Toward a Definition of Liturgical Chant

By Kirby, Mark Daniel | Sacred Music, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Toward a Definition of Liturgical Chant


Kirby, Mark Daniel, Sacred Music


SUNG THEOLOGY

Liturgical theology, insofar as it springs from the "proletarian, communitarian and quotidian" (1) enactment of the liturgy, is indissociable from sacred song. (2)

It is only natural that the worship of God is to be expressed in song. Inasmuch as the Christian by his baptism is a "transformed" being, so his praise of God in the worship of the Church should reflect this transformation. His praise cannot be reduced to the "language of this world," stripped of all balance, rhythm, and harmony. The word of God and man's response to it certainly is not just the reflection of an "ordinary" conversation. Rather it is a word charged with emotion and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. As soon as the word becomes identified with the contents of its message, it calls for order (rhythm) and melos (arrangement of pitch), i.e., a musical form. In this way, the perfect word, the fully developed word, most always has the nature of song. (3)

Liturgical theology, being "the perfect word, the fully developed word" (4)--from God, to God, and about God--finds, in some way, its truest voice in sacred song. Theologia prima is sung theology.

PSALMS, HYMNS, AND SPIRITUAL SONGS

"Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) have constituted an integral part of Christian worship from apostolic times. Kevin Irwin argues that the liturgical arts, including music, are "intrinsic to the liturgy and that their use is required for the integrity of the act of worship." (5) John Meyendorff qualifies sacred art as "inseparable from theology," deeming it intrinsic to theologia prima, the enactment of the liturgy itself, for the liturgy "involves the whole man, without despising any functions of the soul or of the body, and without leaving any of them to the realm of the secular." (6) Maxime Kovalevsky, for his part, holds that within the general domain of art, liturgical art occupies a particular place; it mediates communication between the faithful and the Divine Transcendent, being, at the same time, a vehicle by which the Divine Transcendent intervenes in the life of the faithful. (7) Nicolas Ozoline emphasizes the eschatological vocation of the arts: "Without any doubt, the liturgy represents for us the ultimate vocation of the arts, because the meaning of their common effort--their function--is to suggest the anticipation of the Kingdom." (8)

The root of these affirmations is anthropological as well as theological. Human nature, the very nature assumed by the Word of God, is a "substantial unity of matter and spirit, with mysterious but real reciprocal influence of one part on the other." (9) The Incarnation reveals the face of God in human form and the voice of God in human language. "No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known" (John 1:18). Liturgical iconography and liturgical chant, in their Eastern and Western forms, proceed from the same theological principle. Analogies between eye and ear, face and voice, image and chant, are useful insofar as they invite one to seek and to discover their origin in a common source: the Incarnation as the spring of the whole sacramental economy.

Rooted in the Incarnation and in the law of sacramentality established by it, "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) participate in the "descending" and "ascending" mediation of the God-Man, the High Priest Jesus Christ.

   The liturgy ... is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly
   office of Jesus Christ. It involves the presentation of man's
   sanctification under the guise of signs perceptible by the senses
   and its accomplishment in ways appropriate to each of these signs.
   In it full public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of
   Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members. (10)

The teleology of Christ's eternal priesthood is at once soteriological and doxological. …

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