by Frances Novillo
Posted at 02:22am on 2nd July 2014

Liturgy is a moving experience.   The processions of every Mass (most noticeably to Communion) symbolise journeying in faith towards God, then sharing with others after an encounter with Him.  The faithful move together daily, weekly, and via lifetime milestones: weddings, baptisms, 1st Holy Communion, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Ordination and installation, healing and funeral rites, ministering to one another.  The Order of Christian Funerals explains that from Roman times, ‘the funeral liturgy mirrored the journey of human life, the Christian pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem.’ (OCF42).  Movement in liturgy is ritualised and codified.  It’s possible to walk through a Mass without any speech or singing, comprehending clearly the progress of the liturgy by interpreting the postures adopted, the gestures of the faithful or the ministers.  That makes it easy to participate in Masses in any language all around the world.  Common movement voices wordlessly the universality of Catholic prayer.  Even reluctant church-goers or self-conscious teenagers, who may feel uncomfortable making definitive statements of faith or singing in public, seem willing to participate in the movement of the liturgy among a congregation standing, sitting, kneeling, moving, and sharing the Sign of Peace.  Remarkably, for some people this physical form of prayer is accessible rather than awkward.  Of course, in addressing this subject, it’s important to consider those whose physical mobility is impaired, for whom the metaphors of movement, and invitations to embody these exclude them from the group, reminding them of physical limitation and difference.  The Directory on Popular Piety has much to say about pilgrimages and devotional exercises such as Stations of the Cross as symbols of faith in which people of various abilities move together, at different paces, pausing in different places, but nevertheless continuing to journey onwards.


Jesus described himself both as the Gate and the Way, monikers which motivate us to move, for ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).  It’s no wonder then that Christian worship features music, since music promotes movement.  Soldiers march to a relentless beat; protestors surge forward fuelled by chanting and drumming; on social occasions, music leads to dancing, clapping and tapping of feet.  The Psalms exhort us to clap (Psalm 46) in praise of God; David and Miriam, Judith and Moses led the faithful in dancing.  In Catholic worship in this country, at least, such definitive expressive action may be less in evidence in response to music than emotional movement.  Celebrating the Mass (54) refers back to Musicam Sacram:


The active participation of the faithful is first of all internal in that their thoughts reflect what they hear, do, and say during the liturgy.  It is also external in that through their outward bearing and gestures they express their internal participation in the liturgy.  The ritual interplay of the internal and external elements of the liturgy conveys the transcendence and the immanence of the living God whom the assembly worships.


Arguably, music at Mass is more likely to put a smile on a worshipper’s face, bring a tear to the eye, or generate an angry response than any other aspect of the celebration.  Compare the number of parishioners who complain or compliment the choice of Eucharistic Prayer with the number irritated or inspired by the choice of music.  How many are upset by an unfamiliar Preface, compared to the number resistant to singing a new hymn, even though the latter is a Biblical directive (Psalm 96:1).  Or the opposite reaction, expressed by those who are always hoping for something new in the music, and are disappointed still to be singing Do not be afraid or Be thou my vision, when there are new writers offering fresh new music (and recording new albums).  Just as the music moves us, so the words of worship stir the emotions.  St John Chrysostom counsels us to take up the refrains of the Psalms ‘like a staff for the journey’.  One means of learning the words of worship is to listen; another is to read; another is to make them our own putting them on our lips, savouring them in our mouths as we speak or sing, and ultimately taking these to heart, where we are sensitive to their emotional impact, moved by their meaning.     


There are those who believe the Mass is always the same, formulaic and therefore judged as dull.  But like the uniform jars in a traditional sweet shop, Masses contain delicious variety.  They offer a feast more satisfying than sweets, and no less appealing.  Each Mass incorporates penitence and praise, sorrow and celebration, reflection and remembrance.  Throughout the liturgical year, there are seasons of anticipation and fulfilment, preparation and plenty, when every dimension of Christ’s life, and our life in Him is celebrated.  Each Mass text, prayer, reading, or hymn lyric nudges, even steers us, in a certain direction.  At times the effect is predictable and may be consistent across the congregation while in other instances, the effect may be more personal – consolation for one challenging others (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).  Every emotion which is stirred finds a place for expression within the liturgy. 


It is possible to attend Mass and remain unmoved.  Liturgy doesn’t always change us; sometimes it reassures and affirms.  As we will explore at this year’s Summer School, in taking our bearings, sometimes we discover we’re in just the right place at the right time.


Reproduced from Issue 351, Volume 40, Number 1 of Music and Liturgy, June 2014, by kind permission of the Society of Saint Gregory



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