"You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord
Who abide in His shadow for life
Say to the Lord
"My refuge, my rock in whom I trust!"
And He will raise you up on eagles' wings
Bear you on the breath of dawn
Make you to shine like the sun
And hold you in the palm of His hand."
Thus begins "On Eagles' Wings," by Fr. Michael Joncas. Many of you have sung this hymn for years at Mass, and it is beloved by Catholics and other Christians all around the nation. This song has been criticized for a very long time, but its defenders point out that it's a good song because it's scriptural, based on Psalm 91 and Isaiah 40. So what's wrong with this hymn? Why does it get so much grief?
It's a very pretty song, to be sure, with a nice melody that is memorable, so nothing wrong there. But take a careful look at the lyrics (I've linked the whole song), you'll notice the dominant pronoun is YOU, in reference to the congregation or to the self. It's easy to find this same sort of narcissistic bent in many contemporary hymns. Take for example "We Remember," by Marty Haugen:
We remember how you loved us to your death,
Again, as with "On Eagles' Wings," look at the pronouns: we, us, we, us, we, we, we, we, we. See a pattern there? While it's true that we are fully dependent on God and that His great desire is to love us entirely and let Him live through us, that's not exactly the purpose of liturgical music.
Vatican II specifically points out that, "By sacred music is understood that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form." The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that, "Adoration is the first act of the virtue of religion. To adore God is to acknowledge him as God, as the Creator and Savior, the Lord and Master of everything that exists, as infinite and merciful Love. "You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve," says Jesus, citing Deuteronomy." That acknowledgement must be apparent in all aspects of the Mass, from the words and gestures of the priest to the attitude of the lectors and ministers, along with the mindset and active presence on the part of the people.
Unfortunately, many of us have witnessed Church music become more of a show than an act of worship. Personally, I'm a big fan of Christian rock, but I would never want to hear a choir belt out Third Day's "Cry Out to Jesus" for the post-Communion hymn, even if it's a great song. Some liturgists will defend their choices by saying that they want the music to be "relatable" to the person in the pew, presumably to keep them from getting bored and thus not returning to Mass. You hear that a lot in schools, too, where campus ministers want to keep it fun so the kids can get into it.
Then there's the post-Communion performance--it's supposed to be a meditation, but all too often, it's a vehicle for a choir or cantor to show off their skills, to thunderous applause sometimes (or we cringe under the oppression of bad singing). People afterward will talk about how great so-and-so sounded, or how awful they were, but not about how the song lifted their soul toward God. I realize I'm generalizing here, but this is something I witness a lot. Sure, there are many choirs and cantors that are sincere, including the showy ones. The problem is a deeper one than just the music, and it points to the damage that our secular culture has done to our very souls.
I think there are a couple of important things that we must do to remedy this problem. First, we really have to think about what the Mass really is and why we're there. If it's just that we're there because we're told to, then little will change. It's only when Catholic parents take charge of the spiritual lives of their families and really instruct their children that we can start to see a change, because then, the whole attitude among the congregation will be much more positive. But that means that parents need to educate themselves--unfortunately, a lot of parents these days were not given good instruction by their parents or religion teachers. They even may have encountered what I did in high school, where religion class consisted of "how do you feel about that?"
Along the same lines, parents should stop giving their children a choice of whether to attend Mass. That's part of a larger, permissive aspect of our culture that is resulting in the current issue of millennials being "offended" or needing "trigger warnings" because they're so oppressed by supposed micro-aggressions. That kind of stuff is fostered when mom and dad say, "OK, Dakota, do you want to come to church with mommy and daddy today?" Of course not! Little Dakota wants to sleep in! Little Dakota needs to learn that fostering a spiritual life takes commitment and sacrifice, which is trained from a young age.
The second thing has to come from music ministers and from the clergy working together with the shared purpose of using music to increase the level of worship and not just entertaining the congregation. Vatican II instructs music ministers to give "pride of place" to the organ, along with Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony. Other instruments may be used, but only if they're appropriate. Musicam Sacram makes an important point, that "those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and from popular devotions." I believe drums fall into that category, at least in North American culture.
Also, these instruments (including the organ) "should not so overwhelm the voices that it is difficult to make out the text." Musicam Sacram also goes on to say:
In selecting the kind of sacred music to be used, whether it be for the choir or for the people, the capacities of those who are to sing the music must be taken into account. No kind of sacred music is prohibited from liturgical actions by the Church as long as it corresponds to the spirit of the liturgical celebration itself and the nature of its individual parts, and does not hinder the active participation of the people...
That means that the choir and cantor have a sacred duty to lead the people in a way that promotes this worship. If a choir or cantor can't sing or properly lead people, then they should be disbanded and new, more competent people brought in.
What all this comes down to is that music has the power to drive the heart and mind upward to the heavens, so we shouldn't be satisfied with the sentimental slop that we've been given for the last 40 years. We as faithful Catholics shouldn't be satisfied with substandard music or singing. We shouldn't allow ourselves to be bombarded with drums that bash the spirituality straight out of us. We shouldn't allow ourselves to be oppressed with music that creates chaos within us, or that robs us of those quiet moments that we all need, especially in something as delicate as the Holy Mass. We need to demand more from our ministers and priests and not let them cheat us out of that worship that we want to be able to give to God during the Mass.
"On Eagles' Wings" or "Anthem" or secular songs like "Morning Has Broken" (made popular by a non Christian, but written by Eleanor Farjeon in 1931) aren't good enough, and it's time that we start to demand more.
**EDIT: I mistakenly identified "Morning Has Broken" as being written by a non Christian. It was made popular in the 1970's by Cat Stephens, who converted to Islam. It was written by Eleanor Farjeon about 20 years before she converted to Catholicism. HERE's the Wikipedia article on her.
witty; cunning; crafty
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