This weekend, I was reading an article about the future of “music delivery” -- you know, what comes after iTunes and Pandora. It predicted a near-future combination of technology and tunes that would track one’s history, monitor bodily indicators, note the time of day, weather, and all sorts of circumstances; then instantly produce a stream of music catered to take you to where even you hadn’t realized you wanted to go. Pretty cool and scary tech, isn’t it?
It made me think of how different that is in both intention and execution from sacred music, which is not personalized, but rather is part of a larger reality that is the ancient worship of the entire Church. Rather than manipulate or reflect our mood, it manifests the mystery of the living God, making it possible for us to participate, in prayer and praise, wonder and awe.
The power of music celebrating the Birth of Jesus is so great that it is the only sacred music broadcast in the popular media. Some of the most robust singing in our church is heard in Christmas carols and hymns, as will be proven abundantly: you will have a chance to sing your favorite Christmas songs at every Mass here for the Nativity of Our Lord. But you will also have two opportunities to enhance your experience of Holy Mass with the Divine Office, offering more Christmas music you know and love, but also much more.
On Christmas Eve, come at 8:30 for Vespers (Evening Prayer) before our 9:00 Solemn Mass. Or come at 11:30 for the Vigil, to be drawn into the glory revealed at Midnight Mass.
Along with the Mass, the Divine Office, or “Liturgy of the Hours,” is the other pillar of the Church’s liturgy. It is rooted in the Psalms, the prayers that Jesus Himself prayed. Like the Mass, it has a set structure that combines elements that are constant or recurring, with elements that are specific to the day being celebrated. One may pray it alone – solo – using just a book known as the breviary; or a community can pray it in common, out loud, singing certain portions. All clergy and religious pray the proper “hour” at five or more times each day. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has encouraged lay people to take up this prayer as well.
The first “hour” of the Divine Office is known as the Office of Readings, or Matins; I always pray it first thing in the morning. In many monasteries, however, the community rises during the night to pray it together, in which case it is also called a Vigil.
Because the birth of Jesus occurred during the night, Christmas has not only a night Office, but also a Mass to be celebrated In the Night. The Church envisions the two being united, even in parish celebrations.
The shepherds who came in the night were the first witnesses of the newborn Jesus, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, the Word become flesh dwelling among us. The liturgy during the night gives us the opportunity to share this experience, especially with marvelous sacred music. The music is quieter, almost hushed in reverence and awe; and the ancient texts lead us to wonder at the depths of the mystery offered to us in this child.
The world in silent stillness lay, as the song goes, when the marvel of our salvation lay revealed. The worship of the Church in the middle of this long, holy night uses ancient words and beautiful songs to pull us into the mystery of God become helpless for our sake, a child lying in the straw. We are filled with holy joy. No technology will ever accomplish that.