Chant and Scripture

Scripture in the Liturgy

Scott Hahn, in Rome Sweet Home, writes this about his first experience of the Mass:

"All of a sudden I realized: this is where the Bible belongs. This was the setting in which this precious family heirloom was meant to be read, proclaimed, and expounded."

In saying this, Dr. Hahn refers not only to the lessons from Scripture, and the priest's homily, but also to many other parts of the Mass; quotations from and allusions to Scripture permeate the Mass. To give just a few:

  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (Entrance Rite, 2 Cor 13:14)
  • Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. (Gloria, Lk 2:13)
  • Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of power and might: heaven and earth are full of your glory. (Sanctus, Is 6:3 and Rv 4:8)
  • ...the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek. (Roman Canon, alluding to Gn 4:1-4, Gn 22:1-19, Gn 14:18-20, Ps 109(110):4, and Heb chs. 5-7)
  • This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. (Elevation after the Fraction, Jn 1:29)

This abundance of Scripture is not limited to the fixed texts of the Mass; an examination of the Propers, or changeable texts, reveals the following (Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time):

Introit Ps 94(95):1, 6, 7
Gradual Ps 95(96):8, 9; Ps 28(29):9
Alleluia Ps 116(117):1
Offertory Ps 16(17):5, 6, 7
Communion Ps 42(43):4

The Mass, or Divine Liturgy of the Eucharist, has as its apex a deep and personal encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate; it is only fitting, then, that it also contains a deep and personal encounter with his written Word. The Psalms and the Gospels are treasured particularly; the former for their deep foreshadowing of Christ, and the latter for the words of Christ himself.

Liturgical Chant, Scriptural Chant

Gregorian chant, founded as it is upon the liturgical texts, also participates in this Scriptural spirituality: to sing Gregorian chant is to pray with the Scriptures, guided by the wisdom of the Church as expressed in her liturgy. As a locus traditionis, a point of reference for Sacred Tradition, it transmits the experience of our predecessors, and unites us with them in our common song.

Some may worry that the Latin text is a barrier to prayer; in our time we are used to the study of Scripture as an analytical exercise, requiring immediate comprehension of the language. This need not be a problem; modern editions of the chant provide chapter and verse at the beginning of a piece. But the "Bible study" offered by Gregorian chant is more profound. St. Teresa of Avila, in describing contemplative prayer, says this:

"Thus, when in this state of Quiet, I, who understand hardly anything that I recite in Latin, particularly the Psalter, have not only been able to understand the text as though it were in Spanish, but have even found to my delight that I can penetrate the meaning of the Spanish."

The "state of Quiet" St. Teresa refers to is not a privileged mystical experience available only to a select few Christians; rather, it is a stilling of the soul before God, turning towards him, and opening to him, with no thought of self, no attempt to "get something out of it," but listening in humility.