“Beauty will save the world,” says’s Dostoevsky’s Idiot. We need beauty. The preeminent theologian of beauty, we might say, was Hans Urs Von Balthasar, who rhapsodized on this notion thus:
Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach . . . Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.1
Which is to say, that beauty here below allows us, in the gracious words of Michael Gaudoin-Parker, “to pierce through the crust of our commonplace experiences,”2 to gain at least a glimpse of the glory and splendor of God. We also need a very special kind of beauty – good music. How can we forget that it was not erudite theological debate which won St. Augustine’s mind and heart? The sweet chants he heard outside St. Ambrose’s cathedral did the job; it was the “singing Church”3 which brought him and countless millions of others down the centuries into the communion of saints. St. Thomas Aquinas saw this clearly when he taught that liturgical music had a most important mission: ad provocandum alios ad laudem Dei (to stimulate others to the praise of God).4
Cardinal Ratzinger aptly summarized the musical development since the Second Vatican Council as that “grim impoverishment which follows when beauty for its own sake is banished from the Church and all is subordinated to the principle of ‘utility’.”5 With what result? Most congregations, he says with grim accuracy, “endure [it all] with polite stoicism.”6 What a damning analysis, yet how sadly true.
Ratzinger also recalled that Mahatma Gandhi spoke of the three modes of being found in the cosmos: The fish live in the sea and are silent; the animals who inhabit the earth scream and shout; the birds who soar through the heavens sing. He spelled it out in this way: Silence is proper to the sea, shouting to the earth, and singing to the heavens. Man, by nature, ought to participate in all three, yet what so many would-be liturgists have done to our worship is to eliminate silence and to proscribe good, uplifting music, so that contemporary worshipers are left with little to do but scream!7
In grammar school, as the Sisters pushed us to sing with gusto, they would often remind us of St. Augustine’s adage, “Qui cantat bene, bis cantat.” It was not until seventh grade, however, that Sr. Theresa Mary highlighted the adverb in the adage, “He who sings well (bene!), prays twice.”
Sociologists of religion tell us that every religion and culture has always enshrined its fundamental truths and vision in poetry which, nearly always, was likewise sung. And so, Homer gave us his Iliad and Odyssey, as Virgil (in imitation of his Greek forerunner) gave us his Aeneid. That tradition was carried on in the Christian era as well with the Chanson de Roland of France, El Cid of Spain, and Beowulf of England. Yes, it would seem that there is an innate human instinct to put the most important aspects of life to song.
The ancient Hebrews did not fail in this regard, either. One thinks immediately of the numerous canticles (liturgical hymns other than the psalms) which dot the landscape of the Old Testament, like that of Miriam (Ex 15:1-18) or that of the Three Youths in the Furnace (Dn 3:52-88 ). Of course, the Psalter is nothing if not the very hymn book of Israel, which the Church took for her own at the dawn of Christianity and has treasured ever since as the psalms became the “meat and potatoes” of the Divine Office and also figure prominently in Holy Mass. And who could forget the soaring poetry of the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel or the kenosis hymn of St. Paul in the second chapter of his Epistle to the Philippians?
Of all the evangelists, however, none is more given to sacred song than St. Luke. This should not surprise anyone since he – of all the evangelists – gives the most play to women (starting with Our Lady, so that one is tempted to say he is actually the first Mariologist)8 and it is he who constantly highlights the joy that comes from the Holy Spirit. Naturally, then, he leads us in song with four stunningly beautiful canticles – again, unsurprisingly – in the first two chapters of his Gospel, his Infancy Narratives.
Mary responds to Elizabeth’s praise of her as “blessed among women” (1:42) with her hymn of praise, the Magnificat (1:46-55). The doubting priest Zechariah breaks into song at the naming of his son, John the Baptist, in the Benedictus (1:68-79). The annunciation of the birth of the Messiah and Lord to the shepherds ends with the chant of the heavenly hosts, as they cry out the first Gloria in excelsis Deo (2:14). The Nunc Dimittis falls from the lips of the old priest Simeon as he sees both fulfillment and future (2:29-32). The Benedictus, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are sung every day in the Liturgy of the Hours of the Roman Rite at, respectively, Lauds, Vespers and Compline. Anglican and Lutheran liturgical traditions use the same canticles for their comparable hours of the Divine Office, as do the Eastern Churches (both Catholic and Orthodox). Catholics of the Roman Rite, as well as Anglicans and Lutherans, have recourse to the Gloria for festive celebrations; the Eastern Churches sing that canticle every day at Matins.9
In the next three weeks, we shall be prayerfully considering those four canticles of the Third Gospel.
Meanwhile, I would like to encourage readers (especially clergy, pastoral musicians, Catholic school teachers – and parents in their “domestic church”) to share with those committed to their care the vast and rich patrimony of Advent hymnody in Latin and English. Hence, no excuse to sing Christmas carols during Advent.10
2Michael L. Gaudoin-Parker, Heart in Pilgrimage: Meditating Christian Spirituality in the Light of the Eucharistic Prayer (New York: Alba House, 1994), 88.
3Confessions, IX 6, 14.
4Summa Theologica, q 91 a 1 ad 2.
7See: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996), 127.
8Origen notes that the playing out of the drama of salvation begins, in Luke, with two women – Elizabeth and Mary: In his Homilies on Luke (8:1), he observes: “Sin began from the woman and then spread to the man. In the same way, salvation had its first beginnings from women.” This insight from Origen and what Cardinal Newman would call “the triple cord” of Irenaeus, Tertullian and Justin led Newman to conclude that Mary as “the New Eve” is the basis for all Marian doctrine and devotion.
9When ecumenical services are planned (for instance, during the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January), it makes eminently good sense not to fabricate a service but to use a form of prayer which is genuine, namely, the Liturgy of the Hours – held in common among all these faith traditions.
10For example: Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel); Alma Redemtoris Mater (Loving Mother of the Redeemer); Creator Alme Siderum (Creator of the Stars of Night); Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus; Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence; Lift Up Your Heads; Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending; Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming; O Come, Divine Messiah; Once in Royal David’s City; People, Look East; The Advent of Our King; The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came; Wake, Awake for Night Is Flying.
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