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Online Edition - Vol. 5, No. 1: March 1999

Ritus Narcissus:

Why Do We Sing Ourselves and Celebrate Ourselves?

by Father Paul Scalia

Imagine the following scene: You arrive at Mass on Sunday, eager to thank God for His goodness to you. You slide into the pew early, kneel in prayer, and direct your praise and worship to your Lord and God. You stand as the song leader introduces the opening hymn: "Table of Plenty". Suddenly your praise comes to a screeching halt, not because of your own prayers, but because of what you are singing. In fact you are no longer praising God at all, but singing to the others:

Come to the feast of heaven and earth!
Come to the table of plenty!
God will provide for all that we need,
here at the table of plenty.

Now it gets worse: you begin to sing His lines:

O, come and sit at my table
where saints and sinners are friends.
I wait to welcome the lost and lonely
to share the cup of my love.

And so at the very beginning of Mass, your conversation with God is derailed and transformed into a participation in the congregation's introspection.

To appreciate the damage done by such hymns, we must first call to mind two essential aspects of the Mass: presence and dialogue. First of all, what distinguishes the Mass from all other forms of worship is the re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice. The Mass does not merely recall or reenact Christ's redemptive act but in fact makes present the mystery of faith, the passion, death and resurrection of Christ (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1366).

Second, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and indeed throughout the Mass makes possible a real dialogue between God and man; it creates an active conversation. The remembrance of someone does not lead to dialogue with that person; only to reminiscing. The presence of Christ in the Mass, however, inspires us to speak to Him as only the beloved can speak to the Lover. Thus the Mass is a dialogue between Christ and the Church, between God and man, in which God speaks His lines and we speak ours. He speaks to us through the readings and (we hope) the homily, while we respond to Him through the prayers of the priest, our personal prayers, and the hymns.

Accordingly, active participation at Mass requires the faithful to acknowledge the presence of Christ and enter the dialogue, taking the words of the Bride as their own. They embody the Bride, and their Mass parts -- the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei ­ express her desire for union with the Bridegroom. Other texts used at Mass should reflect and deepen this sentiment. The dialogue reaches its culmination at the Consecration, when the Bridegroom speaks His definitive words of love and thus becomes really present to His Bride in the Eucharist.

Given the lyrics of much contemporary liturgical music, however, we must ask what has become of this dialogue and our ability to enter it. Many hymns have us sing only about ourselves and to ourselves, even going so far as to usurp God's part. Such words fail to convey the true meaning of the Mass as a dialogue between Christ and the Church. The offending lyrics come in two varieties: in the first, we sing to one another and about one another, but do not include God in the conversation; and in the second, we sing God's parts.

The Cult of Conceit: Why Are We Singing to Each Other?

A conversation demands that we include the other in the discussion. If someone speaks to you about himself, about you, about himself and you, but never really with you, you would call that person conceited. So have we become in our conversation with God: He humbles Himself to dwell among us under the form of bread and wine, while we ignore Him and sing about ourselves and to ourselves.

Of course, many traditional hymns also address the other believers rather than God. But a close look at such hymns (for example, "Now thank we all our God", "Praise, my soul, the King of heaven", or "Ye watchers and ye holy ones") reveals a crucial difference: the traditional hymns address others only to invite them to worship God, while most contemporary songs invite us to glorify ourselves.

"Bread of Life" by Rory Cooney, provides a splendid example of this self-centered conversation. The theme of the song lends itself to the Communion rite. But unfortunately, the words distort the meaning of Communion and the dialogue that should be taking place:

I myself am the bread of life
you and I are the bread of life
taken and blessed, broken and shared
by Christ
that the world may live.

Aside from the fact that this song radically distorts Our Lord 's "Bread of Life" discourse, it also leaves God out of the conversation: we talk to ourselves. As the communicants come forward to receive the living God, they are singing about themselves. "Sing a New Church", a triumphalist paean to diversity by Delores Dufner, OSB, also fosters the Cult of Us:

Let us bring the gifts that differ
And, in splendid, varied ways,
Sing a new Church into being,
One in faith and love and praise

So the chorus goes, and the verses similarly proclaim us to ourselves. Passing over the tremendous ecclesiological problems in the text, we should question what the song communicates to the congregation: songs about us constitute worship of the Almighty. We have replaced Him as the focus of worship.

A favorite Communion song in some parishes is "This Bread That We Share" by Dominic MacAller:

This bread that we share is the body of Christ,
this cup of blessing his blood.
We who come to this table bring all our wounds to be healed.
When we love one another as Christ has loved us,
we become God's daughters and sons.
We become for each other the bread, the cup,
the presence of Christ revealed.

Again the words, which clumsily try to convey the beautiful theology of the Mystical Body, foster in the congregation a focus on itself at the very moment that it should be speaking to and about Himself.

One of the worst offenders in this cult of conceit is a song called "Anthem" by Tom Conry:

We are called, we are chosen.
We are Christ for one another.
We are promise to tomorrow,
while we are for him today.
We are sign, we are wonder,
we are sower, we are seed.
We are harvest, we are hunger.
We are question, we are creed.

Count them: 13 separate uses of "I" or "we" in these lines. Nor do the verses help: they do not sing to Christ, but only about Him and to ... us! Although the verses do emphasize our inadequacy before God and dependence on Him, nevertheless, the dialogue with the Almighty has been shut down, and we sing to one another about one another and only secondarily about Him, the object of all our affections.

Songs such as these give us a wonderfully ridiculous image of a bride so enamoured with herself that she cannot see the Bridegroom awaiting her at the altar.

The Confused Dialogue: Why Are We Singing God's Part?

Further, in order to carry on a conversation, each party must know his role and speak his lines. You and I cannot speak if I forget my role and insist on saying your lines. Romeo and Juliet would never have been lovers if he had strolled onto the scene and lamented, "O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?" Nor would he have thought her worth the trouble if she, while throwing open the shutters, asked, "What light through yonder window breaks?" The same holds true for the Liturgy: when we seize God's lines we cripple the conversation and therefore the relationship.

For example, in the song "Hosea" by Gregory Norbet, OSB, we sing God's words to us:

Come back to me with all your heart,
don't let fear keep us apart.
Long have I waited for your coming home to me
and living deeply our new life.

The question arises, To whom are we speaking? We cannot possibly be speaking to God, because it would make no sense for us to speak these words to Him. One hopes that these words are not intended for each other, for that would be the height of arrogance. In fact, when we sing these words we speak to no one in particular. We no longer converse with God at all, but simply reminisce about Him.

Similarly with the chorus of the song "I Have Loved You" by Michael Joncas:

I have loved you with an everlasting love,
I have called you and you are mine;
I have loved you with an everlasting love,
I have called you and you are mine.

Of course, the "I" here is God ­ not us. So why are we singing God's part? Again, because this cannot possibly be conversational, we reduce the event to mere remembrance. With the elimination of the dialogue with God, active participation becomes nostalgic reminiscence.

At certain moments of the Mass, the peculiarity of these lyrics becomes strikingly clear. At Communion, for instance, when the Creator comes to dwell within His creatures, and we come forward to receive the Almighty, we often act like anything but creatures:

I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard my people cry,
all who dwell in dark and sin
my hand will save.
I who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?

Granted, the chorus of the song ("Here I Am" by Dan Schutte) reflects the proper dialogue. But the verses have us speaking in God's voice. That leaves us little room to recognize our dependence on Him and need for Him in the Eucharist.

Perhaps most offensive are those songs that take the words of Consecration as the refrain. For example, "Take and Eat" by Michael Joncas and James Quinn:

Take and eat; take and eat:
This is my body given up for you.
Take and drink; take and drink:
This is my blood given up for you.

More than any others, these lyrics eliminate the dialogue of the Mass by having us speak God's lines. The words of Consecration comprise God's final act of love for man: by them Christ gave Himself definitively to the Church; by them Christ continues to renew His sacrifice; by them Christ the Bridegroom presents Himself to His Bride. Priests have special reverence for these words, because in saying them they stand in the person of Christ and speak with the voice of Christ. The Consecration holds pride of place at Mass precisely because at that moment a man dares to speak the words of God the Son to God the Father.

Unfortunately, what should be regarded as sacred and exceptional is now common domain. We all sing -- to whom? -- what we should hear only from Christ. So how can we really understand its significance?

These and similar lyrics do not simply confuse the situation, they distort the Mass itself. By usurping God's role we abolish any sense of conversation and in effect deny the presence of Christ at Mass. We elevate ourselves to God's level and lower the Mass to a mere moment of remembrance.

Ritus Narcissus

The myth of Narcissus provides a good lesson for modern liturgy. The handsome young man, so enchanted with his own looks, sat gazing at his reflection in the water. He could not bring himself to leave his image and so grew rooted to the spot, admiring himself.

Too many current songs encourage us to do the same. We talk to ourselves and sing love songs to ourselves. Just as Narcissus's self-adulation rendered himself incapable of a relationship and therefore of love, so also these hymns of conceit cripple our ability to speak with God. If God sees that we are so smitten with our own presence, He may judge us unfit to enter His.

Father Scalia is a priest in the diocese of Arlington and a frequent contributor to the Adoremus Bulletin.

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