Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Announcing the Feast, Jason McFarland

The book just came today but I would like to highly recommend Jason J. McFarland's outstanding new book Announcing the Feast: The Entrance Song in the Mass of the Roman Rite (Liturgical Press, 2012). I'm unaware of any book like it in terms of focus, argument, and evidence. It is engaging and straightforward but clearly the result of many years of in-depth research.

The central point is that the entrance antiphon (or introit) is an integral part of the Roman Rite and should not be casually replaced by something else, such as a favorite hymn with a different text. For most Catholic musicians, this claim will seem to be completely new, even a revelation. He covers the history in detail, with a full look at the historical evidence. He explains the theology behind the entrance antiphon and its musical function. He begins with the major mistake that people tend to make today: choosing the opening song based on the readings alone. This, he argues, is methodologically flawed and even contrary to the instructions for the ritual itself. The Graduale Romanum provides the proper text and the proper music.

Thus does he deal with the core of the musical issue: the centrality of Gregorian chant as the fullest expression of the message and meaning of the entrance. But he is also a scholar of the really existing liturgical environment, so therefore he speaks to the practical issues that every parish faces in dealing with the issue of the introit. Most do not have Gregorian scholas, of course, as ideal as this would be. So McFarland proceeds to spell what he considers to be -- in light of tradition, legislation, existing resources, and parish realities -- viable ways to achieve the goal of singing the entrance proper in the current context.

The manuscript was completed before the Simple English Propers had been printed, but reading the book helps me understand anew just what an achievement the Bartlett book really is. And there are others: Weber, Ford, Rice. McFarland covers some but not at of the existing options, but that is absolutely fine. The purpose of the book is not to provide a full guide to music that you can download or buy. Its purpose is to promote a new way of thinking about the entrance of Mass. It achieves that brilliantly.

The book is significant on its own terms, but it is also interesting to note that McFarland is the assistant editor at the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. He is working in the liturgical vineyards every day, and also every week as a singer for the Basilica of the National Shrine. More credentials: degrees in both music and liturgical studies. All of this heightens the importance of this work.

In talking with many young pastors today, you often notice a tendency to begin the parish musical reform effort by taking on the Offertory or the Communion chant. This is a fine thing, to be sure, but more recently I've come to be persuaded that this approach might signal the wrong priority: the choice of a more solemn mood (which is fine) over the re-invigoration of the integrity of the ritual itself (which is a better way to begin). Announcing the Feast makes a major contribution toward helping us understand just how crucial is the entrance to the Mass itself.

On a personal note, I warn you that if you are a liturgy geek like I am, this book is not something you want to have arrive in your mail box while you have other things to do. I found myself wildly distracted by its contents and argument, and nearly unable to put it down.