Sacred Music and the Nature of Man

“Faith becoming music is a part of the process of the Word becoming flesh.”

Ratzinger, “The Image of the World and of Man in the Liturgy,” pg. 454

To the Parish Choir

Time is short. Every day brings many more demands and possibilities than we can hope to fulfill. Therefore, we know the importance of remaining “on mission,” putting first things first, and giving due priority to what is essential, not merely urgent. What is the mission of the Church? The Lord gave us a clear mission statement at Jacob’s Well: to worship God “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24). St. Paul, the first theologian, instructed the Roman Church likewise: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God; this is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).

All of us who wish to serve the Church and worship God must then ask ourselves: What is essential to that mission? Naturally, we think first of the sacred liturgy, offered on all the altars of the world. But I am not the only one responsible for that work. Music is an essential part of the liturgy. This is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: far from being “merely an addition and ornamentation,” a nice optional extra, music is essential: it is “itself liturgy” (Ratzinger, pg. 421) Therefore, the work you do here is essential to the mission of the Church.  

Liturgy is founded on the Incarnation: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). The Church’s liturgy “is ordered to this line of movement,” the movement of God who comes down to dwell with man, who “from the Cross … draws everything to himself and carries the flesh—that is, mankind and the entire created world—into God’s eternity” (Ratzinger, 454). 

There have always been those who exalt the spiritual, interior dimension of worship, downplaying what is bodily and exterior. But the Church’s liturgy is full of matter: bread and wine, oil and water and salt, and, yes, human voices raised in song. 

This is no accident. The “spiritual worship” we owe to God is not bloodless, cold, intellectual, for “the incarnation of the Word” is “at the same time the spiritualization of the flesh” (Ratzinger, 455).  All the elements of creation are to be taken up and transformed, spiritualized, by their use in the Church’s liturgy, beginning with our own bodies, which we offer to God in “spiritual worship.”

Our liturgical music must spring from this truth if it is to be true and spiritual worship. As we sing to God, our bodies, our senses, must be spiritualized, lifted up along with our hearts and minds in one integral movement of praise. Liturgical music is not art music. It is not enough too have a good technical performance; we do not sing for applause. Rather, our motivation must be the Psalmist’s: “It is my joy, O God, to praise you with song,” for “only the lover sings.” May we love God more and more each day and so sing to Him with all our hearts, minds, and bodies. 

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