Tuesday, December 26, 2017


by Justin Soutar

(NOTE: This article originally appeared in the November 2017 edition of The Shamrock, the quarterly newsletter of Saint Patrick Catholic Church in Lexington, Virginia.)

“’Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will’” (Lk. 2:14). This joyful proclamation of the Angels on the night of Christ’s birth more than two thousand years ago has continued to resound uninterruptedly through the ages in the Church’s liturgical tradition, in the pages of Sacred Scripture and in the hearts and voices of countless believers. Early in the Church’s history, this biblical text was developed into the great liturgical hymn of adoration, thanksgiving and petition known as the Gloria. Our current English Mass translation accurately reflects the centuries-old original Latin: “Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.” As Latin Rite Catholics, we sing or recite the Gloria not only during the Christmas season, but also on most Sundays and all solemnities and feasts of the liturgical year when the Church summons us to full-throated praise of the triune God.

The angelic Christmas carol hints at the twofold purpose of the sacred liturgy, which is to glorify God and to sanctify ourselves. From ancient times to the present, liturgical music—always sung and often accompanied by musical instruments—has played an essential role in achieving this dual purpose. Sacred music has the power to elevate the mind and heart to God and to express thoughts and prayers in ways that the spoken word simply cannot. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger put it in The Spirit of the Liturgy: “When man comes into contact with God, mere speech is not enough. Areas of his existence are awakened that spontaneously turn into song.” This comes into clear focus when we look at the Old Testament Book of Psalms, the great musical prayer book of ancient Israel which has shaped much of the Church’s liturgical and musical tradition. Intensely personal and written for specific situations, while also universal and timeless, the Psalms are classic expressions of adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and petition representing the full range of human experiences in relation to God.

The Second Vatican Council underscored the essential link between church music and the words and actions of the liturgy, referring to the former as “a sacred chant wedded to words” that “constitutes a necessary and integral part of solemn liturgy.” In other words, music is not something extraneous added on to the liturgy like icing onto a cake; rather, it’s a key ingredient of the liturgy itself, and “the more intimately church music is linked with the liturgical action the holier it will be.” Following Vatican II, the Church identified three specific degrees of music within the liturgy. The first and highest degree is sung dialogue, with the priest’s greeting or prayer followed by the people’s reply (e.g. “The Lord be with you,” “And with your spirit”). Gregorian chant, which “should have the chief place in liturgical functions” according to the Council, is our mainstay for liturgical music of the first degree. The second degree includes the remaining prayers of the Mass, and the third and lowest degree is hymns and songs. According to the Instruction on Music in the Liturgy issued by the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1967, the second and third degrees may not be used unless the first is in place.

A distinctive element of Catholic worship is the belief, and the fact, that during Mass we unite our voices to those of all the Angels of heaven, participating for a few brief moments in their endless hymn of praise to the Lord of all creation. Our solemn liturgical celebrations of the Nativity of the Lord at Christmas and the Resurrection of the Lord at Easter are moments when the Gloria rings out anew with intense joy and gladness, as accompanied by the organ, bells and other musical instruments, we join with the hosts of heaven in singing the celestial music that penetrated our sad and weary world on that holy night more than two millennia ago. May this year’s celebration of Christ’s birth renew our gratitude to God our Father for the priceless gift of His Only-Begotten Son and for all of the blessings, graces, and good things He has given us through Him and in the Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 2017 Justin D. Soutar.


[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 136.
[2] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, Chapter VI: Church Music, no. 112. From The Second Vatican Council: The Four Constitutions (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013), p. 50.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, Chapter VI: Church Music, no. 116. From The Second Vatican Council: The Four Constitutions (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013), p. 51.
[5] Marguerite Mullee Duncan, “High Notes in Hymnals,” Crisis, April 1998, p. 22.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Advent Reflections

Last Sunday we Catholics began a new liturgical year, entering once again into the season of Advent, which is a period of preparation for the celebration of Christ's birthday. In our increasingly secularized neo-pagan society, which now kicks off its own celebration of the Christmas holiday right after Halloween, Advent generally functions as a sentimental preview of Christmas and a time of frenzied preparations characterized by seemingly endless shopping, decorating of homes and schools and offices, greeting card writing and exchanging, gift wrapping and giving, holiday music and concerts, cooking and baking of meals and treats, partying and entertaining. By the time Christmas Day actually arrives, millions of people have had their fill (or more) of the Christmas season as secular society celebrates it, have entirely missed the real (that is, the sacred) purpose of the holiday, and are ready to return to normal everyday living again, often with feelings of exhaustion and emptiness. That's a shame!

While none of the above mentioned cultural aspects of the holiday are bad or wrong in and of themselves, the problem is that our secularized society's whole approach to Christmas is backwards. Our dominant culture has no interest in, or reverence for, the true meaning of Christmas, which is the birthday of the Christ Child, the Eternal Son of God who became man in order to liberate us from the shackles of sin through His Passion and Resurrection. On the contrary, through the encouragement of rampant consumerism and hedonism, its chief aim is to make the big retailers as much money as possible. The essential religious and spiritual nature of Christmas has been completely gutted, replaced by the superficial material and commercial aspects.

Our secular culture did not used to be this way. Eighty years ago when my grandparents were growing up, it would be unthinkable for any shops or grocery or department stores to be open on Christmas Day. Today, this is not only commonplace, it is widely accepted and even expected. Christ is no longer part of civil society's Christmas celebration; thus, it's not surprising that even the word "Christmas" and the traditional greeting "Merry Christmas" are now used less and less frequently in public, replaced by generic terms such as "holiday season" or "Happy Holidays," as this devolves increasingly into a "multicultural" celebration of all of the religious and secular holidays that happen to coincide with Christmas but have little or nothing whatsoever to do with it. Our post-Christian secular society has fallen into idolatry, replacing the worship of the Christ Child with the worship of money and material things. Hence the incessant clamor and the frenzied pace of the "Christmas season" that is in full swing from November 1 to December 25--part of what Cardinal Robert Sarah has termed the "dictatorship of noise."

By contrast, the Catholic Church's liturgical season of Advent is a sacred time for prayer and quiet reflection as we prepare to celebrate Christ's birth. In fact, during this holy season, the Church calls us to reflect on three different ways in which Christ comes to us: in history, majesty, and mystery. The four Sundays of Advent symbolize the four thousand years humanity in general, and the Chosen People in particular, waited for the coming of our Savior and Redeemer following the Original Sin of our first parents in the Garden of Eden. During Advent, we recall and re-live to some extent these long ages of waiting, waiting for liberation from sin and looking forward to the Lord's coming into our fallen world. And yes, at the conclusion of the Advent season, we will celebrate the miraculous virginal birth of Christ in a shepherd's cave near Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago, which forever changed the course of human history.

However, there is more to Advent than simply recalling and re-living Christ's humble and hidden coming in the distant past. During this season, we also anticipate and look towards Christ's glorious and public future coming, His Second Coming as Judge of the world at the end of time. While we know for certain that Christ will come again, we don't know exactly when this Second Coming will take place (although Christ Himself has revealed to us certain signs that will precede the Day of Judgment). Just like the ancient peoples who were awaiting the promised Messiah's first coming, but weren't sure exactly when it would happen, we are now awaiting Christ's promised return. Therefore, we are summoned to live in a state of vigilant preparedness by rejecting sinful ways, growing in our relationship with the Lord, and faithfully fulfilling our obligations to God and to one another. For many centuries, Christian believers expressed this interior attitude of vigilant anticipation of Christ's return by facing east toward the rising sun during the celebration of Mass.

But in addition to his past and future comings, there is a third, less visible, but no less important, coming of Christ for which we must prepare during Advent: his coming into our hearts and our lives right here in this present time. If we don't allow Christ to be born in our hearts through grace, filling us with peace and joy and empowering us to grow in genuine love for God and for each other, then our celebration of Christ's historic birth loses its meaning--and furthermore, we will not be prepared to meet Christ our Judge at the end of our lives or at the end of the world. During this season of Advent, we can prepare a fitting place for Christ within our hearts through prayer and reflection, the reading of Scripture, the worthy reception of the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist, and practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Surrounded by our secularized culture's pervasive anti-Christian parody of Christmas, it may take some real effort to get ourselves mentally and spiritually immersed into the true spirit of Advent and to live this season in a truly meaningful way. In contrast to the noise and frenzied pace of "the holiday season," Advent is a time of watching and waiting, a time of hopeful anticipation, a time of yearning for the Lord to come and free us from our sins. Certainly, living Advent properly does not exclude material preparations for Christmas such as shopping, decorating, gift giving and the like within reasonable limits, but these external things should be done within the context of our spiritual preparation for the three comings of Christ.

Since the true spirit of Advent is obviously incompatible with the secular spirit of the holiday season, it's not enough simply to make a little room for Jesus in our lives while allowing the attitudes and dictates of secularized society to guide our Christmas preparations. As Catholics, we should be explicitly countercultural, rejecting the profanation of the sacred feast of Christ's birthday while planting the seeds of a vibrant new Christian culture for future generations. Keeping an Advent wreath on the kitchen table or an Advent calendar on the refrigerator, listening to a CD or MP3 of Advent music, erecting a Nativity scene in our house or front yard, waiting until closer to Christmas to set up the tree, and preparing within our hearts a personal birthday gift for Jesus are small but significant things we can and should do to prepare our hearts and minds for a spiritually profitable celebration of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. When Christ comes, may he truly find us awake and ready to meet Him.

I wish you a blessed and grace-filled Advent season!