Sing a New Song with Your Lives
by Bishop James D. Conley, S.T.L.
It is good to be here with you today to celebrate the Eucharist in honor of your patron, Saint Cecilia. I’m also happy to honor your vocation as sacred music ministers.
As you well know, the spirit of our Catholic liturgy is the spirit of music and song. To give glory and praise to the living God, human speech alone can only take us so far. Words alone can never be enough. We need to pay Him homage with songs of joy and with instruments made for praise.
Saint Augustine said that our faith in Christ puts a new song on our lips and in our hearts. He writes: “Only the new man learns [this song] – the man restored from his fallen condition through the grace of God and now sharing in the new covenant, that is, the Kingdom of heaven.”1 That is one reason why our liturgy is made to be sung – the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, the Pater Noster.
And because of the intimate relationship between sacred music, the liturgy, and Catholic identity, I thought this would be an appropriate gathering to talk about the changes that are being planned for the Mass in the English-speaking world.
As you know, in Advent 2011 we will begin using a new edition (the Third Typical Edition as it is called) and a new English translation of the Roman Missal. And as some of you might also know, Archbishop Chaput has given me the task of overseeing the implementation of these changes here in the Archdiocese of Denver.
Let me say this: I’m very excited about the changes that are coming and about the opportunities we have for an authentic liturgical renewal. Practically speaking, implementing the new Missal means that all of us will be learning new translations of long-familiar prayers and responses. This makes it a perfect moment in the life of the Church for a new “eucharistic catechesis”.
The Second Vatican Council gave us a great gift with the Novus Ordo. The Mass in the vernacular has opened up new pathways to holiness and transcendence, and has given us new strength and confidence for our mission of building the Kingdom of God.
But I think we can also recognize that the way in which the reform of the Mass was carried out after the Second Vatican Council unfortunately has occasioned a lot of silliness and confusion. The problem has never been the Novus Ordo. The reformed liturgy that the Council gave us is beautiful, glorious, and empowering. The problem has been that even good people have misinterpreted the Council badly.
I don’t want to revisit the errors of the past or tell liturgical horror stories (and we all have them!) But in order to understand the context for this new edition of the Missal, it is important that we understand some of the errors that have crept into our liturgical thinking since the Council.
To illustrate the basic problem, I want to return to the mid-1960s. Many of you know the background of the Servant of God Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy was a true radical in the best sense of the word, a prophet of the Church’s social teaching. She was also a devout, traditional, and saintly Catholic.
One day, while Dorothy was away, a young enthusiastic priest came to celebrate Mass at the Catholic Worker house. And he used a coffee cup as a chalice. When Dorothy came home and heard about it, she was scandalized at the sacrilege – that a common household item had been used to consecrate the Precious Blood of Christ. The story goes that she found a trowel and dug a deep hole in the backyard behind the house. Then she kissed the coffee cup and buried it.
Later she wrote about the incident. She said this:
I am afraid I am a traditionalist, in that I do not like to see Mass offered with a large coffee cup as a chalice.… I feel with [Cardinal] Newman that my faith is founded on a creed … “I believe in God, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. And of all things visible and invisible, and in His only Son Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
I believe too that when the priest offers Mass at the altar, and says the solemn words, “This is my body, this is my blood,” that the bread and the wine truly become the body and blood of Christ, Son of God, one of the three divine person.
I believe in a personal God. I believe in Jesus Christ, true God and true man. And intimate, oh how most closely intimate we may desire to be, I believe we must render most reverent homage to Him who created us and stilled the sea and told the winds to be calm, and multiplied the loaves and fishes. He is transcendent and He is immanent. He is closer than the air we breathe and just as vital to us.2
In these beautiful words, Dorothy Day here puts her finger on the basic issue. We cannot separate liturgy from creed. Our law of prayer is our law of belief. Lex orandi, lex credendi.
We believe in a God who is transcendent. Yet through the pure gift of His grace, this God has humbled Himself to share in our humanity, so that we might share in His divinity. This is what is going on in the offering of the Mass. The mission of Christ’s incarnation continues in every celebration of the sacred liturgy. In the Mass, God stoops down to lift us up to His level. He makes it possible for us, though we are but creatures, to sing and worship with the angels, in praise of our Creator.
A lot of the liturgical renewal since the Council has got this dynamic exactly backwards. And that’s because a lot of the so-called renewal started from exactly the wrong place.
Pope Benedict XVI has described the problem this way. He has said that too many people interpreted Vatican II with a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”. Now “hermeneutic” is a big word that means “way of interpreting”. What the pope is saying is that some people interpreted Vatican II as a decisive break – a rupture and rejection of all that had gone before in the Church. I remember in the 1980s when I was in the seminary some of my professors would refer to the “pre-Vatican II” Church and the “post-Vatican II” Church as if these were two totally different Churches.
In reality, the right way to understand the Council is with a “hermeneutic of continuity”. In other words, we should interpret the Council’s reforms not as a break with the past, but as a natural, organic and integral development of the tradition that has been handed down to us from the apostles.3
I say all of this by way of background and context. Because I believe that in this new edition of the Missal, the Church is trying to reassert the continuity of the Novus Ordo with the ancient liturgy of the Church.
In particular, I see in the changes a real effort to restore the transcendent dimension of the liturgy and to reassert the proper balance between God’s transcendence and His immanence – so that the Mass always reveals and makes real our communion and intimacy with God.
From the start of this new translation of the Mass, we sense a new attitude, a new focus on our relationship with God. With the new edition of the Missal, every time the priest proposes, “The Lord be with you”, the people will respond, “And with your spirit”. Now, we know that this is simply the literal translation of the Latin that has been there all along – et cum spiritu tuo.
In Scripture the expression “The Lord be with you” is a summons to recognize that we live in God’s presence always.4 We need a keen sensitivity to this to celebrate the Eucharist. Because in the Eucharist, our Lord truly comes to us. In the vision of the heavenly liturgy found in the Book of Revelation, Christ says: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”5
This is what is happening in every Mass here on earth. The early Christians prayed in Aramaic, marana tha, which means “Our Lord, come!” This prayer had a dual meaning. It was a prayer for His parousia, His second coming to judge the living and the dead. Yet we also find it in the earliest Christian liturgies as a prayer for His coming to us in His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.6
This tells us that every celebration of the Eucharist anticipates and gives us a foretaste of our Lord’s coming in glory. As Saint Paul said, in words we still pray in the Mass: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the chalice, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”7
So we need a readiness to listen for Christ’s voice, a readiness to open up the doors of our hearts to Him. We also need a greater appreciation for who we are in the eyes of God.
That’s why the change in the people’s response, although just one word, is so significant. “And also with you” is too pedestrian, too casual for the occasion. It doesn’t do justice to the fullness of who we are – and the truth about what we come together to do in the Eucharist.
So who are we, really? The term “people of God” became fashionable after the Council. But I’ve always felt that the accent was made to fall too much on the “people” side of the equation. It can lend itself to being a kind of populist catch-phrase for those who want to level-out important and necessary distinctions between the clergy and the laity.
But the biblical truth and power of the expression lies in the genitive. We are a people of God. Remember those powerful lines from the prologue to John’s Gospel that were read at the end of every Mass in the old rite – Christ gave us the power “to become children … born not of blood nor the will of the flesh ... but of God.”8
That’s who we are in God’s eyes. The love of God, the Holy Spirit, has been poured into our hearts in baptism so that we bear witness in our spirit that we are His sons and daughters.9 We are made in the image of God and renewed in the image of His Son, who is the perfect image and likeness of God.10
That’s why Saint Paul so often said in his letters, “The Lord be with your spirit”.11 He was taking the measure of our great dignity.
Our God is spirit. And we are His children, born of water and the Spirit. And we are made to worship our Father in spirit and in truth. So it is fitting that we recognize the Lord’s presence among us, “And with your spirit”.12
I know that for you, as choir singers and sacred musicians, the changes in the Gloria raise immediate practical issues in terms of how to adapt the new text for the liturgy. I hope this challenge excites you and inspires you. The changes get us closer to the theological richness and the poetry of the original Latin.
And I find a passionate intensity and musical cadence in the lines we will now sing – “We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory!”
These rhythmic words remind us that we are singing the song of angels, the song sung by the heavenly host on the night of Christ’s birth. We are singing a song of the incarnation – the new creation, the coming of the Word made flesh. Not only that. As when we sing the Sanctus, here too we are reminded that our Mass is a singing with the angels.
This reminds us that every Catholic liturgy is a cosmic liturgy. The liturgy we celebrate here on earth is always a participation in the everlasting liturgy of heaven, in which all creation glorifies the Creator. This truth, I’m afraid, has been lost or obscured in the years since the Council. We have a great chance now to reclaim it.
Pope Benedict has said, “Liturgy presupposes … that the heavens have been opened; only if this is the case, is there liturgy at all.” This is the truth we need to recover.
Christ has rent the heavens and come down to us. Again He has been lifted up and carried into heaven to take His seat at the right hand of Power. By His incarnation and again by His ascension, the dividing walls between heaven and earth, the human and the divine, have forever been torn down.
By His incarnation and ascension our prayers here on earth can now rise like incense to mingle with the prayers of the saints. Our voices can join with the songs of the angels. And, as we pray in the oldest of our Eucharistic prayers, Eucharistic Prayer I, our gifts can be borne by the hands of His holy angel to His altar on high in the sight of His divine majesty.
The point is that the liturgy is going on always and everywhere before we ever walk through the church door. When we celebrate the Eucharist, the pope says, we are “entering into the liturgy of the heavens that has always been taking place. Earthly liturgy is liturgy because and only because it joins what is already in process, the greater reality”.13
To drive this point home, our new Mass translation replaces the mundane affirmation – “Happy are those who are called to His supper” – with a confession of faith worthy of the cosmic character of our celebration.
We are not “happy”. We are blessed. We have not been called to any ordinary meal. No, we have been invited to the great banquet of our heavenly King, the wedding feast of His Son, our Redeemer.
Accordingly, we will now pray: “Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb”. Again, the prayer has been there all along in the Latin. The language is an almost literal quotation from the revelation of the heavenly liturgy given to Saint John in the Book of Revelation.14
In the holy Mass heaven reaches down to earth and earth reaches up to heaven. We are worshipping not only in our local church, but in the precincts of Mount Zion, “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and [with] innumerable angels in festal gathering, and [with] the Church of first-born who are enrolled in heaven.”15
That is how the early Christians understood their worship. And it’s time for us to reclaim that same consciousness. We need to come to our worship filled with this same awe for the mystery of God’s love and His covenant plan.
This brings us into the heart of the mysterium fidei, the mystery of faith. What are we doing at Mass? And why are we doing the things we do? Saint Augustine said that “[God] is worshipped by the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”.16 That’s of course true. But that begs the question. What are we praising? What are we giving thanks for? Why do we do it in the form of sacrifice?
Saint Thomas Aquinas said that worship is essentially thanksgiving for the beneficium creationis, “the gift of being created”.17 We worship God because the world He has given us is good, and because it is good for us to be alive. We worship God because everything we have, we have from God; and because everything we hope for is His alone to give.
That’s a glorious way for us to think about the Eucharist. We know that the word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word that means “thanksgiving”. In the Eucharist, we give thanks for the gift of creation, but also for the gifts of the new creation – the victory over death made possible by Christ’s sacrifice, by the gift of His body and blood, offered on the cross for us and for the life of the world. The Eucharist is the Festival of the Resurrection.
In his book on the liturgy In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, Joseph Pieper has written that:
The Mass is called and is eucharistia.… The “occasion” for which it is performed and which it comports with, is nothing other than the salvation of the world and of life as a whole.… Christian worship sees itself as an act of affirmation that expresses itself in praise, glorification, and thanksgiving for the whole of reality and existence.18
In the Eucharist, we thank God for having shown us that His love is stronger than death. But why does our worship take the form of sacrifice? And what does sacrifice really mean?
Here the changes in the Eucharistic Rite help us to penetrate more deeply into the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I think we will find here again that the changes intend to restore a dimension of the liturgy that has been lost or obscured since the Council. The holy Mass is our participation in the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. In our worship we join our self-offering to the self-offering of Christ on the cross. We need to reclaim this sacrificial character of our worship.
To underline this, in the new edition of the Missal, the priest will say different words at the Preparation of the Gifts. His prayer will go like this:
With humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God.
This prayer, again, is not new. It has been at this point in the liturgy all along. It comes from the Book of Daniel. It is from the prayer of Azariah, one of the young men thrown into the fiery furnace by the Babylonian dictator.19
Now more faithfully translated, it contains for us the sum of the biblical doctrine of sacrifice. The prophets and psalmists had reached the conclusion that God does not desire animal sacrifices, burnt offerings of rams and bulls. What God desires is a humble spirit and a contrite heart.20 He wants all the strength of our bodies; all of our intellect and will; and all of the passions of our hearts. He wants all of us, and He wants us dedicated wholly to doing His will for our lives.
This is what we are promising when we lift up our hearts to the Lord in the Mass. We are called to make our own lives “eucharistic” – a spiritual offering, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
Blessed John Henry Newman put it beautifully in one of his meditations:
My Lord, I offer You myself … as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. You have died for me, and I in turn make myself over to You. I am not my own. You have bought me. I will, by my own act and deed, complete the purchase.21
That should be our prayer, too. That we might become the Eucharist we celebrate. This is the true spirit of the liturgy. And this is the spirit that the new edition of the Roman Missal hopes to restore and to foster.
Before I conclude, I want to dwell for a moment on this need for a renewed eucharistic consciousness.
As I was gathering my thoughts for this talk last month, I woke up one Sunday to hear the news that about 60 of our Catholic brothers and sisters in Iraq had been massacred that day by Islamic terrorists while they were gathered to celebrate the Sunday Eucharist.
This tragedy puts our conversation today into some perspective. We are still a Church of martyrs. Catholics are still being persecuted every day for their faith in the Creed, for their faith in the Eucharist.
I was struck as I read the news accounts about those Iraqi Catholics. They made their final moments an eloquent testimony to the eucharistic spirituality that we have been talking about this afternoon. They died as they must have lived – “eucharistically”.
Their persecutors broke into the Mass and destroyed icons and stained glass windows; they desecrated the tabernacle. All the while, the worshippers could be heard praying for themselves and for their persecutors.
One of the two priests executed in that massacre (a third priest was critically wounded) was shot down while he was holding a crucifix and standing between the killers and the people, pleading for their lives. One woman begged the gunman to kill her but to spare the life of her grandson. Mercilessly, the gunman shot the boy through the head and then turned the gun on her.
Another woman survived somehow, lying in a pool of her own blood for hours while the carnage continued all about her. She told a reporter later: “I thought I would make it, but even if I didn’t I was in church, and it would have been ok.”
In these simple words, in the witness of these humble people, we see the eucharistic faith that each one of us is called to. We may never be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for our faith. But we are called each day to live by the Eucharist we receive, and to make our lives an acceptable sacrifice that is pleasing to the Lord.
I began our time together with a quote from Saint Augustine. Let me conclude by finishing that quote. It is really a prayer for all of us:
Let us sing a new song, not with our lips but with our lives.22
Thank you for your attention this afternoon. I look forward to our conversation.
1 The Liturgy of the Hours, 4:1576 (Nov. 22 – Feast of St. Cecilia).
2 Dorothy Day, “On Pilgrimage”, The Catholic Worker (March 1966), in Praying in the Presence of the Lord with Dorothy Day, ed. David Scott (Our Sunday Visitor, 2002), 93–94; compare Gary Wills, Bare Ruined Choirs (Doubleday, 1973), 67.
3 See Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia Offering Them His Christmas Greetings (December 22, 2005).
4 See I Chron. 22:11,16; II Thess. 3:16.
6 I Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20; Didache 10:6.
10 Rom. 8:29; II Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; compare Col. 3:10.
11 See II Tim. 4:22; Gal. 6:18; Phil. 4:23.
13 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today (Crossroad, 1997), 129, 133.
15 Heb. 12:22–23. The word translated here as “Church” is often translated “assembly”. The Greek, however, is ecclesia.
16 Saint Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter, chap. 13, 22.
17 Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, pt. 1a-2ae, q. 100, art. 5, reply obj. 2; compare Joseph Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (St. Augustine’s, 1999 ), 48.
18 Pieper, In Tune with the World, 38.
19 Compare Dan. 3:16–17 (RSVCE).
20 See for example, Isa. 57:15; Mic. 6:6–8; Pss. 40:6–8; 50:14–15; 52:17; compare Heb. 10:5, 10.
21 Cardinal John Henry Newman, Meditations and Devotions (Roman Catholic Books, n.d.), 82.
22 The Liturgy of the Hours, 4:1576 (Nov. 22 – Feast of Saint Cecilia).
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