This past spring semester, my students had a composition assignment. They were to compose a musical setting for a specific liturgical component, and explain how that setting enlivens the ritual context. Acknowledging my own musical limitations, I asked students to observe specific criteria for their compositions, accompanied by ample class discussion. Our dialogue on the technical nuts and bolts of music and liturgy snowballed into more informal discussions on our respective experiences of rites, especially Holy Communion.
I joined my students by composing a setting for the koinonikon, or Communion song. I prefaced my presentation with questions I had accumulated over a period of many years, both as a parish choir director and as a deacon. In my childhood, the choir usually sang one or more compositions to cover the first part of Communion. Communion begins with the clergy (literally according to order), and it takes a few minutes for the clergy to receive Communion and then prepare the rest of it for the people. Our process in the Byzantine Rite can require more time when we cut the lamb into small pieces and place them into one or more cups, as the people receive the body and blood of Christ together, from a spoon. As a child in a parish that had not been shaped by liturgical renewal, the choir would sing a concert piece (konzert) during the priest’s Communion and preparation, and then the people’s Communion usually required only five minutes, since very few people received.
On ordinary Sundays, the appointed koinonikon is “Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the highest!” (Ps. 148) for the first part; then, “receive the body of Christ! Taste the fountain of immortality!” is sung repeatedly as the people receive. The second refrain can be sung dozens of times in parishes of liturgical renewal, where there are many communicants. In some parishes, the priest exhorts the people to stand throughout Communion.
I wondered if it might be more sensible to sing the koinonikon throughout the people’s portion of Communion as well, something that can be accomplished by composing the responsorial psalm verse so that it can be sung by all. I set out to accomplish just that with my simple, unison composition that draws from the chant tradition without copying it.
One of my students challenged my assertion that this was a time for the people to be engaged. She suggested that the people should kneel or sit quietly in grateful contemplation of the gift they have received, and that this is a prime time for the parish musicians to lead them into contemplation through music. My sense is that she was sharing her parish’s practice, and I agreed that listening can be a form of active participation. Our discussion led me to wonder what people actually do during Communion. Here is a short list of what I have seen and experienced during Communion:
- Opening the prayerbook and reciting quietly, to one’s self, the appointed prayers of thanksgiving after Communion;
- Venturing to an icon in the Church, venerating it and praying before it (not uncommon in Byzantine churches without pews that promote spontaneous movement);
- Reading the bulletin or handout;
- Sitting quietly;
- Chatting with one’s neighbors;
- Attending to one’s children;
- Going home.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it reminds me that there is always much more going on at Liturgy besides the appointed rite or ritual. And I am convinced that no amount of ritual revision or liturgical catechesis can substantially change this reality. I am still pondering these questions: is this kind of liturgical plurality healthy? Do liturgists have a tendency to place too much emphasis on getting the people to participate actively? What happens in your parishes?