Music, hymnody should be worthy of the greatness of the Liturgy

Psalm 150: The Pope called for an examination of conscience that would rid our churches of ugly texts and music

At the General Audience on Wednesday, 26 February, the Holy Father comment­ed on Psalm 150, the last in the Psalter. It is a festive hymn, a great "alleluia" sung to the Lord. Every living being is invited to join in the song of praise. All men and women are called upon to sing a hymn of gratitude to the Creator for the gift of their existence. St Augustine sees the various musical instruments as symbols representing the saints: God's holy people are the trumpets, the cymbals, the tympani, the strings, the flutes, all instruments that produce a harmony of beautiful sounds. Every spirit that praises God is a voice raised in song; this is the music that is most pleasing to our Creator.

1. Psalm 150, which we have just pro­claimed, rings out for the second time in the Liturgy of Lauds: a festive hymn, an "alleluia" to the rhythm of music. It sets a spiritual seal on the whole Psalter, the book of praise, of song, of the liturgy of Israel.

God dwells in an inaccessible fortress and is close to humanity

The text is marvelously simple and transparent. We should just let ourselves be drawn in by the insistent call to praise the Lord: "Praise the Lord ... praise him ... praise him!". The Psalm opens presenting God in the two funda­mental aspects of his mystery. Certainly, he is transcendent, mysterious, beyond our horizon: his royal abode is the heav­enly "sanctuary", "his mighty heavens", a fortress that is inaccessible for the hu­man being. Yet he is close to us: he is present in the "holy place" of Zion and acts in history through his "mighty deeds" that reveal and enable one to ex­perience "his surpassing greatness" (cf. vv 1-2).

The Lord's mercy meets the praise of the faithful rising to Him

2. Thus between heaven and earth a channel of communication is established in which the action of the Lord meets the hymn of praise of the faithful. The liturgy unites the two holy places, the earthly temple and the infinite heavens, God and man, time and eternity.

During the prayer, we accomplish an ascent towards the divine light and to­gether experience a descent of God who adapts himself to our limitations in or­der to hear and speak to us, meet us and save us. The Psalmist readily urges us to find help for our praise in the prayerful encounter: sound the musical instruments of the orchestra of the tem­ple of Jerusalem, such as the trumpet, harp, lute, drums, flutes and cymbals. Moving in procession was also part of the ritual of Jerusalem (cf. Ps 117[118],27). The same appeal echoes in Psalm 46[47],8): "Sing praise with all your skill!".

Rediscover beauty of prayer and of the liturgy

3. Hence, it is necessary to discover and to live constantly the beauty of prayer and of the liturgy. We must pray to God with theologically correct formu­las and also in a beautiful and dignified way.

In this regard, the Christian commu­nity must make an examination of con­science so that the beauty of music and hymnody will return once again to the liturgy. They should purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated.

In this connection in the Epistle to the Ephesians we find an important ap­peal to avoid drunkenness and vulgarity, and to make room for the purity of liturgical hymns: "Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiri­tual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always
and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father" (5,18-20).

Let every living creature praise the Lord

4. The Psalmist ends with an invita­tion to "every living being" (cf. Ps 150,5), to give praise, literally "every breath", "everything that breathes", a term that in Hebrew means "every be­ing that breathes", especially "every liv­ing person" (cf. Dt 20,16; Jos 10,40; 11,11.14). In the divine praise then, first of all, with his heart and voice, the hu­man creature is involved. With him all living beings, all creatures in which there is a breath of life (cf. Gn 7,22) are called in spirit, so that they may raise their hymn of thanksgiving to the Cre­ator for the gift of life.

Following up on this universal invita­tion, St Francis left us his thoughtful "Canticle of Brother Sun", in which he invites us to praise and bless the Lord for all his creatures, reflections of his beauty and goodness (cf. Fonti Frances­cane [Franciscan Sources], 263).

Saints are the living musical instruments who praise the Lord

5. All the faithful should join in this hymn in a special way, as the Epistle to the Colossians suggests: "Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thank­fulness in your hearts to God" (Col­ 3,16).

On this subject, in his Expositions on the Psalms (Enarrationes in Psalmos), St Augustine sees the musical instru­ments as symbolizing the saints who praise God: "You are the trumpet, lute, harp, tambourine, choir, strings, organ, and cymbals of jubilation sounding well, because sounding in harmony. You are all of these. Do not here think of any­thing vile, anything transitory or any­thing ridiculous"... "every spirit (who) praises the Lord" is a voice of song to God (cf. Exposition on the Psalms, vol. VI, Oxford, 1857, p. 456).

So the highest music is what comes from our hearts. In our liturgies this is the harmony God wants to hear.

L'Osservatore Romano March 5, 2003
Reprinted with permission.