Online Edition – Vol. IX, No. 1: March 2003
John Paul II –
Give Praise through the Beauty of Music
At his Wednesday audience, February 26, 2003, Pope John Paul II commented on the importance of music of praise in his reflection on Psalm 150, the last and shortest of the Psalms
Psalm 150, which we have just proclaimed, resounds for the second time in the liturgy of Lauds: a festive hymn, an alleluia to the rhythm of music. It is the ideal seal to the whole Psalter, the book of praise, of song, of the liturgy of Israel.
The text is one of amazing simplicity and transparency. We must just allow ourselves to be drawn by the insistent call to praise the Lord: "Praise God … give praise … give praise!" At the beginning, God is presented in two fundamental aspects of His mystery. Without a doubt, He is transcendent, mysterious, beyond our horizon: His royal abode is the heavenly "sanctuary", His "mighty firmament", an inaccessible fortress to man. And yet, He is near to us: He is present in the "sanctuary" of Zion and acts in history through His "mighty deeds", which reveal and enable one to experience "His exceeding greatness!" (see verses 1-2).
2. Hence, between heaven and earth a sort of channel of communication is established in which the action of the Lord and the song of praise of the faithful meet. The Liturgy unites the two sanctuaries, the earthly temple and the infinite heavens, God and man, time and eternity.
During the prayer we begin a kind of ascent toward the divine light and at the same time we experience a descent of God who adapts Himself to our limitation to hear us and speak to us, to meet us and save us. The Psalmist immediately offers us aids for this prayerful meeting: recourse to musical instruments of the orchestra of the temple of Jerusalem, such as the trumpet, harp, lute, strings, pipe and cymbals. Moving in procession was also part of the Jerusalem rite (see Psalm 118 :27). The very same appeal echoes in Psalm 47:7 : "sing artistically".
3. Thus, it is necessary to constantly discover and live the beauty of prayer and of the liturgy. One must pray to God not only with theologically precise formulas, but also in a beautiful and dignified way.
In this connection, the Christian community must make an examination of conscience so that the beauty of music and song will return increasingly to the liturgy. It is necessary to purify worship of deformations, of careless forms of expression, of ill-prepared music and texts, which are not very suited to the grandeur of the act being celebrated.
Significant, in this connection, is the appeal of the Letter to the Ephesians to avoid intemperance and vulgarity, to leave room for the purity of liturgical hymns. "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father" (Ephesians 5:18-20 RSV).
4. The Psalmist ends by inviting "everything that breathes" (Psalm 150:5), an expression that in Hebrew designates "every being that breathes", especially "every living man" (see Deuteronomy 20:16; Joshua 10:40; 11:11,14). Hence, in divine praise the human creature is involved with his voice and heart. With him are called ideally all living beings, all creatures in which there is a breath of life (see Genesis 7:22), so that they will raise their hymn of gratitude to the Creator for the gift of existence.
Saint Francis follows this universal invitation with his thought-provoking "Canticle to Brother Sun", in which he invites us to praise and bless the Lord for all creatures, a reflection of His beauty and of His goodness (see Franciscan Sources, 263).
5. All the faithful should participate, in a special way, in this song, as the Letter to the Colossians suggests: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Col. 3:16).
In this respect, Saint Augustine, in his "Commentaries on the Psalms", sees symbolized in the musical instruments the saints who praise God: "You, saints, are the trumpet, the psaltery, the zither, the tympani, the choir, the strings and the organ, and the cymbals of joy that emit beautiful sounds, which play harmoniously. You are all these things. When hearing the Psalm, one must not think of things of little value, of transitory things, or of theatrical instruments". In reality, "every spirit that praises the Lord" is a voice of song to God (Esposizioni sui Salmi [Commentaries on the Psalms], IV, Rome, 1977, pp. 934-935).
The highest music, therefore, is the one that arises from our hearts. It is precisely this harmony that God wants to hear in our liturgies.