Singing Properly

Every year when celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross come around, I have a flashback to a liturgical music conference a number of years ago, at which I was a speaker. The flashback involves one of my speaker colleagues that day. He began his talk by describing what had happened one morning at a Sunday Eucharist for which he was to preside and preach. It had been the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated on a Sunday. Unbeknownst to him, the musician had switched the opening song to “Morning Has Broken” because it was a rainy day (“Sweet the rain’s new fall…”). After he had knocked over the straw man and the chuckles subsided, he lamented this change, since he’d based his homily on the proper entrance antiphon: “We should glory in the cross of our Lord, Jesus Christ” (cf. Gal. 6:14). He was using his story to illustrate the importance of using the proper entrance antiphon at Sunday liturgy.

It seemed to me that his tale simultaneously illustrated the importance of communication between musicians and clergy. Had he and the musician done a quick check-in that Sunday morning, the situation could have been avoided. I’d think that if a priest knew the parish musician had a propensity for making such changes, he’d check to make sure the proper antiphon was still in place.

We were never told what opening song had been originally scheduled; based on the story, I presumed it was the proper antiphon, since he seemed to have been expecting it while preparing his homily. This led me to surmise that the musician at this liturgy wasn’t the same musician who’d scheduled the proper antiphon. In my experience, musicians who utilize the proper antiphons tend not to replace them on the basis of meteorological conditions.

One incorrect assumption this story might have led to, however, is that the proper entrance antiphons always make this kind of direct connection to the day. If we look ahead at the calendar this year, this coming Sunday (the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time) has the entrance antiphon “I am the Savior of all people, says the Lord. Whatever their troubles, I will answer their cry, and I will always be their Lord.” (cf. Psalm 37). The Lectionary scriptures are Wisdom 2 (the persecution of the just), Psalm 54 (“The LORD upholds my life”), James 3 (conflicts in the community), and Mark 9 (the greatest in the kingdom must be like a child). The proper entrance antiphon—the same in both the Roman Missal and Graduale Romanum, itself not a terribly common occurrence—doesn’t have a particularly strong connection to the lections of the day (perhaps to the first reading and psalm). I am not sure if its connection would be better in Years C or A, but this points to another sticking point with using the proper antiphons: they largely remain fixed, against our Lectionary’s three-year rotation.

The speaker’s account also illustrated the need for the solid liturgical/pastoral formation of musicians. Such a musician would have known that a well-chosen entrance song, such as “Lift High the Cross” or “We Acclaim the Cross of Jesus,” would have been preferable to a singing weather report that day. If the parish begins the Sacred Triduum with this same antiphon on Holy Thursday, a Sunday celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on a Sunday would have been a marvelous opportunity to give the Triduum some musical resonance as the heart of the whole liturgical year.

In any event, we cannot say that 1) only the proper entrance antiphon text could have accomplished the speaker’s purpose (a number of selections from the familiar hymn repertoire could have connected to the homily that day) or; 2) the text of the entrance antiphon cannot possibly be useful for preaching if it is not sung (easy enough for a homilist to quote the text, cite its reference to Galatians, or even describe its role as our entry into the Triduum).
There was a general sense in his talk that the word “proper” means “mandatory” (or that it ought to). But it doesn’t—it merely is a way of contrasting these texts to the fixed or “ordinary” texts of the eucharistic liturgy. I’m not opposing the use of the proper entrance antiphons in the eucharistic liturgy. I am in full agreement with those who say they are a sadly unknown, under-utilized treasure of our heritage. Our worship truly would be richer if we used them more frequently, even as a reference or starting point when selecting another option for the entrance chant.

I write the following in full “it takes one to know one” mode: That day there was, in my view, quite a bit of passive-aggressive behavior on display in one conference presentation. (For example, no time for question/comment or follow-up was allowed at the end of the talk.) Other, healthier behaviors might serve the faithful better.

Yes, let us glory in the Cross. Let us also keep channels of communication clear and open. Let us strive to bring the gifts of our various ministries together for the service of God’s people. Let us continue to learn and reflect on the richness of our liturgical heritage, using every skill to offer its richness for a deepened spirituality in the Paschal Mystery.

A blessed Exaltation of the Holy Cross to you!

3 comments

  1. Thank you for all of this. With a growing number of wonderful resources for the antiphons in English (and those in Latin), I hope many will take a BOTH/AND approach of singing an antiphon followed by a hymn/song, etc. A steady diet of singing the antiphons and their corresponding psalms can be transformative for one’s soul. Antiphons are never mutually exclusive with hymns if handled creatively.

    Communication with regular pastor/celebrant and musician communication is salutary for both and for the community they serve. I’ve enjoyed wonderful support from clergy for which I’m deeply grateful.

  2. I appreciate this essay. While I look to the Antiphonary to inform my programming, especially during the seasons, I find the offerings there a mixed bag. I’m not looking for an absolute of Lectionary harmonization. I’d wish for something more visionary than a numerical sequence of Psalms in Ordinary Time or a default drop of Psalm 34 or the Beatitudes when nobody had any better ideas. Overall, I’d give the effort a C-minus. We can do better.

    Given the likelihood of fatigue over a serious overhaul of the antiphons (let alone the Gradual) the missed possibilities are still a lament for me. (On green Sundays I have no regrets about ignoring them–though I did fold this coming weekend’s text into the penitential act.) What might’ve been helpful: a blending of New Testament canticles into the Communion repertoire, more of a complementary matching of proper antiphon+psalm by genre with the readings in the three-year cycle, perhaps a set of common texts for seasons and identifiable stretches of Ordinary Time. On that latter point, certainly a bishop’s conference could’ve commissioned a group of composers to contribute settings for post-conciliar liturgy.

    As it is, I keep my music plans humming 2-3 months into the future. Preachers get them, and on occasion, they even get a mention. Meanwhile, as long as I’m paying careful attention to programming Scripture-based songs and hymns, I feel pretty satisfied consulting the propers here and there. Just not every week.

  3. I experimented with using the proper antiphon texts at my parish, but with a simple psalm response, rather than have the congregation silently wait for the schola to beautifully chant the introit. The congregation responded well, but the disparity between the Introit text and the theme of the readings seemed glaring to me. Even more importantly, GIRM #47 says that one of the purposes of the opening chant is “fostering the unity of the congregation.” In my parish, a hymn does this best.

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