The Handmaiden of the Liturgy
Sacred music has long been held as the handmaiden of the liturgy of the Church, and as such, is best understood within the context of the liturgy and its purpose in the life of the Church; whenever the Church speaks of sacred music, it is always in the context of her liturgy.
Liturgy is primarily the opus Dei, the work of God, because nothing is added to the perfection or majesty of God himself by our worship of him. He is the primary agent, the source of its action. Hence in sacred scripture the Psalmist, inspired by the Holy Ghost affirms, “Thou hast no delight in sacrifice; if I brought thee an offering, thou wouldst not accept it. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a wounded heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps 51:16-17). Likewise, in the letter to the Hebrews, “And it is by the will of God that we have been consecrated, through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all … [f]or by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are thus consecrated … let us therefore give thanks to God, and so worship Him as He would be worshipped, with reverence and awe; for our God is a devouring fire” (Heb 10:10, 14; 12:28b-29). Through the means of the Liturgy, God meets us, forms us by his grace, draws us deeper into friendship, union (communion), with himself for his glorification.
Secondarily, liturgy is the Church's response to God's initial reaching out to us; we worship in response to his mercy and invitation to dwell in Charity, the friendship offered by the Most Holy Trinity. Sacred music, the music which has been “set aside” exclusively for the worship and veneration of God, forms an intrinsic part of the Church’s response to God. As Pope St. Pius X once extolled the Church, sacred music must help move the faithful to devotion and reception of the graces given through the liturgy, accomplished by observing four main principles: 1) doing so by adding greater efficacy to the texts of the liturgy, 2) by being holy, set apart from worldly styles, 3) be true art, imparting upon the minds of the faithful the desired efficacy aimed at by the Church, and 4) it must be universal, the musical idioms of the nations adopting these principles as their standard for composing sacred music (see Tra Le Sollecitudini, Instruction on Sacred Music). In this way, sacred music serves as the handmaiden to the liturgy, aiding and assisting it.
To better understand this analogy, we have only to look at the most important handmaiden in sacred scripture, our Lady. Her response to Elizabeth during the visitation is itself a song, the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord; my spirit has found joy in God, who is my Saviour, because He has looked graciously upon the lowliness of His handmaid” (Lk 1:47-48). Our Lady epitomizes the role of handmaiden to God in that she is always pointing the faithful to her Son. Although she is the most beautiful of all God created, in humility she does not draw attention to herself. Rather, her beauty and goodness are subservient to the majesty of God, offered to demonstrate his glory. Just as our Lady behaves this way in relationship to God, so too sacred music ought to relate to the liturgy.
Music can rightly be considered a language, one which communicates through logical patterns of sounds and silences, engaging the human soul’s memory and imagination at a level more instinctual and spiritual than mere human speech can. This unique power of music is further highlighted when married to the liturgical life of the Church, especially when joined to texts from scripture, fostering greater devotion amongst the faithful. This is simultaneously the work of God in us and our response to him. He enlightens our minds and hearts through the gift of Faith, deepening our contemplation and divine intimacy with him; in reverence to him we ought to strive to offer our best art to him because of love of him. It ought to have as its objective aiding hearts and minds to contemplate and to dwell in love for God, not bringing undue attention to itself.
Sacred music can rightly be considered beautiful which most perfectly accomplishes these ends, as a handmaid to the liturgy. The Church therefore developed and perpetually encourages the liberal use of Gregorian chant and polyphony as the primary music for the liturgy, complemented with hymnody. Only when music can lead one into contemplation in the silence of the presence of God does it accomplish its true purpose.
Deacon Lewis King is in the final year of his seminary formation for the priesthood. A native of South Carolina, King converted to Catholicism in 2008. He holds bachelors and graduate degrees in Sacred Music, and has been active in music ministry for over two decades.