I recently had the golden opportunity of visiting the Holy Land with my family. One of the most profound moments during the trip was when we visited the pit in which Jesus was supposed to have spent the night as a criminal before his trial the next morning. At this holy place, was kept for meditation, the text (as I remember) of Psalm 88. As the speaker began to read this text loudly to our group, I was struck deeply. The resonance between the psalmist’s words and Jesus’ own spiritual and physical condition brought me to an unexplainable state of wonder. I am still in awe as I confront myself with the reality that in his trial, Jesus might have actually used and “borrowed” these words…words once prayed by the psalmist but nevertheless inspired by the Holy Spirit.
God’s word has that power. It transcends time. So, no matter if the psalm was written over 2000 years back…by the power of the Spirit it has the ability to pierce our hearts and interpret, reflect and give voice to our own spiritual realities. There seems to be a great worth in praying the text of the Scripture the way it is.
In light of this, would it not be profitable to have more of “praying straight from scripture” at mass rather than singing hymns which could be said to be “pious reflections on scripture“?
The fact is, our liturgy already makes room for such texts. They are included in what is called the Propers of the Mass
The parts of the mass that are sung could be divided into two major categories – the Ordinary and the Proper.
The Ordinary denotes the unchanging parts of the mass. So, for example, they would include the Kyrie, Gloria, Holy, Lamb of God…etc.
The Proper denotes the changing parts of the mass. The text that is assigned for each day’s liturgy. So Proper for Easter will not be the same as that for Christmas and that for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary time will differ from that for the 4th Sunday. Entrance Chant, Responsorial psalm, Alleluia, Offertory chant, Communion chant…are examples of these changing parts.
A good chart of the ordinary and proper is given here.
Since most are unfamiliar with the Propers, lets look at some examples…
Here are the Entrance, Offertory and Communion chants for Christmas midnight mass.i
Entrance (Ps 2:7, 1-2, 8)
The Lord said unto me: You are my Son, today I have begotten you.
Vs. Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?
Offertory (Ps 95,11)
Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad before the face of the Lord for He cometh
Amidst the splendours of the heavenly sanctuary, from the womb, before the morning star, I have begotten you.
The Proper do really aid us in contemplating the mystery. However in practice one rarely ever hears the Proper. The widespread replacement of 90% of the Proper with hymns, has led people to comment that we only “Sing at mass” we dont “Sing the mass.”
Why did we land up with this lamentable situation? Well, the reasons are many. From ignorance, to language issues, to translation, to musical styles, to resources and so on. Too many people remain uneducated about our rich heritage.
Through this article I have hopefully, atleast partially, eliminated some of the ignorance engulfing liturgical music.
For those who are curious to know as to how we landed up with “any hymn sung anytime” situation, General Instruction of the Roman Missal – 48 does allow some substitution of Proper. However a proper evaluation of our liturgical music would reveal that our current scenario is anything but ordinary (Pardon the pun).
Thankfully there is increasing interest in the Proper. Barriers that I mentioned before are slowly being torn down. At a fundamental level, as the entire Church renews and deepens her faith in the Lord, she is looking for greater authenticity in the liturgy. Pastors and faithful alike are interested in praying the liturgy the way it is. More and more people are fed up of seeing the liturgy become a factory of innovation and are striving towards more organic development, strongly rooted in tradition.
1. Lalemant Propers, CCWatershed, 2013 Antiphon text translations by Solesmes Abbey, licensed in the Creative Commons.