Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why our music is different

Now is the time that you begin to hear Christmas music in the malls and on the radio. Songs of angels and the birth of the promised Savior are mingled with tunes of snowmen, reindeer, and chestnuts. These songs of worship are permitted in our public places because of their effectiveness at stimulating people to purchase things.

Ironically, the only time Christ is mentioned in songs popularly played is the one time of year that it is most obvious that the music we are singing in Church is completely different. It is Advent, and we sing softly and longingly of the One who is to come, our need for salvation, and preparing ourselves to receive Him.

It is the perfect time to reflect on why the music in our church is, and must be, radically different from the music in of the world around us. Some years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI, reflected on why this is so:

In not a few forms of religion, music is ordered to intoxication and ecstasy. The freedom from the limitations of being human … is to be attained through holy madness, through the frenzy of the rhythm and of the instruments. Such music lowers the barriers of individuality and of personality. Man frees himself in it from the burden of consciousness. Music becomes ecstasy, liberation from the ego, and unification with the universe.

It is not hard to see with the Holy Father how this is the root of rock, pop, hip-hop, and much music that is popular today. But he also makes the point that because of this, it is thoroughly opposed to the Christian notion of redemption and of freedom.

He lists several other types of music with which we are all familiar. There is agitation music which animates man for different collective purposes. There is light music which does not wish to say anything but only to break up the burden of silence. I think that the music broadcast for Christmas shopping must be a malignant hybrid of these two types! But finally, Ratzinger identifies something different.

The music that corresponds to the liturgy of the incarnate Christ raised up on the cross lives from another, greater and broader synthesis of spirit, intuition, and sensuous sound. One can say that Western music, from Gregorian chant through the cathedral music and the great polyphony, through the renaissance and baroque music up until Bruckner and beyond, has come from the inner wealth of this synthesis and developed it in the fullness of its possibilities.

This greatness exists only here because it alone was able to … join the spiritual and the profane in an ultimate human unity. The greatness of this music is, for me, the most immediate and the most evident verification of the Christian image of man and of the Christian faith in redemption that history offers us. He who is touched by it knows somehow in his heart that the faith is true.

For this reason, and not only during Advent, the music of our worship is distinct and different from what permeates our secular culture. We yearn for, and rejoice in, the union of the divine and the human that is achieved in Christ Jesus, and made possible for us in Him.

That means that the liturgical music of the Church must be ordered to that integration of human being that appears before us in faith in the Incarnation. Such a redemption is more laborious than that of intoxication. But this labor is the exertion of truth itself. This is the labor of our worship. This is the delight of our souls. O come, O come!

Monsignor Smith

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