Tuesday, 23 October 2007

More on the "voice" in hymnody

My first commandment for choosing songs for singing at Mass is "Is it focused on God?". After all, the first commandment in the bible and catechism is “I am the LORD your God—you shall have no other gods before me.”

The protestant reformer John Calvin wrote at least one true thing: The human heart is a factory for idols. And the greatest idol in the modern age is the self. The Achilles Heel of the vernacular liturgy which arose from the post-Vatican II reforms (celebrated by a priest facing his “audience”, and even sometimes with the people facing one another around a central “table”) is this: it is frightfully easy (and almost irresistibly tempting) to transform it into an event that is “about us” or which “celebrates our community” rather than which is “about God” and which “celebrates our Maker and Redeemer”.

The rite of the Mass itself (when followed faithfully) is fairly resistant to this temptation. But parishes have been given virtually free reign to chose whatever songs they wish to sing during the liturgy, and these songs often undermine the true focus and intention of the Christian worship.

Therefore we ask of any song we intend to sing: Is it a song about or addressed to God (rather than a song about or addressed to ourselves)?

Two types of song focusing on God:

a) Songs of prayer: are songs addressed to God which may express adoration, petition or thanksgiving. One should be able to use such a hymn as a prayer when the text is taken without the music. Gather is not highly endowed with good examples of such hymns in the Eucharistic department.
Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy (GA 73)
Lord, to whom shall we go (GA 189)

b) Songs of praise: are songs addressed to “others” (the assembled congregation? the world?) proclaiming the attributes, words and actions of God (sometimes in the form of a story) and calling them to join in our worship (sometimes as an exhortation).
Taste and see the goodness of the Lord (GA 33)
Let all mortal flesh keep silence (GA 190),
An upper Room Did Our Lord Prepare (GA 187),
Gift of finest Wheat (GA 191)
Christians, let us love one another (GA 206)

On the other hand there are songs that focus upon ourselves rather than God. These songs are very unhealthy spiritually and liturgically, because they are a type of idolatry.
Song of the Body of Christ (GA 200)
Bring forth the Kingdom (Marty Haugen, GA 478)

Some songs, though addressed to God, are almost entirely about who we are and what we are doing—telling God what marvellous folk we are, rather than praising him for his salvation.
Gather us in (GA 526)

Worst of all are songs that put God’s/Christ’s words to us in our mouths to be sung as songs to him. Such songs are liturgically dysfunctional. We sing to God/Christ, pretending to be God/Christ singing to us. These are likely to have resulted from the fact that the Council encouraged new compositions to be written based on the Scriptures. The biblical passages which are most appealing are those in which God/Christ addresses his people with words of promise. The problem is that the composers have failed to internalise and represent these passages as songs of praise or prayer as our response to God for these gracious promises.
Our Supper Invitation (GA 202)
I am the Bread of Life (GA 204)
Take and Eat (GA 198)
Take and Eat (GA 201)
Eat this Bread (Taize, GA 205)

Some of these songs could be easily be converted into prayers by addressing them to God or into praise by addressing them to others.

eg. I am the bread of life could be

You are the bread of life
whoever comes to you shall not hunger,
all who believe in you,
they shall live forever,
they shall live forever.


He is the bread of life
whoever comes to him shall not hunger
if you believe in him
you shall live forever,
you shall live forever.

eg. Eat this bread could be:

Eat this bread, drink this cup, come to him and never be hungry.
Eat this bread, drink this cup, come to him and you shall not thirst.

If the chorus addresses God, but the verses are written in the ‘voice’ of God rather than the people, it may be preferable to have the people sing the chorus only and a cantor or soloist to sing the verse, thus acting as God addressing the assembly.
eg. Taste and See God’s Love (GA 203).

Note that some songs (especially psalms) in Gather Australia have been altered to fit the demands of so-called “non-sexist” language. In extreme cases, this means avoiding the masculine pronoun for God. Since this is difficult to do in songs of praise which speak to others about God, many have been altered from songs of praise addressed to others to songs of prayer addressed to God. This changes the function of the song.
The Magnificat (GA 15)

We do sometimes use songs that are addressed as prayers to Mary and the Saints. This is acceptable—but such songs are not “worship” or “adoration”, but acts of veneration.


Pawel said...

I do not think the songs that put God's words in people's mouth
must be liturgically dysfunctional.

One example of such a song in liturgical context are the Good Friday's improperia:

Another is God's voice in many of the psalms of the Office. (This is especially interesting with the sudden change of speaking subject, in Psalm 32:7-8).

Can you get more liturgical than those?

In my opinion there is nothing wrong with singing God's words as long as the singers remember whose words they are singing.

Schütz said...

In a discussion with Richard Connolly (an Australian Catholic composer of great renown) both these examples came up. However, we decided that the Improperia was in fact not a congregational hymn but an series of antiphons usually in the mouth of the choir addressing the congregation. With regard to the psalms, they often have the voice of God speaking, but this is always couched in a framework of the voice of the psalmist (no psalm has only God speaking). I would compare it to a song such as "I heard the voice of Jesus say".

tiger said...