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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Ritus Narcissus:

Why Do We Sing of Ourselves and Celebrate Ourselves?

by Father Paul Scalia

This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Fr. Paul Scalia, the author, and of David Murray, Managing Editor, Adoremus: Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy. It appeared in the March 1999 edition of Adoremus Bulletin.

Imagine the following scene: You arrive at Mass on Sunday, eager to thank God for His goodness to you. You slide into the pew early, kneel in prayer, and direct your praise and worship to your Lord and God. You stand as the song leader introduces the opening hymn: "Table of Plenty". Suddenly your praise comes to a screeching halt, not because of your own prayers, but because of what you are singing. In fact you are no longer praising God at all, but singing to the others:

	Come to the feast of heaven and earth!
	Come to the table of plenty!
	God will provide for all that we need,
	here at the table of plenty.

Now it gets worse: you begin to sing His lines:

	O, come and sit at my table
	where saints and sinners are friends.
	I wait to welcome the lost and lonely
	to share the cup of my love.

And so at the very beginning of Mass, your conversation with God is derailed and transformed into a participation in the congregation's introspection.

To appreciate the damage done by such hymns, we must first call to mind two essential aspects of the Mass: presence and dialogue. First of all, what distinguishes the Mass from all other forms of worship is the re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice. The Mass does not merely recall or reenact Christ's redemptive act but in fact makes present the mystery of faith, the passion, death and resurrection of Christ (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1366).

Second, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and indeed throughout the Mass makes possible a real dialogue between God and man; it creates an active conversation. The remembrance of someone does not lead to dialogue with that person; only to reminiscing. The presence of Christ in the Mass, however, inspires us to speak to Him as only the beloved can speak to the Lover. Thus the Mass is a dialogue between Christ and the Church, between God and man, in which God speaks His lines and we speak ours. He speaks to us through the readings and (we hope) the homily, while we respond to Him through the prayers of the priest, our personal prayers, and the hymns.

Accordingly, active participation at Mass requires the faithful to acknowledge the presence of Christ and enter the dialogue, taking the words of the Bride as their own. They embody the Bride, and their Mass parts-the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei­express her desire for union with the Bridegroom. Other texts used at Mass should reflect and deepen this sentiment. The dialogue reaches its culmination at the Consecration, when the Bridegroom speaks His definitive words of love and thus becomes really present to His Bride in the Eucharist.

Given the lyrics of much contemporary liturgical music, however, we must ask what has become of this dialogue and our ability to enter it. Many hymns have us sing only about ourselves and to ourselves, even going so far as to usurp God's part. Such words fail to convey the true meaning of the Mass as a dialogue between Christ and the Church. The offending lyrics come in two varieties: in the first, we sing to one another and about one another, but do not include God in the conversation; and in the second, we sing God's parts.

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Part II: The Cult of Conceit 

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