an artifact known by a handful of specialists that no longer has any status in our minds or hearts.

Let us say that some people re-discovered the Magi narrative and also discovered that for 1800 years the Church celebrated the visit and even dedicated a special Mass to it. These people convince others that the story is extremely important and significant in the life of Christ, and also extremely evocative of many themes of our faith.

What we would do? We might say: oh, that story is long gone and no longer has any meaning for the current generation. People could never learn it again. In the modern age, no one has any interest in Kings from the East, wearing crazy turbans, bearing gifts that we don't even know anything about anymore. In any case, who can really believe that they followed a star and all of that? This Magi stuff just has no legs. It is not for modern man.

Would we say that? Some people might. But put in these terms, you can see that such an approach completely lacks in imagination and is also barren of the essential moral imperative.

If we rediscover something that we have lost that was once essential to our faith, we must make every effort to reclaim and make it ours again. We must educate ourselves and educate others. We must weave it back into our understanding and make it real again. It matters not how long it has been absent. It is also superficial to criticize the story on grounds that modern man can't get the hang of it. We must trust the ancestral narrative to point the way forward.

It is precisely this way with Gregorian chant. This is the music of the Catholic liturgy. It grew up with the rite. It is wedded to it in its text and style. It is also brilliant and evocative music, irreplaceable. It matters not that people today do not know it. They should be given the opportunity to know it. We must come to understand it. We must teach others. Otherwise we are missing something that is integral to our faith.

The authentic music of the rite helps make the rite more meaningful for us precisely because it has the strongest possible historical meaning. But keeping it alive and singing it again and again, we are only doing what Christians are supposed to do: living our own lives through the narrative of our whole tradition. We dare not turn our backs on it. And we dare not miss the chance to make it a living presence in our times so that the next generation can experience a fuller and richer presentation of the liturgical goal than our own generation had.

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