Singing the Mass 3, Mystagogy

The 2-page document titled “Liturgical music” above is developed in these two articles by Fr Mark Daniel Kirby (to download the articles, click on their titles).

The theological and spiritual function of liturgical chant is intimately tied to the threefold definition of liturgical theology elucidated above. In the liturgy, chant becomes a vehicle of liturgical theology as word from God, word to God and word about God. Liturgical chant is at the service of the word from
God: the principal agent of the liturgy, God himself, revealing himself in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit within the actio. Functioning in this capacity, liturgical chant may be described as epiphanic. Liturgical chant is equally at the service of the word to God: the action of Christ the Priest and of his
Body, the Church, engaged in the glorification of the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Functioning in this capacity, liturgical chant may be described as doxological and eucharistic.
Finally, liturgical chant serves the word about God: the Gospel proclaimed to the world, and the edifying word by which the Holy Spirit forms and teaches the Church engaged in worship. Functioning in this capacity, liturgical chant may be described as catechetical and mystagogical. Liturgical chant is wholly at the service of liturgical theology and has an intrinsically theological value.
The musical forms of liturgical chant emerge from the various liturgical texts and from their function and place within the sacred action. The texts themselves are organically related to their liturgical context, to the feast or mystery celebrated, and to the significance of a given moment or movement within the enactment of the liturgy. Liturgical chant thus serves a ritual function; its meaning, however, is, ultimately, theological and spiritual.
Chant is an integral part of the liturgical action; as such it refers to and reveals the mystery, influencing and shaping the spiritual life of individual worshippers and of a community, The analysis of liturgical chant as music tout court will fall short of the mark, “for while a chant may be discussed and dissected as an object of study in itself, it must not be forgotten that it was composed in the creation of a complete way of life, the performance of the opus Dei, the work of God.”

From Mark Daniel Kirby’s “Sung Theology: the liturgical Chant of the Church” published in “Beyond the Prosaic – Renewing the Liturgical Movement” (1998)

Liturgical theology, insofar as it springs from the “proletarian, communitarian and quotidian” enactment of the liturgy, is indissociable from sacred song. (…)

Liturgical chant is a genre of sacred music distinct from the categories of religious music and popular religious song discussed above. Liturgical chant is indigenous to the earliest enactments of Christian rites. Allusions to such singing are found in the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Justin Martyr. In attempting to trace the origins of Christian liturgical chant, scholars have argued the plausibility of a certain dependence of both Byzantine and Gregorian chants on a common source. Wellesz points to the chants of the churches of Antioch and Jerusalem, themselves derived from the chants of Jewish synagogal worship, as that common source.(…)

Music is not a conjunct to worship. It is the way the Church worships. Music is neither supplementary to, nor an enrichment of worship. It is the expression of worship itself. It is not an accompaniment, a background, a preparation, a moodsetter, a filler, or any such thing, and it is certainly not a divertimento. (…)

This suggests that the proper chants of the Roman Mass, for example, were conceived and elaborated in a context of pre-existing liturgical chant and, notably, of psalmody; they emerged from within a tradition and developed in organic continuity with it. Liturgical chant hands on, not the isolated compositional efforts of any one schola cantorum but, rather, the cumulative contemplative experience of worshiping Christians received and variously reinterpreted in function of the liturgy’s organic evolution through the ages. As “sung theology,” liturgical chant, in the diversity of its forms, celebrates and actualizes the Paschal Mystery of Christ from one generation to the next, enriching each successive singing of the unchanging Mystery with new resonances. (…)

The specific form of ritual music is determined by the metaphysical system of the religion it serves. Kovalevsky observes that a religion worshiping the forces of nature will prefer wind or percussion instruments to the human voice, and primitive rhythms to oratorical ones. The ancient Greeks preferred a sung poetry accompanied by isolated notes on stringed instruments as expressive of the harmony between human reason, and the ordered forces of the universe. The oral preaching of the Gospel, rooted in the Semitic understanding of the word as creative presence and event (dâbâr), contributed to the emergence of a specifically Christian liturgical chant marked by three attributes: breath, interiority, and freedom. (…)

By breathing and by speaking, the human person, fully alive, expresses likeness to God. Breath, life, and word constitute an inseparable triad in the divine economy of creation and redemption. “The words that I have spoken to you, says Jesus, are spirit and life” (John 6:63). (…)

Liturgical chant, by inviting commitment to the word, becomes a transforming encounter with Christ, sent to proclaim release to captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed (cf. Luke 4:18). At the same time, by confronting both singers and hearers with the Word of truth, liturgical chant is an agent of ongoing spiritual liberation or conversion of life.
Breath, interiority, and freedom emanate from the heart of the Gospel, and resonate in every enactment of the liturgy. To sustain and communicate these realities in the midst of the Christian people, a new ministerial art was born, an indispensable complement of apostolic preaching: Christian liturgical chant. In response to the exigencies of the developing liturgy, Christian liturgical chant, in both form and performance, came to be associated with a certain number of identifying characteristics: (1) the human voice as instrument, (2) chant as sung speech, (3) the objective delivery of the sacred text, (4) chant as holy and hallowing, and, finally, (5) chant as a means to “that full, conscious, and actual participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.”

“Toward a definition of Liturgical Chant ” Fr. Mark Daniel Kirby (Sacred Music, Summer 2009)

Sacramental aesthetics

The 1-hour course on “Sacramental Aesthetics” is the first in a series of five on the “Theology of Beauty and the Sacred Liturgy” online class at the Liturgical Institute.


“Sacramental Aesthetics is the perception of spiritual realities.”

“Beauty is the revelation of the fullness of Truth.”

“We call a thing beautiful when it reveals its ontological truth” .

Note: If you are familiar with Thomas Aquinas’ definition of beauty as the intersection of Consonancia, Integritas and Claritas, notice the parallels: Beauty is the revelation (Consonancia) of the fullness (Integritas) of an ontological truth (Claritas).

Dr McNamara gives a simple definition of “ontological truth”: to add “-ness” to a word. For example, the “giraffeness” of a giraffe. “

“Ontological reality resides in the mind of God. ”

“Imagination is the faculty of representing to oneself sensible objects independently of an actual sense impression.”

“At Mass, the priest makes Christ present. “

“God is unknowable, but in the incarnation made himself present. Every sensible act in the liturgy must aim to make present the invisible reality of God. “

“Foundations of the Catholic liturgy:

The Incarnation:          matter can reveal God.

The Transfiguration:  matter can reveal the glory of God. “

Keynote and Powerpoint presentations on themes developed in this page (part 3 of a 3-part “Singing the Mass” workshop):

Video recording of Session 3 presentation (Holy Family Glendale CA, 10-3-20)

Click here for Part 1, and here for Part 2.

%d bloggers like this: