Two leaders in liturgical writing, Father J. Michael Joncas and the Reverend Susan Briehl, facilitated Words for Worship: A Liturgical Writing Workshop at the Collegeville Institute this past summer. The workshop was designed for participants who wanted more experience writing for communal prayer while engaging liturgy, hymnody, and scripture.
Michael Joncas is a priest, liturgical theologian, and composer of contemporary Catholic music who teaches at the University of St. Thomas, the University of Notre Dame, and Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary. Susan Briehl is an ELCA pastor, and author of numerous books, hymns, and worship songs. Michael and Susan spoke with Betsy Johnson-Miller about the role of liturgy and liturgical music in the Christian church today.
What gifts can liturgy and liturgical music bring to individuals and congregations?
Michael Joncas (MJ): We are made for grace, and liturgy is one of the ways that grace can take place. Within the Christian tradition, liturgy is how we—under grace—sustain a relationship with God. Through history, the community gathers to hear the word of God and to bring it into the open, so we can see its implications for present-day living. Ritual prayer experiences keep us in touch with each other, with our spirits, and with God.
Susan Briehl (SB): Liturgy moves us beyond ourselves and forms us into a body when we gather to worship. We are a worshipping body, worshipping God, both praising and beseeching—back and forth, back and forth communally—so that in doing the liturgy, in practicing this prayer, in coming together, God is forming us. God is the primary actor here. The spirit calls and gathers us into a place where we are together as God is acting—by pouring out mercy, hearing prayer, forming the people, and sending us into the world as Christ’s wounded body for the sake of the world.
What is a hopeful or positive development that you see happening in liturgy and liturgical music?
MJ: In the Roman Catholic tradition, it’s the promise, the fruition of the liturgical movement, which started for us in the mid-nineteenth century and was officially recognized and approved fifty years ago as a part of Vatican II. The changes in Mass and in the liturgy that were made at that time allowed for the full active participation of all the faithful. There have been many reverses and missteps and experiments that have gone nowhere, but most Roman Catholics who have stayed with us appreciate the liturgy. They are able to participate bodily, spiritually—in terms of the text that they sing and say, in terms of the gestures they make, the architecture they use—all of those elements. To me, that’s hopeful. Now, where it’s going to go, especially in terms of the interaction between the great liturgical forms and the developments of culture at this state, is anyone’s guess. But at least we’re raising the question.
SB: The doors and windows that were opened to let fresh air in during Vatican II also stirred my community, which is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Liturgical reform has opened our eyes to the ways in which we share this heritage. We are children of the same triune God. What’s hopeful to me is that we as Lutherans are coming to understand more and more that our way of worship didn’t begin in the 16th century. We are in the process of drawing up from ancient depths things that were heard and known by our elders. We are asking, “How does that liturgy live now, in this moment? How does it continue to meet culture and be met by culture? Where does liturgy continue to need reformation or renewal as an ongoing way of being the church together?”
Over the last couple of decades, the ELCA has been asking questions like these, not only about our relationship with the Roman Catholics, but also with Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians. This has helped to clarify our own gift in the mix, our own voice in the choir, but it has also served to remind us that we aren’t soloists, and we don’t have a corner on grace. So I’m looking forward to continued renewal and reconciliation—seeing how local congregations or parishes in ecumenical settings will find ways to pray and worship together.
MJ: I absolutely agree. In terms of Roman Catholic and Lutheran interaction, the clarity of the gospel message as demonstrated in the Lutheran tradition offers a wonderful critique for us. The second great gift is the emphasis on baptism within Lutheran practice and theology. The Lutherans show us how living out your baptismal heritage can be a vocation.
Can you share a liturgical experience in the past year that has gotten under your skin, either in a good way or a bad way?
SB: It gets under my skin when Presiders don’t understand what they’re called to do when they are presiding at liturgy. Even though they remain real human beings with particular histories and experiences, at that moment, they are called to be something other than simply themselves. They stand for more. One of the gifts of the liturgy is that at its best, it gives us language that belongs to the community and not simply to us. The liturgy is meant to bring us into an encounter with God, not an encounter with the personality of the Presider, no matter how delightful or humorous it is.
What hymn should every congregation sing at least once a year without fail?
SB: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Advent is always in jeopardy. Christmas, as we know it in this culture, wants to expand, wants to begin after Thanksgiving. This is one place the Church bears a wisdom and a practice that the world needs. No one is going to practice the looking, the waiting, the hoping of Advent if we don’t. In a culture that is about buying and spending and giving and partying, “O Come, O Come Immanuel” is a prayer that needs to be prayed. A hymn that needs to be sung as a way to deepen our witness of what it is we wait for.
MJ: Rather than thinking about a metrical hymn, I would point to the “Glory to God in the Highest,” the “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and the “Lord’s Prayer.” These are examples of texts from the liturgy that are supposed to be sung, but often in practice, they are not. Many places simply recite them. What gets communicated is it’s the text that matters. But it’s not. These are parts of the liturgy we should sing over and over—“Praise,” and “Glory,” and “Holy, holy, holy.” We should sing “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy,” and claim the mercy.
What does singing those texts offer, as compared to reciting them?
MJ: Whether you sing, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia,” before the gospel reading or say it, the cognitive content remains the same. When we sing it, however, the ritual experience is radically different. It unifies a congregation in a way that simple recitation will not. It draws us into our own heritage in ways that simply saying it does not, because this particular tune is associated with this particular season of the year, and it shapes and forms an identity in our history. It illuminates the text. It allows us to go beyond simple cognitive identification. It involves the heart and body, as much as it does the mind.