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Monday, March 31, 2014

Liturgical Blindness

Yesterday, the Church marked the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday, as it is properly called.  Laetrae means "rejoice".  Wetb are more than at the half-way point in our Lenten journey.

The music that the Church gives us, the Introit, captures this spirit of rejoicing most eloquently.  We rejoice because we know that the hour of our redemption is near.  "Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and gather round all you who love her; rejoice in gladness, after having been in sorrow; exult and be replenished with the consolation flowing from her motherly bosom."  The corresponding psalm, Psalm 122, speaks of rejoicing when being told "Let us go to the house of the Lord."

The readings echo this joy, as we read about the anointing of the young shepherd David as the new King of Israel.  The failed reign of King Saul led to the hope that David would bring. God saw into David's heart, more deeply than Samuel could ever imagine.   Although David would eventually fall into sin many times, he loved God and knew that God loved him.  That is why he was a man after God's own heart.

The Gospel reading, taken from St. John's account, presented us with the story of Jesus' healing of the man born blind.  In his homily, a priest friend of mine observed that ancient Israel was on to something when it equated illness with sin.  Prior to the Fall, man did not know sickness and death.  After the Fall, Adam and his descendants (that is to say, all of us), fell prey to disease, illness, the aging process and, finally, death.  However, while Ancient Israel equated sickness and disease with death, Jesus pointed out that the man who was born blind did not suffer from his blindness because of sin (Ancient Israel believed that one could sin even in the womb). Jesus said that "the works of God might be made visible" through the blind man.

Jesus spits into the ground and forms clay with his saliva.  Sound familiar?  "In the beginning" is how both Genesis and St. John begin their biblical accounts.  The same God who formed Adam from the clay of the earth now refashions, recreates, the eyes of the man born blind with the clay He has formed with His own saliva.  Then, he sends the man to wash in the pool of Siloam (the word means Sent).  The One who is Sent from the Father is the one who sends the blind man forth.

Now cured, the man experiences something similar to what the Samaritan woman had during her encounter with Jesus.  Both of these encounters have something to do with water.  Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink; Jesus sends the blind man to Siloam to wash the clay off of his eyes.  Both the Samaritan woman and the man born blind experience a profound change and a progressive recognition of who Jesus really is.  They both call him a prophet and then, as their experience of Him deepens, the Samaritan woman calls him the Christ and the formerly blind man bows down to worship Jesus.

As profound as both of these encounters are, somehow, we lose the rich meanings in our liturgies when we choose substandard music.  The Church, as I have often written, gives us the sacred music that is most appropriately conveys what we have just read.  In the case of Laetare Sunday, she provides us with a Communion Antiphon that brings home the point:

Simple English Propers Fourth Sunday of Lent-Communion Antiphon Cycle A

"The Lord made some clay with his spittle, and he spread it over my eyes; and I went forth, I washed myself, I began to see, and I put my faith in God," so we chant in the Communion Antiphon.  The corresponding psalm is Psalm 27:  "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life; whom should I dread.  There is one thing I ask of the Lord, on this do I seek, to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord, to inquire at his Temple."

In his healing of the man born blind, Jesus fulfills the man's deepest longings.  Ironically, because the man professed his faith in Jesus, the Pharisees expel him from the synagogue, but the man finds the true Temple, Christ, and with his physical eyes and with the eyes of his soul, he is able to "gaze on the beauty of the Lord" and "inquire at his Temple."

Sadly, what did most parishes sing this weekend?  If your parish is anything like mine, you probably heard "Amazing Grace".  Music directors justify their selection of this Calvinist song on the basis of one line, "I once was blind, but now I see" as the reason why they believe this song fits the bill.  Sadly, they ignore the fact that the Protestant hymn extols the notion that grace is received the hour one "first believes", something that goes squarely against Catholic doctrine.  Just because one line makes that one reference, that does not make the song suitable for use.  Just because OCP recommends it as the song du joir, does not mean that it should be used.  As Pope Paul VI observed, "not everything is fit to cross the threshold" of liturgical use.

Probably the worst argument that I heard against using the Propers (and even a simple chant such as the Attende Domine) was that "the music would work better if we had a grand building with flying buttresses, not in a modern building like ours."  What does architecture have to do with anything?  The early Church was chanting in the catacombs.  Chant reverberates through Bernini's arms in St. Peter's Square during outdoor Papal Masses. Even the most modern of Church buildings is still conducive to chant.

The other nonsensical argument that was thrown at me was that "chant is not part of our parish culture."  this does not make any sense.  Our culture is the Universal Church.  We conform ourselves to the Church.  We conform our culture to the Church's, not the other way around.

The way the music was, one could hardly tell if we were in the Lenten season.  The only thing Lenten were  that the Gloria and the Alleluia were omitted and that the celebrant wore violet (would have loved rose but that is another story). Sadly, if this keeps up, the youth choir will never experience what it is to fully enter into the mystery of the Lenten season.  They will not understand that during Lent, we take on a more sober approach, reminding ourselves that this is a penitential season.  I weep not only for myself, but for a generation that will not understand the importance of the Church's liturgical seasons.

It is not enough to know how to read music (whether it's Gregorian or modern notation).  It is just as important, perhaps, if not, more important, to understand the Church's liturgical theology and teaching.  Bad music in the Mass leads to bad liturgy and this can result in bad theology, more often than not.

The viewpoints expressed to me I find to be examples of liturgical blindness.  It's not necessarily that person's fault, nor do I blame the music director.  The problem is that we spend more time slavishly following what a publishing house suggests instead of picking up the Church's liturgical books and examining what she has already given us to use.  We become blind to the beauty of the Church's liturgical seasons and we fail to see and experience the rich treasures that the Church offers us.

At some point, maybe the music directors and choirs need to go the liturgical Siloam and be cleansed.

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