Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Liturgy and the Song of the Cosmos

It's sad that 'religion' has become a dirty word in our society but it's worse that it has even become so among the religious! I'm sure the majority of those who adhere to the Christian religion would categorize (at least subconsciously) the word 'religion' as a negative one.

Religion has come to symbolize and embody the opposite of what we feel is the proper way of understanding our relationship with God. Religion, ritual and liturgy strike our culture as useless and even harmful distractions to our spirituality. On the contrary, they are aides. We must not go so far down the Platonic path that we end up looking more like a Gnostic than an orthodox Christian.

It should come as no surprise that if we are to examine liturgy as it should be, we ought to look at our relationship to God as it should be. Let me be a little abstract now:

Last night in schola rehearsal, we talked about the 7th note of a scale and how when played, it always wants to go back to the first. It's called a lead note. Do you know one of the common musicians' tricks for quickly determining the key which a song is played in is? They listen for the last note. Songs almost always end on the first note of the scale. They must return to their origin. I find parallels in the cosmos - it is the natural order of things to return to their origin and or come to the perfect resolution which the entire song/story/conflict has been yearning for.

In a good song, we find a beginning (mostly begins on the first and if not almost always quickly establishes the first note) and we find that the first part builds up to a certain climax, we don't quite know what it is yet. It keeps building and though the signs are pointing us in the right direction and giving us clues, when the climax comes we are surprised at it. (We didn't guess the melody but looking back it makes perfect sense). The song doesn't usually end at the climax though. It continues on - there is work yet to be done - there is more to say. We will never return to the grandeur of that climax but in the end we will finish on a perfect note (back to the first). The song has been resolved - the story is over. This is the perfect resolution of the song. Every note has been waiting for this final resolve.

How many songs fit that model? I know a good one played on the Chinese traditional - "erhu". It's called "Moonlight Reflected on the Er Quan Spring". How many fictional narratives fit this model? Why is history more interesting than fiction? We might expect it to be the other way around (of course Chesterton reminded us that we made fiction for ourselves and therefore in some sense it does make sense that it is less interesting than reality). And I think the truth is, all fiction merely imitates the ultimate narrative penned by the greatest Author. All of our fictions are pale imitations of redemptive history.

So what does this have to do with liturgy? On a very broad scale, how does Christianity fit into the creative model outlined above? I only spoke of three parts - the beginning the climax and the end. The first two are quite easy. The beginning is creation, the climax is the crucifixion but what is the end? We don't quite know so we look to the book of Revelation.

Let's start from the beginning. We see that creation started on the first note of the scale - perfection in the garden. But immediately, the song begins to shift... It's going somewhere. Now who was the first priest? Melchizidek? Noah? Enoch? Perhaps Able since he offered a sacrifice... In fact, the first priest was Adam. He communed with God but we have no reason to believe that it wasn't liturgical. The Eastern theologians are quite adept on expounding this concept. We know that the Jewish temple was decorated inside with a garden motif. The ritualistic temple worship aimed at returning to the perfect union with God found in the garden. It should only be fitting that the rubrics of worship would imitate the true communion which we were designed for (especially since God Himself strictly required the precise rubrics). How much sense would it make to worship in a completely different way than we were originally intended to? So the point here is that liturgy imitates and points to perfect communion (it certainly doesn't detract from it or pull us in the wrong direction). These are notes of the song pointing to the final resolution we are all expecting.

The resolution should not be hard to guess - we will return to perfection but having played the most beautiful song ever imagined and participated in the greatest story ever told. And if we are to look at the prediction for the end of time what do we find in Revelation? A return to a simple buddy-pal relationship with God? Strolling hand in hand casually through the garden? On the contrary, we find the highest and most solemn liturgy ever described. Catholic and Orthodox theologians have seen the book of Revelation as much in terms of liturgical symbolism as in apocalyptic prophesy. Scott Hahn is among the best modern scholars I know of in expounding on this insight. I would point the reader to his commentaries on Revelation from a Catholic perspective in order to fully grasp how true and complete this point really is. However, for our purposes let us just note that we began on a perfect note in the garden with the first priest Adam communing in perfect liturgical worship with God and we end on the same note with all the choirs of angels in heaven, the white robed army of martyrs, His beautiful bride and the true High Priest, Jesus Christ all in the unity of the Holy Spirit. This is the final note of resolution. Good musicians have already guessed the final resolve of the piece, good theologians the same (divine revelation also helps in this case).

Now what of the climax? How does the death and resurrection of Christ relate to liturgy? It is the climactic liturgy of all humanity! Jesus began the passover with His disciples drinking only three of the four cups of wine (blood). He performed the first Christian mass in the upper room and told the disciples that He would not drink wine again until that day when He drank it anew in the kingdom of God. The gospels told us that He drank bitter wine (wine-vinegar) on the cross!! Immediately following this He said "It is finished". But what is "It"? The redemptive work is not finished, He has not yet descended into Hades nor has He risen from the dead - conquering death by death. The liturgical sacrifice is finished. This is the climax of all history.
(See Scott Hahn's - 'the fourth cup' for a much more detailed analysis of this point).

I heard an audience member ask Peter Kreeft during a lecture, "why is music played in a minor key more beautiful than music played in a major key?" I thought to myself "Yes! What a great question! I've wanted to know that answer for the longest time..." It seems so contrary - why is sad, minor music more beautiful than music played in a major key? I waited impatiently for the answer - I thought, "if anyone knows the answer, Peter Kreeft does". Oh how my heart sank when I heard "I don't know"... but then in passing as he began to move on to the next question I think he nailed it on the head "but it has something to do with calvary". That's it! That's the reason why minor chords and keys are more beautiful than major! Art imitates life.

The climax in the aforementioned song is the saddest part of the entire piece. Although there are many parts of the song which sound quite happy, it is all played in the same key. Likewise, the climax of the narrative which we are living out is God incarnating Himself in the person Jesus Christ and offering Himself as a sacrifice for us. It was the saddest and yet most beautiful event in all of history. And still we mustn't forget that it was played in the same key as the beginning and the end - a liturgical one.

There was nothing casual about the cross, there is nothing casual about the heavenly liturgy and there wasn't anything casual about Eden. And for God's sake, there shouldn't be anything casual about our liturgy. Our liturgies point to what we hope to attain in perfection. What perfection does a "flip flop service" point towards? A heavenly living room where we sit around and shoot the breeze with Jesus? What does it say about our expectations of heaven and of return to full communion when we try to add every little thing we can to detract from the centrality of the Eucharistic sacrifice in our liturgy? What does it say of our expectations when the sacrifice is not even present?

Do you think it is merely man's doing that has destroyed the liturgy? Do you think it's just man being lazy? Satan was behind the destruction of the first liturgy and he's behind the destruction of the liturgy now.

It might be of man if at least some of what they (the detractors from the liturgy) say were true. But since we find out that even the most believable arguments they have are actually lies, we know it is ultimately from the father of lies. They say we have dumbed down the liturgy to encourage participation. We have less participation than ever! They say we play embarrassing contemporary music because that's the only way to be relevant to the teenagers and yet we have three teenagers in a crowd of 1,000 attending and we're more irrelevant now than we've ever been. And at my parish, the folk mass has the least participation out of all the masses! They sing the most "relevant" contemporary crap they can find and no one sings it and no one truly enjoys it. So why do it? They won't allow Latin or traditional music in the parish because they say people won't sing.... People aren't singing anyway! (Ironically the Latin mass I attended recently had full participation with each member of the congregation singing their hearts out on every instance where they were supposed to). Unfortunately, my parish is not an anomaly.

They try to compromise the liturgy and become like a Protestant faith community. They end up losing the tradition, reverence and solemnity of the real Catholic mass and not even doing a good job at being Protestant. If I wanted congregational music, I'd go to a Baptist faith community certainly not a watered down liturgy at a Catholic parish.

But the tide of the song is changing I believe. Pope Benedict XVI is truly implementing solutions that will (and are) reversing the downward spiral caused by the liturgical holocaust. Not the least of which was the Motu Proprio released last year which liberalized the Tridentine mass. The Catholic Church is proving Christ's words to be true "the gates of hell will not prevail".

This is not to say that the Novus Ordo can't be properly reverent and vertical - it can...but it just usually isn't. Well to all the faithful - keep up the good fight and keep looking for that final note when this great song will be perfectly resolved. Oh and, quit playing dissonant notes (living room liturgies).


Anonymous said...

It is true there are some Novus Ordo Masses that have the beauty that it should represent in them but it depends very much on the priest.

Augustine said...

Google Lauren Pristas of Boston College and read her three articles on the collects in the Novus Ordo. When I read the words of the head of the coetus in charge of editing the collects, my skin crawled.