Writing this to expand on my response to a thoughtful comment by Edward Isaacs on my over-the-top criticisms of a piece of liturgical music in the last post. The relevant portion of Mr. Isaac’s comment:
Can’t say I fully understand some of your complaints about liturgical songs like this one. Maybe it’s my age—I’m twenty-three in a week…
As far as I have been taught about the doctrine of the Real Presence, it’s precisely the fact that the signs of bread and wine are present that gives us the assurance that the Real Presence is there. Signification and analogy are important themes in Aquinas, too. So I’m not able to see why a song like this is “bad,” theologically speaking.
I mean, if there’s been a sort of overarching tendency in the post-Vatican II era to re-evaluate the Mass in exclusively “horizontal” rather than “vertical” terms, then I think that’s a bad thing. But surely you can’t really pin the blame for that on specific songs failing to be sufficiently “vertical” in every verse. It’s not as if the “horizontal” dimension of Christian worship is not a real part of Christianity, or that it doesn’t have its place in the Mass.
The particular song being criticized: See Us, Lord, About Your Altar. The focus of the criticism is verse 3:
Once were seen the blood and water:
Now are seen but bread and wine;
Once in human form he suffered,
Now his form is but a sign.
A commenter over at the Musica Sacra forum puts it succinctly (here): “This text is oddly confusing and can be taken several ways. It surely does seem to introduce confusion. I mean, you could regard it as saying that the bread and wine are mere visible signs of the real presence. But is that right? It’s always bugged me.”
While it is certainly possible to take the text to be making a completely orthodox point about accidents versus substance, it’s also possible to take this to mean that the Eucharist Itself is ‘but’ a sign.
So, are we splitting hairs? It may be that J Greally, SJ, to whom this text is attributed, was a fine old school Jesuit who dabbled in poetry and penned this work with nothing but the most orthodox intentions. In which case we doubt not his sincerity, but rather his skill as a poet and a reader of poetry. However, as I’ve pointed out on this blog many times over the last few years, modern publishers of catholic liturgical songs show a strong and unmistakable bias toward songs that DO NOT clearly convey orthodox theology, preferring everything from the incoherent to the out and out heretical, so long as the proper PC idols get their incense.
The very thing that concerns me here, the confusing way the theology has been expressed, has been shown, I believe, to be a *plus* in the eyes of the OCP, for example. In other words, that it could be taken to mean what many of our Protestant brethren mean is not, in their eyes, a bad thing, but a good thing.
It is a bad thing.
In many ways, the history of the Church is the history of Christians trying to make as clear as possible the Real Presence – and the history of heresy is the history of efforts to make the Eucharist go away entirely or, failing that, to put it in a box so that it is well-contained and doesn’t cause us any trouble. What is ultimately at issue is the Incarnation. We sinners, as sinners, don’t like the idea that God is right here, right now, down and dirty, mixed up in everything we do. We like a God Who keeps a respectful distance, not one peeking out from every poor person’s and enemy’s eyes.
Yet, if He is really here among us, as brother and friend and sacrifice, as a baby in a manger and a man on a cross, so much so that He, as the Word Who brought into being and sustains with His breath everything that is, then He can command his apostles to ‘do this in memory of Me’ and call his Divine Presence, his Body and Blood and Soul and Divinity, into perfect being under the accidents of bread and wine.
What the Word says, Is.
And we don’t like it, at least some of the time. Yet toward the Incarnation as expressed in the Eucharist all human praise is ordered, and from it all holiness flows. Thus, the great tradition of church building and visual arts, where we do the best we possibly can to create a house of God worthy of Our Lord, and write words and music that best express his excellence, and embody rituals that shout: yes! Here, right here, is Our Lord! Come, all men, and adore Him! And then we pray to Him out of our awareness that we have fallen short, and receive Him so that we may be made perfect as Our Father in Heaven is perfect.
This is the reason that half of the world’s great art is in Italy, and almost all of it is in Christendom – these are the places where men have worked to make something worthy and so be made worthy.
Look at the thousands of beautiful Gothic cathedrals spread all over Europe, and the Baroque and Renaissance and Neo-Classical churches – do they not speak of Heaven, and our cry out to God for His Presence? Not to mention all the beautiful art and music and literature – peoples much less affluent that we made these things by the sweat of their brows and the love in their hearts. All conspire toward the Mass, which is the Incarnation made anew for us, for our sharing.
If you are going to attack the Church, this is where you strike. Attacks on beautiful music, on beautiful building and art and ritual are, ultimately, attacks on the theology of the Incarnation. That’s why ugly churches with ugly liturgies – I’m speaking in purely human terms – tend very strongly, in my experience, to divide us from our Incarnate Lord. This is completely different from mere poverty, which says: Lord, this is the best we can do, may Your Glory fill what is lacking. The minds that want to have irreverent Masses in ugly buildings (built, often, at lavish expense) with stupid songs are minds running as fast as they can from the reality of the Incarnation.
It’s not old versus new – it’s beautiful and clear versus ugly and muddled.
In a perfect world, it would not matter at all that a song sung at Mass could be read to be heretical, provided it could be read as orthodox – we would of course assume good intentions, and let it slide. However, in the context of the last 60 years, during which havoc has been played on everything sacred in the Church, most especially the Eucharist, I don’t think we can make the assumption that it’s all harmless, that we all know what we mean. We don’t all know what we mean – ask some of your Catholic-educated peers.
Don’t know if this helped at all. Maybe I’ll expand some more later.
(I’m not really this grouchy in real life.)