Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
As we begin a new liturgical year, I thought it an appropriate time to take a look at an often-overlooked liturgical moment: the beginning of the Mass. People often make the mistake of thinking that the truly mysterious part of the Mass doesn’t “kick in” until about 10 minutes in to the liturgy, but this isn’t actually the case. The mystery of the Eucharistic celebration doesn’t begin with the Liturgy of the Word, or even the institution narrative of the Eucharistic Prayer. The mystery of the Eucharistic celebration begins the moment you leave for the church. The grace of the Holy Spirit, the love of God poured into the hearts of men and women everywhere and at every moment and in every place, draws people to seek the source of their life and discover their true end in its summit, and there is only one place on earth that is both the source and the summit of the Christian life: the Mass (cf. Lumen Gentium, 11).
So if the mystery of the Mass begins with the promptings of the Holy Spirit, before a person even darkens the door of a church, then it stands to reason that no part of this celebration stands outside of the realm of this mystery. Every word, every gesture, every action is rife with richness and meaning. Including the words, gestures, and actions that get the whole ball rolling: the Introductory Rites. And what introduces the Introductory Rites? Music.
According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the music sung at the beginning of Mass is more than an aesthetically pleasing way to move the priest from the back (or side) of the church to the front. This music serves to “open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity,” and, yes, “accompany the procession of the priest and ministers” (GIRM, 47). In other words, this music gathers the individuals of the assembly—who have come from across the street, across town, or even across the country—and draws them into one voice, one body, offering one prayer to the Father through the One Mediator, Christ (1 Tim 2:5), through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
In many Catholic parishes today (if not most), the Mass begins with a congregational hymn, usually chosen because its text compliments or highlights other elements of the liturgical celebration like the Scripture passages prescribed for the day or the liturgical season. Many beautiful hymns have been written throughout the history of the Church, and during Advent, perennial favorites are brought forth from the treasury such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Creator of the Stars of Night,” and “People, Look East.” As beautiful as these hymns are, and as much as I love singing them throughout this season, I’ve found myself drawn to the texts actually given to us by the Church for this liturgical moment, discovering within them a source of contemplation—a new (old) point of entry into the mystery of the Eucharist; a mystery that, like God himself, is ever ancient and ever new. This Advent, I’m rediscovering the Introit.
Before the now familiar four-fold pattern of congregational hymns became normative (Entrance, Offertory, Communion, Recessional), Mass began with the Introit, which takes its name from the Latin word for “entrance,” introitus. Every single celebration of the liturgy has a designated Introit, found in the Roman Missal along with the various prayers of the priest like the Collect, the Prayer over the Offerings, and the Prayer after Communion. What is remarkable is that the texts for the Introit are specifically and intentionally chosen according to the liturgical feast being celebrated, and they serve an important, beautiful, mysterious purpose. Equally remarkable is that many people are unfamiliar with them.
Over these four weeks of Advent, I’m going to spend time with these texts that open the door, as it were, to the marriage feast of the Lamb. I’ll be taking a look at their sources in Scripture, the ways in which they tie in to the liturgical season, and how they’ve been sung across the centuries. Believe it or not, composers today are still setting these texts to music, and many of them—like the composer of this week’s contemporary setting—are even drawing inspiration from the ancient chant melodies of these Introits, using those melodies as a springboard in their crafting of a new “song of praise to our God” (cf. Ps 40:3). I hope to discover a new layer of depth within the Entrance Rite of the Mass that will enrich my (and hopefully your) understanding of and appreciation for the Advent liturgies. At the very least, there’s going to be some beautiful music involved.
In the original Latin, the Introit for the First Sunday of Advent is:
Ad te [Domine] levavi animam meam, Deus meus, in te confido: non erubescam neque irrideant me inimici mei. Etenim universi qui te expectant non confundentur. Vias tuas, Domine, demonstra mihi: et semitas tuas edoce me.
Now if, like me, you know just enough Latin to get yourself in trouble (“Et tu, Brute?”), here’s an English translation, courtesy of the monks of Solesmes:
Unto you have I lifted up my soul. O my God, I trust in you, let me not be put to shame; do not allow my enemies to laugh at me; for none of those who are awaiting you will be disappointed. O Lord, make me know your ways. Teach me your paths.
And finally, in the current Roman Missal, we read:
To you, I lift up my soul, O my God. In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame. Nor let my enemies exult over me; and let none who hope in you be put to shame.
(In case you were wondering why the current version is shorter, the first two versions contain the antiphon and the first verse of the accompanying Psalm, while the third version contains only the antiphon. Nevertheless, the proper Psalm may still be sung with the antiphon.)
Both the Entrance Antiphon and the Psalm verse are taken from Psalm 25, which is the proper Psalm for the First Sunday of Advent (cycle C), and has also been designated as one of the seasonal Responsorial Psalms for Advent. So right away, even on the surface, we see that this Entrance Antiphon ties in with other Scriptures proclaimed during Advent.
On a deeper level, though, it is profoundly significant that the first words the Church sings during the Advent—in fact the very first words of the new liturgical year—are “To you, I lift my soul, O my God.” In just nine simple words, a relationship is established: a relationship of humility between us and God, between creature and Creator. But why do we lift our souls to God? Because without God’s help and protection, our enemies (sin and death) laugh at us—the devil exults over us in our sinfulness, and in this sorry state, we lift our souls to God as an acknowledgment that we are in need of a redeemer. We lift our souls to God because God is the only one who can help us. And God helps us by showing us his paths, revealing the way to himself by sending the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Jesus Christ is the answer to our prayer when we beseech God, “O Lord, make me know your ways. Teach me your paths.”
In 2006, Belgian composer Ludo Claesen composed a setting of this Introit using the Latin text (he composed settings of the other Advent Introits in the years following). If you listen first to the original chant melody,
and then listen to Claesen’s setting,
you can perhaps hear some similarities between the two melodies. What is so striking about this piece, not even ten years old, is that it is firmly rooted in a musical tradition that is centuries old, and yet it still sounds fresh and new and beautiful to our ears, for it is written in a musical language that is entirely the composer’s own. This is ancient beauty that has been made new. This is sacred music that draws from the treasure house of the Church’s tradition and yet breathes forth new life by engaging with that tradition in a creative way.
Even without knowing that this piece of music was inspired by an ancient chant source, a person can still sense the yearning conveyed in its melodies and harmonies. Even without knowing the translation of the Latin above, one can still perceive in this music a lack, an incompletion, a need that, in the end, can only be fulfilled by God. “To you, I lift up my soul, O God.” Because my soul is broken. I have broken it by my sinfulness. And you, God, are the only one who can heal it. You are the only one who can triumph over the enemy who would exult over me, and you are the only one who can guide me back to your heart. “To you, I lift up my soul, O God,” and I can lift it no higher, for I am too small. Reach down and receive my soul—stoop down from heaven and save me.
This is how we begin the Advent season, and we will conclude it by celebrating God’s response to our desperate plea, when God does indeed reach down to us and heals our souls by becoming small himself—by taking on a body that can be broken as our souls have been broken by sin, by offering that body, lifting it up to the Father in love so that we might all be lifted up. We pray: “To you, I lift up my soul, O God,” and God replies: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:12).