Matters Liturgical: November 2008 Archives

Those Noble Hymns

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Those noble hymns, which had solaced anchorites on their mountains, monks in their cells, priests in bearing up against the burden and heat of the day, missionaries in girding themselves for martyrdom--henceforth became as a sealed book and as a dead letter.
(John Mason Neale,1818-1866)

A Disaster

One of the most scandalous post-conciliar ruptures with liturgical continuity occurred with the publication of the American edition of the Liturgy of the Hours by the Catholic Book Publishing Company in 1975. The American Catholic clergy and faithful were given four volumes flawed by scant regard for the model provided by the Editio Typica of the Liturgia Horarum. These volumes betray no understanding or experience of the exigencies of choral prayer.

What Were They Thinking?

The editors had no idea, for example, that the function of antiphons is to launch and repose the psalmody, both musically -- being in function of the mode of the psalm tone -- and theologically, by providing a hermeneutical key to the psalm in a given liturgical context. Stupidly, they placed the psalm prayer after the doxology and before the repetition of the antiphon, thus annihilating one of the antiphon's principal functions and fracturing the natural flow of the ending of the doxology into the antiphon. Is it really possible that no one in the employ of the American bishops noticed this in 1975?

And the Hymns

The most egregious deficiency of the American edition however, is, with precious few exceptions, the arbitrary replacement of the Church's official hymnody with a potpourri of compositions never intended for the Divine Office. This is a problem that John Mason Neale addressed in an article published in 1849:

Hymns of the Western Church

Among the most pressing of the inconveniences consequent on the adoption of the vernacular language in the office-books of the Reformation, must be reckoned the immediate disuse of all the hymns of the Western Church. That treasury, into which the saints of every age and country had poured their contributions, delighting, each in his generation, to express their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows, in language which whould be the heritage of their Holy Mother until the end of time--those noble hymns, which had solaced anchorites on their mountains, monks in their cells, priests in bearing up against the burden and heat of the day, missionaries in girding themselves for martyrdom--henceforth became as a sealed book and as a dead letter.

Day Unto Day and Night Unto Night

The prayers and collects, the versicles and responses, of the earlier Church might, without any great loss of beauty, be preserved; but the hymns, whether of the sevenfold daily office, of the weekly commemoration of creation and redemption, of the yearly revolution of the Church's seasons, or of the birthdays to glory of martyrs and confessors--those hymns by which day unto day had uttered speech, and night unto night had taught knowledge--could not, by the hands then employed in ecclesiastical matters, be rendered into another, and that a then comparatively barbarous, tongue.

Still Expecting in Patience the Rest

One attempt the Reformers made--the version of the Veni Creator Spiritus in the Ordinal; and that, so far perhaps fortunately, was the only one. . . . The Church of England had, then, to wait. She had, as it has well been said, to begin over again. There might arise saints within herself, who, one by one, should enrich her with hymns in her own language; there might arise poets, who should be capable of supplying her office-books with versions of the hymns of earlier times. In the meantime the psalms were her own; and grievous as was the loss she had sustained, she might be content to suffice herself with those, and expect in patience the rest.


The hymn at Vespers of Christ the King evokes both the feast of Corpus Christi and that of the Sacred Heart. This is consonant with the thought of Pope Pius XI who, in instituting the feast of Christ the King in 1925, situated it in the lineage of the two other later Christological feasts. Here are two the two pertinent stanzas:

Ad hoc cruenta ab arbore
pendes apertis bracchiis,
diraque fossum cuspide
cor igne flagrans exhibes.

For this Thou hangedst on the Tree
With arms outstretched in loving plea;
For this Thou shewedst forth Thy Heart,
On fire with love, pierced by the dart.

Ad hoc in aris abderis
vini dapisque imagine,
fundens salutem filiis
transverberato pectore.

And yet that wounded side sheds grace
Forth from the altar's holy place,
Where, veiled 'neath humblest bread and wine,
Abides for man the life divine.

Introibo ad altare Dei

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Baldacchino (Roma, San Pietro in Vaticano, 1624-1635).jpg

On this feast of the Dedication of the Roman Basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul, my thoughts turn to the mystery of the altar in Christian worship. It was, in fact, at the dedication of the Vatican Basilica of Saint Peter on November 18, that Pope Saint Sylvester, who reigned from 314 to 335, decreed that, henceforth, altars should be made of stone.

"In this Church did the Pope set up an altar of stone, and pour ointment thereon, and ordain that from henceforth no altars should be set up, save of stone." (Lesson at Matins of the Dedication of the Basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul at Rome, 18 November)

Altar, Sacrifice, and Priest

"Then Noah built an altar to the Lord" (Gen 8:20). While both Cain and Abel brought offerings to the Lord (Gen 4:3), they did so without presenting them upon an altar. Noah is the first altar-builder of the Bible. After the flood, Noah builds an altar and offers burnt offerings upon it (cf. Gen 8:20). Thus does the mystic triad of altar, offering, and offerer appear in the Bible for the first time. Noah, his altar, and his sacrifice already foreshadow the mystery of Christ sung in the reformed Roman Missal's magnificent fifth Preface for Paschaltide:

Christ, by the offering of His own Body,
brought to perfection the ancient sacrifices in the truth of the cross
and, in commending Himself to you for our salvation,
showed Himself to be at once the priest, the altar, and the lamb.

Earth Rising Heavenward

After Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all built altars to the Lord. In addition to being the place of sacrifices and libations, the altars built by the patriarchs marked a place of divine intervention. They localized and memorialized the encounter of man with God. Originally a mound of rocks or elevation, the altar symbolizes the earth rising above itself and straining heavenward. It is, at the same time, the place where heaven bends low to touch the earth, to receive man's offering.

Sacrifice and Holocaust

When, in a sacrificial action, a creature is placed upon an altar, it is made over to God and given up to His hands. Jesus Himself says in Matthew 23:19 that it is, "the altar that makes the offering sacred." It is by virtue of being placed on the altar that the offering becomes a sacrifice. Saint Augustine (in Book X of The City of God) teaches that whatsoever is placed on the altar becomes sacrificium, a thing made over to God, a thing made sacred. When the same creature is set ablaze in a holocaust, its rising smoke carries the prayer of the offerer into heaven where God takes pleasure in its fragrance.


The altar is the place of a mysterious exchange. The altar of the sacrifice is, at the same time, the sacred table of a mysterious at-one-ment with God. Offerings of food and libations become the food and drink of God; food and drink received from the altar become the means of communion with God.

Bonding in Blood

The altar is also the place of a bonding in blood. Moses takes the blood of sacrifices, pours it upon altar, and throws it over the people (cf. Ex 24:5-8). Altar-blood becomes the blood of a covenant, the blood-bond between God and the people. "And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. . . . And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, 'Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with these words" (Ex 24:6-8).

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

Donations for Silverstream Priory