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Monday, March 17, 2014

The Beauty of the Transfiguration

This past Sunday, the Church presented us with the account of the Transfiguration, wherein we read of Jesus' giving the apostles Sts. Peter, James and John, a glimpse into his divinity while preparing them for the Passion and Death He was to endure in Jerusalem.

While both options of the Introit speak of the significance of the feast, the second option (shown above) reminds us of the beauty of the Transfiguration.  It speaks of seeking the countenance of the Lord, beseeching Him not to turn His face from the seeker.

This is a beautiful imagery.  Ancient Israel knew that God had no body, so to speak, but, she believed that her Lord had a face.  Moses, after all, spoke to the Lord face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.  In the psalms, David exhorts us to seek the face of God and he beseeches the Lord not to hide His face from him.

In the Mystery of the Incarnation, Ancient Israel receives the opportunity for which she has longed since time immemorial: she finally gets to gaze upon the face of God in the person of Christ Jesus.  He is the fairest of the sons of men.  He is the pinnacle of beauty itself.

The music that the Church gives us certainly fits the mystery of the Transfiguration.  St. Peter gives voice to the near ecstasy that he and his fellow apostles are experiencing when they see Christ taking on a dazzling appearance as He gives them a glimpse of His divinity.  The Introit shown above expresses the awe and wonderment of this most august display, drawing us into the mystery with Sts. Peter, James and John.

The Communion antiphon, with its corresponding psalm, further elaborates on this theme:

"Tell no one about the vision you have seen until the Son of Man has risen from the dead" reminds us of the admonition that Christ gave his apostles.  Psalm 45, the corresponding verse to the antiphon, sings the praises of the beauty of the Lord, further echoing the joy that St. Peter experienced.  "My heart overflows with noble words.  To the king I address the song I have made."  These words offer praise to the beauty of the divine majesty of God.

The Prayer over the People that the celebrant recites at the end of the Mass brings this point home:

Bless your faithful, we pray, O Lord,
with a blessing that endures for ever,
and keep them faithful
to the Gospel of your Only Begotten Son,
so that they may always desire and at last attain
that glory whose beauty he showed in his own Body,
to the amazement of his Apostles.

Sadly, though, the songs normally used by parishes for this particular occasion (and others throughout the Church's liturgical year) seem to demonstrate a disconnect between the liturgy and the music.  Not a few parishes, for example, used "Beyond the Days" a contemporary Lenten song, as the entrance hymn and then "Hosea" as the offertory, followed by a modern setting of the "The Lord is My Light" and then "I am the Light of the World."  None of these songs capture the sobriety and the solemnity of the Lenten season, let alone the nature of the day's liturgy.

The Church gives us the Propers, the liturgical music for the Mass.  The Propers are not some randomly chosen set of pieces that sound okay.  These are sacred chants that go hand in hand with the prayers of the Roman Missal.  This is the Church's default liturgical music.  The four-hymn sandwich that many parishes commonly use actually falls into the fourth category of music that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal allows.  It is optional, but, it is not the default.  Unfortunately, publishing companies eager to promote their own composers and compositions neglect to include the propers.  Unless parish music directors know that such music exists, they are more than likely going to slavishly follow the suggestions put forth in OCP's Today's Liturgy or whatever GIA has suggested in its musical program.

Nonetheless, for those parishes that opt to go with the Propers, the tone is quite different.  As soon as the bell rings and the chanting to accompany the entrance procession begins, one realizes that something totally Other is happening.  The chant sets a sacred tone to the Mass.  The faithful can follow along the words, praying with the one who is chanting the Introit and its accompanying psalm, and begin to draw themselves into the beauty of the sacred mysteries that are about to unfold before them.

This is what one means when the phrase "singing the Mass" is used.  This is the real meaning of "sung prayer."  The Propers allow us to experience a glimpse of the beauty called for in the last prayer of the Mass for the Second Sunday of Lent, not only for that day, but for every liturgy we pray.

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