An anonymous early Renaissance-era English poet once wrote,
Where griping griefs the heart would wound
And doleful dumps the mind oppress,
There music with her silver sound
With speed is wont to send redress.
One would be hard-pressed to find a time, place, or people in history that did not make music. Music, indeed, seems to be a fundamentally human activity where sound and silence work together to form a language that expresses more than is possible in ordinary speech. It is no wonder, really, that most religions make use of music, precisely for its ability to suggest something beyond the ordinary. Far from being seen merely as a recreational device or a commercial commodity, ancient and medieval musicians and philosophers saw music as something pertaining to the harmony (from the Greek word for “joint”) of the universe and of man. By following the design of the Creator, nature made music; by living lives of virtue, man’s life was music; by making sounds through instruments, man expressed and imitated the music of life and nature. When several people join together to sing songs of virtue and truth, a true, just and good community is formed. Due to the power of music, it is no wonder, then, that, in the West, music was carefully prepared for the source and summit of Christian life: the Mass.
Many contemporary Catholics might be surprised to know that the dominant use of hymns at Mass is a relatively recent innovation, and is actually not the preferred mode of singing according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. While hymns have their rightful place in the Divine Office, what characterized the Mass throughout the centuries was the use of antiphons found already in the text of the Mass itself. Antiphons are so named because they were done to sound (Greek phone “sound”) back and forth (Greek anti “in return”), between people in the form of a musical dialogue. These antiphons, typically taken from the Psalms and Sacred Scripture, were not randomly chosen by music directors or clergy members, but were fundamentally linked to the spirituality, the understanding, and the praying of every individual Mass. Instead of singing human poems like the pagans, Christians sang the song of the Holy Spirit, i.e., Scripture. And by singing Scripture, the People of God became harmonized together in the Spirit, and thus they themselves became a Holy Song to God. Throughout their singing, they unlocked for themselves the divine mysteries of the Lord’s Supper.
In today’s Ordinary Form of the Mass, we still have three antiphons (or four, depending on whether the Gradual replaces the Responsorial Psalm). The first is the Introit, or Entrance Chant, which accompanies the entrance procession. Historically the Introit was so important to the people that they would often name masses after its proper Introit. We see this still today with Laetare and Gaudete Sunday. The psalms of the Introit not only named the Mass, but they set the entire tone of the Mass by pointing to the profound spiritual meaning of all the texts and prayers that would be said in light of salvation history. Hence, the 13th century liturgist Guiliemus Durandus writes,
“The Mass is begun with the Introit. The Holy Fathers and the Prophets, long before the advent of Christ, hungered after these times and predicted them. Long before His coming, they offered Him their desires, their works, their praises and their prayers, all of which things are figured in the Mass. With regard to the Introit, it is the antiphon that provides us with the title of the Mass and which provides us with their poetical and prophetical predictions, the desires of their holy prayers as they patiently await the coming of the Son of God and the incarnation of God Himself.”
The other antiphons at Mass, the Offertory and the one for Communion, also use Sacred Scripture to clearly show the spiritual meaning of what is happening at Mass. The Offertory was meant to accompany the presentation of the gifts by the lay people, and it shows that this dignified action of the lay people has been foreshadowed by the great prophets, and, indeed, is now being fulfilled in the midst of the worshipping community. The Communion antiphon likewise reveals that in Eucharist, the People of God are completing what has been foreshadowed in ages past. It, therefore, is meant to move the people, emotionally and intellectually, to a greater understanding of the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood.
To briefly illustrate how antiphons illuminate the meaning of the Mass, celebrate the participation of the lay people, and move our minds and hearts to contemplate God’s gifts, here are the antiphons from the Solemnity of The Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), and the listing of the readings for year A. Take some time to see how well they all fit together to form a united gift of prayer.
INTROIT: (Ps 80:17,2,3,11) He fed them with the finest of wheat, alleluia; and with honey from the rock he satisfied them, alleluia, alleluia. V. Rejoice in the honor of God our helper; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
1st READING: Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a
2nd READING: 1 Corinthians 10:16-17
GOSPEL: John 6:51-59
OFFERTORY: The Lord opened the doors of heaven and rained down manna upon them to eat; he gave them bread from heaven; man ate the bread of angels, alleluia. (Psalm 77:23-25)
COMMUNION: He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him, says the Lord. (John 6:57)
By singing together people form a community; they become harmonized with one another. By singing the antiphons at Mass, Christians form a community that is united, in Christ, to all the men and women throughout history who have anticipated, rejoiced in, and look forward again to the coming of the Lord. In an era marked so much by individualism, perhaps a way to recover and nourish our identity as the People of God, is to rediscover the immense treasure of antiphons. In an era where disputes often occur between peoples of differing tastes in liturgical music, perhaps a way to come together as a single body of worship is to join our voices together in the songs of the Mass: the antiphons.