Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gaudete Sunday Sermon on Chant: Fr. Andersen

A homily by Fr. Eric Andersen,  Sacred Heart-St. Louis in Gervais, OR

Dec 16th, 2012 Dominica Adventus III, Anno C

“Gaudete in Domino semper! Rejoice in the Lord always! I say it again, rejoice!”

St. Paul exhorts us in these words and these words greet us in the beginning of this Mass. We call this day “Gaudete Sunday” based upon the opening words of the Entrance chant. We have been wearing violet, or purple during Advent as a reminder of the ancient penitential season in the Church. Violet is the color of the night sky at this darkest time of the year. The darkness rules the day in these last days of the year. But just before the dawn, the sky lightens with the color of Rose and it is a sign of hope for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. Rose is the color of this Sunday as a reminder that the dawn from on high shall break upon us at Christmas. You may recall that for weeks we have reflected on the second coming of Christ, on the Last Judgment, then on God’s promise of deliverance. Now the color Rose in our vestments is a sign of joy and hope that the time is almost here. From here on out, the readings in the liturgy become more and more filled with lightness and hope and joy. Therefore, Praise O daughter Zion. Sing joyfully, Israel. Iubilate, Israel!
Sing joyfully. There is a reason why music is such an important part of Advent and Christmas. Music expresses something deep in the soul. And music projects that expression of the soul far more powerfully than merely speaking. For instance, I can say to you, “rejoice in the Lord always!” or I can exhort you in song: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. . . In antiquity, it was unheard of that one would read sacred texts such as the scriptures or liturgical texts. These texts deserved to be elevated above common speech. They were too sacred to be spoken out loud so they were either whispered or chanted. Jewish rabbis were taught to chant the scriptures. The early Church did the same. The psalms of the Divine Office and the Mass and the Gospel were all chanted according to ancient tones that had been handed down, first from the Synagogue, then from the apostles who went out to all nations. Singing is a form of rejoicing. And so St. Paul says “gaudete!” Rejoice.

Another word that the Church has used historically for this is iubilate. The word iubilate appears in the first reading. Iubilate, Israel. St. Augustine writes about this word, iubilate. It is the root of the word, Jubilation. Augustine uses the word Jubilus to describe an expression of the Holy Spirit: “a man bursts forth in a certain voice of exultation without words. . . because [he] is filled with too much joy, he cannot explain in words what it is in which he delights.” St. Augustine is referring here to speaking in tongues. Those of you who are involved with the charismatic movement in the Church may have the gift of tongues, or maybe you have heard someone speaking in tongues. This is a gift from God that does not belong to the individual but to the Church. In the most ancient days of the Church, the gift of tongues was manifested and employed in the sacred liturgy through music. This particular type of music is called “melisma”.

Melisma refers to a piece of music in which the words are sung to God so that He hears the praise, but those who are listening do not necessarily discern the words being sung. The words are important in that they are sung to God, but the words are not the point of the music for those listening. This melismatic Jubilus is normally sung in the Alleluia. But let me clarify this statement. The Alleluia of which I speak is not the same as that which we normally sing here at Mass. The Alleluia I refer to is not in our missalettes. When I refer to the Alleluia, I am referring to the Church’s official music for the Mass which comes to us from Rome. The official music is sung at the Pope’s Masses. It is called Gregorian chant. There are different categories of Gregorian Chant. There is the type we sing such as the Kyrie Eleison in Greek, or the Sanctus or Agnus Dei in Latin. Those are simple chants that anyone can sing.
But there is another category of chant that is little known and it is called Melisma. Most of you have probably never heard melisma before. We normally do not hear melisma sung at Mass because melisma is an art form that takes a lot of practice, a lot of prayer, and a great sensitivity on the part of the cantor. This is what it sounds like: (priest sings the Alleluia as an example from the Graduale Romanum). The congregation is not meant to sing along because this melisma is an expression of the Holy Spirit filling the room for us as a preparation for us to hear the proclamation of the Gospel. Those who listen must allow the Holy Spirit to speak to their souls without worrying about the few words that are the conduit for this holy utterance. The Holy Spirit gives the gift of understanding. This is the Jubilus of which St. Augustine writes.

Melisma is truly the Holy Spirit speaking in tongues through the ancient Church. It is an art, a gift, and a discipline that has been given by God and cultivated and handed down from generation to generation. It was done for centuries without music being written down. Every ancient culture has a version of it. All 24 liturgical rites within the Catholic Church have their own versions of this type of chant. Only after several centuries did this particular type of music begin to be written down and codified. It became codified or official under Pope St. Gregory the Great. He did not compose it, but it takes his name because he collected it together and he made each piece of music “official” in the Mass and the Divine Office. His name is honored by us calling this music “Gregorian Chant”.

So the Church has passed down to us an ancient memory of those apostolic utterances of the Holy Spirit. We can compare this to iconography. Iconography is not painting. An icon is not painted. It is written. It is not art, but rather a window into heaven. Those who write an icon are not writing it. They are praying and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide their hands. If they paint it, then it is not an icon. So it is with melismatic chant. Those who sing it are not singing it. They are chanting it. If they sing it, it is not a prayer. If they sing it, it is not speaking in tongues. But if they truly chant it, then they are speaking in tongues. When this happens they are emptying themselves and allowing themselves to be instruments through which the Holy Spirit utters. How humble that is! It draws no attention to the one who chants. The cantor disappears and the melisma draws attention only to the creator of music who is God.

As we are preparing for Christmas we are meditating on the mystery of the incarnation. The incarnation is the gift of the spirit entering into the flesh. We see this in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. The Holy Spirit enters into the flesh of a piece of bread. Through the spiritual food, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, our spiritual food and our spiritual drink. We can say that the Holy Spirit also incarnates through one who sings the words of the Holy Spirit, uttering the melisma of the Church’s music.

This is different from singing hymns or singing good Christian music. It is important that we sing hymns and good Christian music. We do that at Mass here. Singing good and holy music reminds us of holy things, and it lifts our hearts and minds to holy things, but it is not the same as speaking in tongues. There are young people here in this parish who will be called upon by God to give their lives for this divine art. You know who you are. If God has given you the gift of music, offer yourself to Him so that you may be an instrument of the Holy Spirit through the singing of Gregorian Chant. God will demand much from you in prayer, humility, and discipline, and you will be a sign of contradiction in a world that rejects that which is sacred. But for you it will be a window to heaven through which you have Communion with the angels in the heavenly choirs who sing before the throne of God. As we prepare for Christmas, gazing upon the rose color of the winter sky before the dawn, let us be mindful of the angels who are preparing to sing the Gloria in Excelsis when dawn breaks on Christmas Day. Let us join our hearts and minds and voices with all of creation in adoration of the Christ Child on that great day. 

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