Saturday, December 14, 2013

do, re, … ME!

Egocentrism is not my thing, so you could legitimately be wondering why I have spent two weeks talking about the use of first person pronouns in the liturgy.  If you have been around here long enough, you know that the Mass is our most important act of worship, and therefore the most important act in our relationship with God.  You know that what we do at Mass both expresses that relationship, and shapes it.

Therefore the words we use at Mass have an impact on our understanding of God and our relationship to Him.  Because they shape and form both, the prayers and verses are carefully chosen; they are the work of two millennia of discernment and direction by the Church.  The priest cannot change, adjust, tweak, or replace the words in the Missal.  So we must also turn a careful eye to the words of the songs that we add to that sacred script.

Over the past fifty years, Catholics everywhere have embraced the celebration of Mass in their own languages.  They have not only composed new musical settings of the words of the Mass, but also added songs.  Not all of these songs have been good.

In the United States and many other English-speaking lands, the texts of these songs have represented a trend in the wider culture toward self-centeredness.  The characteristic cohort of this time period is widely known as the “Me Generation,” and the songs it gave us bear out that nickname.

One of the types of songs that mark this period is what I call, “Songs About Us.”  Perhaps the most egregious of this genre is the old saw, “Gather Us In,” which is ostensibly addressed to God, but spends much of its time focused on, well, the singing us -- culminating in the dubious assertion, “We have been sung throughout all of hist’ry.”  Another remarkably me-oriented song is the very popular, “Here I Am, Lord.”  Really?  Really?  Is THAT the big news of the moment?  The list goes on and on; examine them.  Is the first person used in the songs the way it is in the actual texts of the Mass?  No.

But worse than that is the other type, the “I Am God Songs.”   Not content to be about us as we are, these songs allow us to speak for God, to speak as God.  “Eagles Wings” is a great hit of the era.  But honestly, which of us will do it – “Raise you up on eagles’ wings,” that is?  Much less hold anyone in the palm of our hand.  What about, “Be Not Afraid?”  I, for one, do not go before you always.  Do you know any earthly person who does?  And I want to be clear about another thing:  I know the Bread of Life; I spend lots of time with the Bread of Life; but I am not the Bread of Life.  So I surely will not raise you or anyone else up on the last day!  Do you know anybody who will?  Who could that be, I wonder? 

Check your favorite songs of the past several decades for these tendencies.   Of course they bring back fond memories; of course they are associated with moments of divine grace in your life – because you sang them at Mass!  God happens at Mass, even when we are singing about ourselves!  You remember that grace, and rightly are happy for it.  But these songs did not help you appreciate or receive that grace.  In fact, I submit that they impaired our understanding of it, and maybe even our reception of it. 

Yes, I say “our” because I lived and prayed with these songs for much of my life too.  I have fond memories of some, even.   But it was always a question in my mind, why are we singing about ourselves, if we are here to worship God?  This fixation with us, this assertion of ourselves in the context of Mass has lead to a confusion, and perhaps even sometimes a substitution, of ourselves for Whom we worship.  Worship, like this column, is not about me.

Monsignor Smith

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