When Arius argued a heterodox opinion and spread it through hymns, St. Ephrem famously counterargued, writing sound teaching in hymns set to the same tunes.
When the see of Milan was threatened with destruction, St. Ambrose wrote hymns to encourage his flock.
How can liturgical music help the Church in our days, scourged as she is these days by fightings without and fears within?
- Follow the liturgical year using the Proper texts of the Mass. The antiphons themselves are very nourishing, filling the imagination with scriptural prayers, often intimate cries for help to God. They introduce Psalms, and sometimes highlight beautifully Christological senses of the Psalms. They dig deeply into the meaning of the great feasts and announce them, framing our understanding of the mysteries of God.
- Choose musical settings that help people to pray. If there is one thing missing in modern life, it is a sense of peace. The Church has vast libraries of music that fill the mind and soul with a feeling of spaciousness and rest, much as the soaring spaces of gothic cathedrals fill the imagination with room to dwell in. If our Christian anthropology is correct, if we are “fearfully, wonderfully made,” then the superficial pastimes where our minds ordinarily live cannot possibly satisfy our souls. God can, and music, particularly chant and polyphony, can build aural spaces where the faculties can wander, recollected, innocent, and at peace.
- Set the bar a little high, for the sake of teaching. Church architecture, furnishing, and music, at their best, are themselves a liberal arts education. This is immensely important in the spiritual life. It is pretty hard to fool someone whose mind has been freed to think. Some of our best hymns, through the use of beauty, metaphor and simile, and by their sheer literary fluency, help free the mind to see and think through the difficult aspects of life–and to pray. Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness. God has brought His Israel into joy from sadness, loosed from Pharoah’s bitter yoke Jacob’s sons and daughters, led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters. Singing texts like these with understanding, which takes some work to do, is an education. The Orthodox have a saying: “The best theologian in the Church is the little old lady in the third row.” God can teach, and those who sing for the Church can help.
- Sing worthy music with children. It almost goes without saying that children outgrow childish music. When they outgrow the music, won’t they be in danger of likewise outgrowing the faith? Given the number of young people who either outgrow their faith, becoming “nones,” or who turn to more formal expressions such as the Extraordinary Form, it seems worth looking at the option of teaching young people the best liturgical music–chant and polyphony, according to the Second Vatican Council–from their earliest years.
- Choose hymns that testify to Jesus’ Divine Sonship. Like the Arians of long ago, our greatest danger is losing our dependence on the Sacred Humanity, the divine Gift given in the Incarnation. The reason He is the way, the truth, and the life is this unique relationship between the human and divine natures of the Lord Jesus. Since He is our salvation, we should be singing about Him. An awful lot of songs do not, including a remarkable number of Communion hymns in common use. Since there is no other name, since He inspires and perfects our faith, we should be singing hymns that keep our eyes fixed on Him.