Nov 15, 2001


Online Edition – Vol. VII, No. 8: November 2001

Music and Liturgy

How does music express the Word of God, the Vision of God?

by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

The role of the arts music and images in the encounter with the divine in the "cosmic liturgy" is one of the topics Cardinal Ratzinger examines in The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press 2000). This important work, by the Catholic Church’s chief official on Catholic doctrine, was reviewed for AB by Father Paul Scalia ("The Scandal of the Liturgy", Dec.2000/Jan 2001). See also Jesuit Father James Schall’s column on the book.

Other excerpt from this book on the Adoremus site are:

"The Theology of Kneeling", from the November 2002 AB.

"Art and Liturgy: The Question of Images – Part I", from the February 2002 AB

and Part II of "The Question of Images",from March 2002 AB.

"The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer", from the May 2000 AB.

The chapter "Music and Liturgy" appears here with the first section condensed. It is reprinted with permission. –Editor


The importance of music in biblical religion is shown very simply by the fact that the verb "to sing" (with related words such as "song", and so forth) is one of the most commonly used words in the Bible. It occurs 309 times in the Old Testament and thirty-six in the New. When man comes into contact with God, mere speech is not enough. Areas of his existence are awakened that spontaneously turn into song. Indeed, man’s own being is insufficient for what he has to express, and so he invites the whole of creation to become a song with him: "Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your steadfast love is great to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds" (Psalm 57:8f).

We find the first mention of singing in the Bible after the crossing of the Red Sea. Israel has now been definitively delivered from slavery. In a desperate situation, it has had an overwhelming experience of God’s saving power. Just as Moses as a baby was taken from the Nile and only then really received the gift of life, so Israel now feels as if it has been "taken out of the water": it is free, newly endowed with the gift of itself from God’s own hands.

Year by year at the Easter Vigil, Christians join in the singing of this song, because they know that they have been "taken out of the water" by God’s power, set free by God for authentic life.

The Apocalypse of Saint John draws the bow back even farther. The final enemies of the People of God have stepped onto the stage of history: the Satanic trinity, consisting of the Beast, its image and number of its name. But then the Seer is given the vision of the conquerors, "standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb" (Revelation 15:3).

Liturgical singing is established in the midst of this great historical tension. For Israel, the event of salvation in the Red Sea will always be the main reason for praising God, the basic theme of the songs it sings before God. For Christians, the Resurrection of Christ is the true Exodus. He has stridden through the Red Sea of death itself, descended into the world of shadows, and smashed open the prison door. In Baptism this Exodus is made ever present. To be baptized is to be made a partaker, a contemporary, of Christ’s descent into hell and of his rising up therefrom, in which he takes us up into the fellowship of new life.

The man who believes in the Resurrection of Christ really does know what definitive salvation is. He realizes that Christians, who find themselves in the "New Covenant", now sing an altogether new song, which is truly and definitively new in view of the wholly new thing that has taken place in the Resurrection of Christ.

The definitively new song has been intoned, but still all the sufferings of history must be endured, all pain gathered in and brought into the sacrifice of praise, in order to be transformed there into a song of praise.

Here, then, is the theological basis for liturgical singing. We need to look more closely at its practical reality. With regard to the singing of the Church, we notice the same pattern of continuity and renewal that we have seen in the nature of the liturgy in general, in church architecture, and in sacred images.

The Holy Spirit is love, and it is he who produces the singing. He is the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit who draws us into love for Christ and so leads to the Father. In the musical sphere, biblical faith created its own form of culture, an expression appropriate to its inward essence, one that provides a standard for all later forms of inculturation.

The question of how far inculturation can go soon became a very practical one for early Christianity, especially in the area of music. The Christian community had grown out of the synagogue and, along with the christologically interpreted Psalter, had also taken over the synagogue’s way of singing. Very soon new Christian hymns and canticles came into being: first, with a wholly Old Testament foundation, the




, but then christologically focused on texts, preeminently the prologue of Saint John’s Gospel (1:1-18), the hymn of Christ in the epistle to the Philippians (2:6-11), and the song of Christ in the first epistle to Timothy (3:16). [But historically there have been various errors, and tension between faith and culture.]

During the nineteenth century, the century of self-emancipating subjectivity, this led in many places to obscuring of the sacred by the operatic. Pope Pius X tried to remove the operatic element from the liturgy and declared Gregorian chant and the great polyphony of the age of the Catholic Reformation to be the standard for liturgical music.

A clear distinction was made between liturgical music and religious music in general, just as visual art in the liturgy has to conform to different standards from those employed in religious art in general. Art in the liturgy has a very specific responsibility, and precisely as such does it serve as a wellspring of culture, which in the final analysis owes its existence to cult.

After the cultural revolution of recent decades, we are faced with a challenge no less great than that of the three moments of crisis that we have encountered in our historical sketch: the Gnostic temptation, the crisis at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modernity, and the crisis at the beginning of the twentieth century, which formed the prelude to the still more radical questions of the present day.

Three developments in recent music epitomize the problems that the Church has to face when she is considering liturgical music.

First of all, there is the cultural universalization that the Church has to undertake if she wants to get beyond the boundaries of the European mind. This is the question of what inculturation should look like in the realm of sacred music if, on the one hand, the identity of Christianity is to be preserved and, on the other, its universality is to be expressed in local forms.

Then there are two developments in music itself that have their origins primarily in the West but that for a long time have affected the whole of mankind in the world culture that is being formed. Modern so-called "classical" music has maneuvered itself, with some exceptions, into an elitist ghetto, which only specialists may enter — and even they do so with what may sometimes be mixed feelings. The music of the masses has broken loose from this and treads a very different path.

On the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (


). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. "Rock", on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.

What is to be done? Theoretical solutions are perhaps even less helpful here. There has to be renewal from within. Nevertheless, I am going to try to sum up the principles that have emerged from our look at the inner foundations of Christian sacred music.

The music of Christian worship is related to


in three senses:

1. It is related to the events of God’s saving action to which the Bible bears witness and which the liturgy makes present. God’s action continues in the history of the Church, but it has its unshakable center in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ, his Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension. This takes up, interprets, and brings to fulfillment the history of salvation in the Old Testament as well as the hopes and experiences of deliverance in the religious history of mankind. In liturgical music, based as it is on biblical faith, there is, therefore, a clear dominance of the Word; this music is a higher form of proclamation. Ultimately, it rises up out of the love that responds to God’s love made flesh in Christ, the love that for us went unto death. After the Resurrection, the Cross is by no means a thing of the past, and so this love is always marked by pain at the hiddenness of God, by the cry that rises up from the depths of anguish,

Kyrie eleison

(Lord, have mercy), by hope and by supplication. But it also has the privilege, by anticipation, of experiencing the reality of the Resurrection, and so it brings with it the joy of being loved, that gladness of heart that Haydn said came upon him when he set liturgical texts to music.

Thus the relation of liturgical music to


means, first of all, simply its relation to words. That is why singing in the liturgy has priority over instrumental music, though it does not in any way exclude it.

It goes without saying that the biblical and liturgical texts are the normative words from which liturgical music has to take its bearings. This does not rule out the continuing creation of "new songs", but instead inspires them and assures them of a firm grounding in God’s love for mankind and His work of redemption.

2. Saint Paul tells us that of ourselves we do not know how to pray as we ought but that the Spirit himself intercedes for us "with sighs too deep for words" (Rom 8:26). Prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit, both prayer in general and that particular kind of prayer which is the gift of singing and playing before God. The Holy Spirit is love. He enkindles love in us and thus moves us to sing. Now the Spirit of Christ "takes what is [Christ’s]" (cf. Jn 16:14), and so the gift that comes from Him, the gift that surpasses all words, is always related to Christ, the Word, the great Meaning that creates and sustains all life.

Words are superseded, but not the Word, the


. This is the second, deeper sense in which liturgical music is related to


. The Church’s Tradition has this in mind when it talks about the sober inebriation caused in us by the Holy Spirit. There is always an ultimate sobriety, a deeper rationality, resisting any decline into irrationality and immoderation.

We can see what this means in practice if we look at the history of music. The writings of Plato and Aristotle on music show that the Greek world in their time was faced with a choice between two kinds of worship, two different images of God and man. Now what this choice came down to concretely was a choice between two fundamental types of music.

On the one hand, there is the music that Plato ascribes, in line with mythology, to Apollo, the god of light and reason. This is the music that draws senses into spirit and so brings man to wholeness. It does not abolish the senses, but inserts them into the unity of this creature that is man. It elevates the spirit precisely by wedding it to the senses, and it elevates the senses by uniting them with the spirit. Thus this kind of music is an expression of man’s special place in the general structure of being. But then there is the music that Plato ascribes to Marsyas, which we might describe, in terms of cultic history, as "Dionysian". It drags man into the intoxication of the senses, crushes rationality, and subjects the spirit to the senses. The way Plato (and more moderately, Aristotle) allots instruments and keys to one or other of these two kinds of music is now obsolete and may in many respects surprise us. But the Apollonian/Dionysian alternative runs through the whole history of religion and confronts us again today. Not every kind of music can have a place in Christian worship. It has its standards, and that standard is the


. If we want to know whom we are dealing with, the Holy Spirit or the unholy spirit, we have to remember that it is the Holy Spirit who moves us to say, "Jesus is Lord" (I Cor 12:3). The Holy Spirit leads us to the


, and He leads us to a music that serves the


as a sign of the

sursum corda

, the lifting up of the human heart. Does it integrate man by drawing him to what is above, or does it cause his disintegration into formless intoxication or mere sensuality? That is the criterion for a music in harmony with


, a form of that

logike latreia



-worthy worship) of which we spoke in the first part of this book.

3. The Word incarnate in Christ, the


, is not just the power that gives meaning to the individual, not even just the power that gives meaning to history. No, he is the creative Meaning from which the universe comes and which the universe, the cosmos, reflects. That is why this Word leads us out of individualism into the communion of saints spanning all times and places. This is the "broad place" (Ps 31:8), the redemptive breadth into which the Lord places us. But its span stretches still farther. As we have seen, Christian Liturgy is always a cosmic liturgy. What does this mean for our question? The Preface, the first part of the Eucharistic Prayer, always ends with the affirmation that we are singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" together with the cherubim and seraphim and with all the choirs of heaven. The liturgy is echoing here the vision of God in Isaiah chapter 6. In the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the prophet sees the throne of God, protected by the seraphim, who call to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory" (Is 6:1-3). In the celebration of Holy Mass, we insert ourselves into this liturgy that always goes before us. All our singing is a singing and praying with the great liturgy that spans the whole of creation.

Among the Fathers, it was especially Saint Augustine who tried to connect this characteristic view of the Christian liturgy with the world view of Greco-Roman antiquity. In his early work "On Music" he is still completely dependent on the Pythagorean theory of music. According to Pythagoras, the cosmos was constructed mathematically, a great edifice of numbers. Modern physics, beginning with Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, has gone back to this vision and, through the mathematical interpretation of the universe, has made possible the technological use of its powers. For the Pythagoreans, this mathematical order of the universe ("cosmos" means "order"!) was identical with the essence of beauty itself. Beauty comes from meaningful inner order. And for them this beauty was not only optical but also musical. Goethe alludes to this idea when he speaks of the singing contest of the fraternity of the spheres: the mathematical order of the planets and their revolutions contains a secret timbre, which is the primal form of music. The courses of the revolving planets are like melodies, the numerical order is the rhythm, and the concurrence of the individual courses is the harmony. The music made by man must, according to this view, be taken from the inner music and order of the universe, be inserted into the "fraternal song" of the "fraternity of the spheres". The beauty of music depends on its conformity to the rhythmic and harmonic laws of the universe. The more that human music adapts itself to the musical laws of the universe, the more beautiful will it be.

Saint Augustine first took up this theory and then deepened it. In the course of history, transplanting it into the world view of faith was bound to bring with it a twofold personalization. Even the Pythagoreans did not interpret the mathematics of the universe in an entirely abstract way. In the view of the ancients, intelligent actions presupposed an intelligence that caused them. The intelligent, Mathematical movements of the heavenly bodies were not explained, therefore, in a purely mechanical way; they could only be understood on the assumption that the heavenly bodies were animated, were themselves "intelligent". For Christians, there was a spontaneous turn at this point from stellar deities to the choirs of angels that surround God and illuminate the universe. Perceiving the "music of the cosmos" thus becomes listening to the song of the angels, and the reference to Isaiah chapter 6 naturally suggests itself.

But a further step was taken with the help of trinitarian faith, faith in the Father, the


, and the


. The mathematics of the universe does not exist by itself, nor, as people now came to see, can it be explained by stellar deities. It has a deeper foundation: the mind of the Creator. It comes from the


, in whom, so to speak, the archetypes of the world’s order are contained. The


, through the Spirit, fashions the material world according to these archetypes. In virtue of his work in creation, the


is, therefore, called the "art of God" (

ars = techne!

) The


Himself is the great artist, in whom all works of art the beauty of the universe have their origin.

To sing with the universe means, then, to follow the track of the


and to come close to Him. All true human art is an assimilation to the artist, to Christ, to the mind of the Creator. The idea of music of the cosmos, of singing with the angels, leads back again to the relation of art to


, but now it is broadened and deepened in the context of the cosmos. Yes, it is the

cosmic context

that gives art in the liturgy both its measure and its scope. A merely subjective "creativity" is no match for the vast compass of the cosmos and for the message of its beauty. When a man conforms to the measure of the universe, his freedom is not diminished but expanded to a new horizon.

One final point follows from this. The cosmic interpretation remained alive, with some variations, well into the early modern age. Only in the nineteenth century is there a move away from it, because "metaphysics" seemed so outdated. Hegel now tried to interpret music as just an expression of the subject and of subjectivity. But whereas Hegel still adhered to the fundamental idea of reason as the starting point and destination of the whole enterprise, a change of direction took place with Schopenhauer that was to have momentous consequences. For him, the world is no longer grounded in reason but in "will and idea" (

Wille und


). The will precedes reason. And music is the primordial expression of being human as such, the pure expression of the will anterior to reason that creates the world. Music should not, therefore, be subjected to the word, and only in exceptional cases should it have any connection with the word. Since music is pure will, its origin precedes that of reason. It takes us back behind reason to the actual foundation of reality. [Schopenhauer’s view] is reminiscent of Goethe’s recasting of the prologue of Saint John: no longer "In the beginning was the Word", but now "In the beginning was the Deed".

In our own times this continues in the attempt to replace "orthodoxy" by "orthopraxy" there is no common faith any more (because truth is unattainable), only common praxis. By contrast, for Christian faith, as Guardini shows so penetratingly in his masterly early work,

The Spirit of the Liturgy



has precedence over ethos. When this is reversed, Christianity is turned upside down. The cosmic character of liturgical music stands in opposition to the two tendencies of the modern age that we have described: music as pure subjectivity, music as the expression of mere will. We sing with the angels. But this cosmic character is grounded ultimately in the ordering of all Christian worship to



Let us have one last brief look at our own times. The dissolution of the subject, which coincides for us today with radical forms of subjectivism, has led to "deconstructionism" the anarchistic theory of art. Perhaps this will help us to overcome the unbounded inflation of subjectivity and to recognize once more that a relationship with the


, who was at the beginning, brings salvation to the subject, that is, to the person. At the same time it puts us into a true relationship of communion that is ultimately grounded in trinitarian love.

As we have seen, the problems of the present day pose without doubt a grave challenge to the Church and the culture of the liturgy. Nevertheless, there is no reason at all to be discouraged. The great cultural tradition of the faith is home to a presence of immense power. What in museums is only a monument from the past, an occasion for mere nostalgic admiration, is constantly made present in the liturgy in all its freshness.

But the present day, too, is not condemned to silence where the faith is concerned. Anyone who looks carefully will see that, even in our own time, important works of art, inspired by faith, have been produced and are being produced in visual art as well as in music (and indeed literature).

Today, too, joy in the Lord and contact with His presence in the liturgy has an inexhaustible power of inspiration. The artists who take this task upon themselves need not regard themselves as the rearguard of culture. They are weary of the empty freedom from which they have emerged. Humble submission to what goes before us releases authentic freedom and leads us to the true summit of our vocation as human beings.



Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI served as Pope from 2005 until his resignation in 2013.