By Rita Vella Brincat

Liturgy, the Greek leitourgia meaning duty, service or function undertaken on behalf of the people is the formal corporate worship of God by the Church. It is a service for the people carried out by the people. It includes words, music, actions and symbolic aids, and in Christian form is derived from Jewish ritual. Liturgies exist in a wide variety of prescribed forms, reflecting the needs and attitudes of different religious communities.

Rita Vella BrincatIn the New Testament, liturgy is generally translated by “Ministry”, e.g. in Romans 15, 16, where minister is leitourgon – “… to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the Gospel, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” and also in Acts 9, 16 “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and Kings and the sons of Israel.”

The word ‘leitourgia’ was early applied by Christians to the official public worship of the Church and is now often used in a sense restricted to the Holy Eucharist, for which it is the usual name among the Eastern Orthodox Christians. In the West, the Holy Sacrifice is termed the Holy Mass. Liturgy must be carefully distinguished from Ceremonial.

Liturgists distinguish four great parent liturgies: of Antioch, Alexandria, Rome and Gaul, from which all later ones are derived. The first three were established in the great Patriarchal cities and survive under many forms in East and West. The Gallican rites are mainly represented today by the Ambrosian (in Milan) and Mozarabic (in parts of Toledo in Spain) liturgies. Otherwise Gallican liturgies have disappeared.

The importance of music in the liturgy is shown by the fact that the verb “to sing” (with related words such as song, etc.) is one of the most commonly used words in the Bible. It occurs three hundred and nine times in the Old Testament and thirty-six in the New Testament. We find the first mention of singing in the Bible after the Crossing of the Red Sea when the Israelites were delivered from slavery. In a desperate situation, they have had a great experience of God’s saving power. In the biblical account, the people’s reaction to the foundational event of their salvation is described thus: “They believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” followed by a second reaction: “Then Moses and the people sang to the Lord.” During the Easter Vigil, the faithful join in the singing of this song, knowing that they were saved and set free by God.

Music in Worship

Sacred music may either be liturgical or religious. All music with a sacred theme, but which is not intended for use in the liturgy, is called “religious music”. Music is liturgical only when the Church recognises it as its prayer. Liturgical music consists directly in the singing of the words in the principal rites of Christian worship, especially the Mass and the Divine Office and is the noblest and most important part of sacred music.

Christian worship can be celebrated without musical instruments or polyphony; however the use of both in the liturgy is justified as they help the faithful in their prayer during the celebration of the sacraments because their use is always subject to the functional laws of liturgical singing. Their exclusion would mutilate the liturgy itself; music and song help to strengthen the solidarity of the assembly, elevating their praise and thought to God. The solemn celebration of the liturgy is above all “a festal gathering.”

The actual kind of songs that God desires in His worship are psalms (praise of God), hymns (songs that teach), and spiritual songs (songs that inspire devotion) (Eph 5, 19). The Holy Mass and the Divine Office hold the first place in liturgical worship. Music is not performed but offered by the congregation to God, who gave it to His creatures that they might with gratitude return it to Him. Consequently, all our liturgical actions should be characterised by excellence – “and whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of Jesus…”.

While the liturgy celebrates the death and resurrection of Christ, there is also the need to celebrate the Paschal Mystery through the various feasts observed during the year. Music has been the main means of celebrating feasts for it enhances the great importance of the readings and prayer to capture the special quality of the liturgical season, for one cannot imagine the celebration of Christmas without the chant of carols or the exclusion of the playing on the organ of the popular Pastorale of Emanuel Galea (1790-1850), Lent without the sad chant of Ħenn għalina Mulej, Ħenn għalina or the joyful singing of the Halleluiah! during Easter. If music heard in church is good and sincere and, above all, suitable to the liturgical texts, then it is genuine church music. Furthermore, a high standard of performance is indispensable. A frequent cause of a low standard lies in small churches with limited resources trying to give the same kind of music as large churches with ample resources.

In the case of church music, the “corruption” has come from a tendency to over-emphasise the beauty of the music, in the interests of either the professional performers or of the congregation. Church authorities have repeatedly condemned this tendency. Thus Pope John XXII, in the early fourteenth century, forbade the use of secular melodies to harmonise settings of portions of the Mass, and, indeed, tried to eliminate harmony altogether. Pope Pius IV, soon after the Council of Trent, appointed a committee of Cardinals to see that the Council’s recommendation to exclude “music in which anything impious or lascivious finds a part” was being carried out. Once again harmonised music faced the threat of being forbidden in church music, mainly because of the inaudibility of the words of the text, owing to the interweaving of the voices.

Liturgical music serves to educate the community about biblical and theological teachings of the Church, for people take home with them the theology contained in the music they sing in church. Liturgical music, especially during Holy Mass, has the power to shape the prayer we offer to God, assembled as the Body of Christ. If we are faithful to the Gospel, we come together to church to share with God and with one another that living faith and joyfulness that can only be expressed by our singing.

Man’s innate desire when participating in liturgical celebrations is to praise, love and adore God and to express his gratitude for God’s faithful eternal love in the acclamation “Halleluiah”. Christians go to church to express their faith in Christ when they focus on the thoughts, words, songs and gestures of the congregation and in responding to God in prayer, for the church at prayer unites the faithful with the praise of the angels and saints in giving glory to God. Prayer, through the participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is the most sublime form of communal worship when prayer is focused entirely on God through music, meditation and celebration.

The proper place of silence in the liturgy

Besides praying and singing, there is another aspect of reception: silence and meditation. Musical distraction is indeed harmful, when the concentration of congregations should be entirely focused on the great reality of the Living Christ, offering Himself to us. Many usedto be, and still are, against the singing of hymns during Holy Communion as this effectively hinders meditation on whom we have received. The bad habit of cantors to keep on singing as from when the celebrant receives the Sacred Host and the Sacred Wine until the last person in the communion line has received Holy Communion, is indeed an abuse, for the singing, if any, should last as long as it seems proper so that the congregation may meditate on this great sacrament and on what they have received. Unfortunately, this is very common in ourchurches!

In adoring God, we must express our unbounded praise in song; words alone seem insufficient, for music makes the spoken word more vital, more sincere and truer. The truth of this statement may be witnessed when a solemn Te Deum is sung in church by all the congregation at the end of the year and on other important occasions, for such church music is characterised by a noble simplicity and by a religious awe combined with the expression of inner feeling.

Many people still question whether the presence of music and song in worship, formerly taken for granted, is still needed once the liturgy can be perfectly celebrated without music. The presence of music and song in the liturgy is regarded as not necessary for theological reasons, yet music expresses in a much better way the prayers of the faithful besides enriching worship. Some also reason that if the text is the most important element in Christian worship, then, music is unnecessary. Such reasoning is countered by St Pius X in his ‘Motu proprio’ of 1903 when he states that the specific purpose of sacred music is to impart a more powerful efficacy to the text itself.