Sunday, June 24, 2012

Music, a Monk, and St. John the Baptist

A Homily by Fr. Eric M. Andersen, Our Lady of the Presentation (St. Mary’s), Eugene, OR, June 24, 2012

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Today we celebrate the birth of the precursor, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, who announced the Messiah, even from his mother’s womb. When Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist, heard the annunciation of his son’s birth, he doubted and was struck dumb. But at the birth and naming of John, the infant saint’s intercession brought about the restoration and suppleness of voice to his father. This is because the saint was given the gift of the Holy Spirit in the womb at the Visitation of our Lady to her cousin Elizabeth. The babe in the womb leapt for joy because he received the Holy Spirit and was born in a state of grace. The Church teaches that St. John the Baptist received the grace of baptism in the womb by that gift of the Holy Spirit. That is why he baptized others. But he was unable to give the gift of the Holy Spirit through baptism. It was a gift he had been given, but could not give. That is why he is the precursor. He knew that there was one to come that was greater than he. 

There is a famous episode associated with this feast. In the eighth century, Paul Warnefrid, the Deacon, a monk of Montecassino, and a member of the court of Charlemagne, was deputed to bless the Easter Candle at the Paschal Vigil. He lost his voice as he was preparing to sing the Exultet, which is proper to the office of deacon. He prayed to St. John the Baptist, who had loosened the voice of his father Zechariah at his birth. Paul the deacon prayed that his voice would be loosened as well. The saint heard his plea and interceded for him, loosening his voice to chant the Exultet. In thanksgiving, Paul the deacon composed a famous hymn to the saint which is sung in the Roman liturgy even to this day, in the Divine Office for this feast. The hymn is divided into three parts and sung at Vespers, Matins, and Lauds.
The hymn begins like this:

Since thy servants desire to sound forth,
with vocal chords well strung, thy wondrous deeds,
from all uncleanness free the lips of the guilty ones, O holy John!
(Gueranger The Liturgical Year. Vol. 12, p. 235-236).

This hymn is famous because it changed the course of music and the study of music for all time. In order to demonstrate how this change came about, we must look to the original Latin. The first verse then, goes like this: Ut queant laxis, resonare fibris mira gestorum famuli tuorum, solve polluti labii reatum, sancte Ioannes. Each strophe begins one note higher than the next. “The custom was afterwards introduced of giving to the notes themselves the names of these syllables: Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La. Guido of Arezzo, in his method of teaching, originated this custom, and by completing it with the introduction of the regular lines of the musical scale, he caused an immense stride to be made in the science of sacred music” (236). He changed the Ut to Do, then continued the scale up by adding Ti and finishing with Do again.
Music has long been associated with the divine. It is said that Pathagoras, a pagan Greek Mathematician and “mystic philosopher” (of the 6th century BC) was walking by a smith’s shop and “by a happy chance he heard the iron hammers striking an anvil, and rendering sounds most consonant to one another in all combinations except one. He observed in them these three concords: the octave, the fifth and the fourth; but that which was between the fourth and the fifth he found to be a discord” (Weiss and Taruskin. Music in the Western World. 3-4) So, he went home and experimented with weights hung on a string and he came to understand music as being mathematical. Since mathematics, as a science, studied the divine numerical order of the universe, so he concluded that music, being mathematical, therefore participated in the divine sounds of the heavenly spheres.  

Plato, another Greek, and a pagan, advanced the science of music even further. He identified that music could be holy, or it could be profane. There were hymns, which “consisted of prayers to the gods” (7); and then there were songs to express emotions; songs to tell stories, and unworthy songs that were insulting to men of virtue. He observed a “horror of disorder” (8) in that men of vice corrupted the holy forms of music by mixing holy sounds with profane words and holy words with profane sounds.
We have now looked at the pagans of Classical Greece. Let us not look to the covenant people of God. We see in the Jewish liturgies of the Synagogue that music was a participation in the heavenly song of the angels. “The words sung by the Seraphim entered the Jewish liturgy as the Kedushah” (19) from Isaiah chapter 6: Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus, Deus exercituum; Plena est omnis terra gloria eius. (Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of hosts. All the earth is full of His glory). These words again greet us in the book of the Apocalypse of St. John around the heavenly altar of God (4:8): Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus omnipotens…. (Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty). This song enters then from the divine liturgy of heaven into the divine liturgy of earth. The singing of the Sanctus at Mass joins our worship here on earth with the worship of the saints and angels in heaven.

It is fitting then to speak of the Sanctus on this feast of the precursor of the Lord. St. John the Baptist was the voice crying out in the wilderness, announcing the coming of the Lord. His birth signaled the end of the old covenant and the coming of the new. Christ is near, he seems to say. He is the patron of sacred music because first he loosened the tongue of his father to sing the praises of God. Then, eight centuries later, he loosened the tongue of Paul the deacon to sing the praises of the Easter Candle which represents the Light of Christ. Two more centuries passed and he loosened the tongue of Guido of Arezzo to created the musical scale. Because of the musical scale, human voices, unbounded by the centuries, could sing the same piece of music all over the world in every age. Today the members of the Church join their many voices in one voice to sing the Sanctus with the angels and saints in heaven, announcing the coming of the Lord on this altar. St. John the Baptist announced the coming of the Lord in the flesh. The Sanctus announcing the coming of the Lord on this altar.

Let us have a renewed devotion to the cultivation of sacred music, holy words joined with holy sounds. Let us purify our singing that nothing profane would accompany this most holy sacrifice, but that our singing would be entirely infused with an angelic sound, an angelic mind, an angelic spirit. Let us purify our senses too by purging our music collections of any music unworthy of a virtuous man or woman. Let us avoid listening to any music that is infused with the spirit of worldliness and profanity, whether inside the church or in our homes, our cars, our ipods, and phones. St. John the Baptist joins his voice from heaven with ours today in this church. Through his intercession, may our voices truly mingle with his voice and with all the saints and angels in their heavenly song to announce the coming of the Lord in the flesh on this altar.

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