Saturday, November 02, 2013

Mozart's musical homily on Purgatory, dread of Hell, and hope of Heaven through Christ's grace

Despite widespread perception, one hears precious little about sin, hell, and damnation in the Catholic Church these days. Some, as a result, have begun calling it the "Church of Nice," or, closer to home, the "Church of Care Bears."

Thus it was with some eagerness that I went to church this morning at 9:30AM for the All Soul's Day Mass. (Not obligatory, I know, but being a pertinacious papist nerd, I consider it a Holy Day of Privilege, and loathe the language of "days of obligation.") I was eager to appropriate the resources of Catholic tradition for those my departed parents, ancestors, and loved ones this year, having been rather slack about these things in my past habits. If the Church offers "indulgences" for those in Purgatory, I want to know what an indulgence is and what Purgatory is. I know I will probably die sometime within the next couple of decades -- or three, if I'm lucky -- and I want to know what's coming, and what I can do about it.

You see, I know what Galadriel means when she says, that "the world is changed," that what once was "history became legend, legend became myth," that "much that once was is now lost, for none now live who remember it," and that for scores of years now, much that was once commonplace habit among Catholics has passed out of all knowledge. But somewhere along the byways of life, God has also gifted me with the faith that the Church has Christ's own authority behind it, and so I'm constrained to believe that even little words like "Indulgence" and "Purgatory" therefore need to be taken seriously, even if they bring nothing but yawns from our friends and neighbors.

Thankfully, our parish offers great resources for someone with my kind of desire to learn old Catholic habits of being. Moreover, I was not disappointed by today's Mass.

What really surprised me, however, was not the homily or the liturgy, which I've come to expect will always be very good, but the musical setting for the Solemn High Mass (in the "Extraordinary Form") with choir and orchestra today, which was Mozart's Requiem.

Now, first of all, I'm well acquainted with Mozart's Requiem Mass. Whatever one may say about Mozart, it's beautiful. The words are not a novelty, but taken from the Traditional Latin Requiem Mass. I've been through those words numerous times before. I know them pretty well. Secondly, I've witnessed many orchestral Masses, although I generally prefer liturgies with little more than Gregorian Chant for the Propers and Ordinary parts of the Mass, and even Low Masses with no music at all. (But that's just me.) So it wasn't that any of this was anything particularly new to me, although the choral and orchestral performance were exceptional.

But sometimes things come together into a particularly sharp, new focus. What I noticed in a new way was the sharp clarity and severe beauty with which Mozart sets forth the hard and awful truths embodied in the Traditional Requiem Mass -- those very truths that the Church today seems so reluctant to proclaim from the pulpit or on Catholic Radio. I found myself thinking, "If the Church won't preach these things, there's always Mozart." (Mozart's Requiem for the New Evangelization?)

There is no mincing of words in the Requiem Mass:
[D]eliver the souls of the faithful departed from the pains of hell, and from the bottomless pit: deliver them from the lion's mouth, that hell swallow them not up, that they fall not into darkness: But let the standard bearer St. Michael lead them into the holy light; Which once you promised to Abraham and to his seed. (from Domine Jesu Christe)
"... pains of hell ... bottomless pit ... lion's mouth ... darkness ..." These are all things we NEED to hear and know and understand. Apart from them, the Church of Nice and it's Care Bear Gospel of self-esteem and kindness will always ring hollow. One may as well watch Barney the Dinosaur, or puke (sorry).

The power with which this is expressed in Mozart's Requiem is astonishing. For full effect, you have to know the Latin words and hear it performed and sung. It is not true, as my Protestant friends have sometimes said, that the work is all about "law" and "judgment," with nothing about "gospel" and "grace." Mozart does clearly hold forth the grace of Christ and the unmerited graciousness of salvation. But he puts the accent where it usually needs to be for us sinners who think we're already saints: penance.
Remember, O compassionate Jesus, that I am the reason for your way ... Seeking me, you sat wearied: you redeemed (me) suffering the cross: may so great a labor not be in vain.... I groan like a criminal: with guilt my face blushes: to a suppliant be sparing, O God. You who absolved Mary Magdalene and favorably heard the thief [on the cross], to me you also gave hope. My prayers are not worthy: but you, being good, act kindly, lest I burn in everlasting fire. Among the sheep grant (me) a place and from the goats separate me, placing (me) at the right side. (from Recordare)
Today's homily was no mere afterthought, but underscored the Message of Mozart's "homily" with its own powerful reflection on the Gospel -- the passage in the Fourth Gospel (John 5:25-29) about the Return of the King at the end of time at the Last Judgment. In a nutshell, the message was this: God's dispensation of mercy is coming to an end. His dispensation of justice is at hand. Therefore, prepare: be quick to accept God's terms of Mercy offered in the Gospel of Christ, for there is no other way of escape on the Day of Judgment, which will come for us all. Those who scorn His Gospel of Mercy will have nothing to fall back upon but His awful Justice. Jesus came to planet earth the first time as a Sacrificial Lamb. He came to die for us, and to offer us life. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. He will not return as a sacrificial lamb, however, but as a Just Judge. The King will return. Viva Criso Rei!

[Hat tip to former student Mr. Sjoquist who served beautifully as Subdeacon]


Ralph Roister-Doister said...

PP, I share your opinion on Masses in general. The Low Mass, no music, no snappy patter, just bodies isolated in prayer and private meditation, and meanwhile, the priest, a lowly craftsman, "operates the altar like a plumber with his apprentice. Once the water is connected, the tap of Eternal Life opened, he leaves again carrying his tools." What could be more beautiful and appropriate than that?

Orchestral Masses are inevitably performance Masses. Of course they are beautiful, even occasions for meditation. One might meditate on worthy subjects, as you have, or he might meditate on, oh, the blatty tone of the French horn player, or how Marriner would have done that passage differently. But aesthetics is not worship any more than it is theology, whatever Balthazar, the greatest theologian since John Keats, might say to the contrary.

James Joseph said...

Not a single mention of Christ the King, nor Confession, nor any of the Four Last Things these weeks at the pulpits around here.

I distinctly remember hearing, "...that's what it's all about" and " nice."

I never liked Mozart or any of the other music that is dragged out as a toy by the elite. For your sake, I shall turn up the volume on the sound-system and make sure the sub-woofer is slamming hard.