Friday, January 16, 2015

Singing the GIRM

One of the many ephemeral phases of liturgical music theory during the second half of the 20th century--phases that flowed in on one another's ebbs like waves upon the shore--was the one that a friend calls "Singing the GIRM."

Under this paradigm, it was of vital importance that at each layer of the 4-hymn sandwich, we would all note in song the liturgical action. At offertory, for example, we sang songs about the offering of bread and wine, and about our offering of ourselves.
Take our bread, we ask You. Take our hearts, we love you. Take our lives, O Father, we are Yours, we are Yours. 
All that we have, and all that we offer, comes from a heart both frightened and free. Take what we bring now, and give what we need: all done in His name.
A shorter-lived example of this phase occurred in the Recessional hymns that described the meaning of recessing.
The Mass is ended, all go in peace.We shall diminish, and Christ increase. We take Him with us where e'er we go, that through our actions, His life may show. 
Go forth among the people. See men of every nation. With the gift of faith He gave, tell them how He came to save. Tell them how He came to bring salvation.
Communion was celebrated by songs of sharing and eating and caring, etc. That wave formed a tidepool that lingers still on our shores, as did the later idea of the "gathering hymn."

The element that seems usually missing from these texts is the very important idea of why we would do all these things.

There are parallels to the Gathering Hymn in Scripture. The Church in fact perennially uses the greatest of these in the Liturgy of the Hours, as the invitatory Psalm 95.
Come, (it sings), let us bow down. (why?) "The Lord is God, the mighty God, the great King over all the gods. He holds in His hands the depths of the earth, and the highest mountains as well. He made the sea; it belongs to Him. The dry land, too, for it was formed by His hands."
Why worship? Because we, and everything that is, are His creatures.

A different kind of Gathering Psalm is in the Psalter, the Psalms of Ascent. These would have been sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem.
Why? "For Israel's law it is, there to praise the Lord's name. In it are set up judgment seats: seats for the house of David."
See the difference? The reason we "go to the Lord's House" is spelled out in the Psalms. It's not because "new light is streaming" or because we bring "our tears and our dreaming," and it's certainly not so that we can "build a house where love can dwell." It's because of our relationship with God. In Israel's case, this covenant was expressed in the giving, and the fulfillment, of the Law. In our case, Jesus said, "Do this in memory of me."

I really believe that focusing on that relationship is the key to ending the liturgical feeling of restlessness and contingency that still plagues many parishes, the sense that we are putting things together in our own weekly skit instead of worshipping the living God.

The propers constantly sing about the relationship we have with God our Creator, Savior, Redeemer, the One on Whom we can rely, the One in Whom we hope. Rather than narrate the liturgical action--which surely can speak for itself--our singing ought to express, with thanks, what we have been given.
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