Monday, November 5, 2012

Using the Propers is Proper!

Like many other parishes in the Lutheran Church (as my esteemed colleague David Porth pointed out in his introductory post), the parish I was blessed to serve as an organist yesterday observed the Feast of the Reformation.  The celebration at this particular parish was especially unique because it followed the liturgical order prescribed by the Blessed Reformer’s Formula Missae.  With the exception of a few anomalies (such as having the Sanctus follow the Verba instead of preceding It), the Formula Missae is very similar to the Common Service.  This is not surprising, since the Lutheran Church doesn’t make a habit of liturgical innovation.  Coming from a WELS perspective, however, the use of this order was highly unusual, primarily because it included the use of the historic Proper of the Mass.

The term “proper” should give some clue as to the nature of the Proper of the Mass.  It is constituted by those parts of the Service which are prescribed for (that is, “proper” to) a particular day or feast.  The Proper of the Mass is distinct from the Ordinary of the Mass - those parts of the Service that are recited or sung every week (among which are the Kyrie, Gloria in Excelsis, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Nunc Dimittis).  To be sure, I have experienced things “proper” to a specific Service; for example, the collects of the day and Scripture lessons can be considered propers.  However, these propers belong to the pastor.  In typical usage, the Proper of the Mass refers to those propers which belong to the entire congregation; of these I have been utterly deprived.  The closest my home parish comes to them is the use of hymns (which are certainly venerable and I am truly grateful for) and the ever-changing responsive readings that accompany “disposable liturgies” (which is a topic best saved for a later date).  In the rest of the WELS (and particularly those parishes I serve as an organist), the common practice is to chant a condensed version of a Psalm between the first and second Scripture readings.  In addition, sometimes an Alleluia verse (albeit usually read by the pastor) precedes the reading of the Gospel, but more often than not the same verse is sung every week (“These Words are written that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”).  But the historic propers?  I didn’t know they existed prior to a couple of years ago.  Needless to say, yesterday’s Divine Service was my first experience with them in worship.

In light of this general unfamiliarity with the historic propers, I think it is prudent to investigate their nature, along with the merit they have in contemporary usage.  Getting into specifics, there are typically five* chants that constitute what is known as the Proper of the Mass: The Introit, Gradual, Alleluia (or, in Lent, a Tract), Offertory, and Communio.  Those familiar with the Common Service should recognize the first three, but the rite actually retains the use of all of five in its order; it simply turns the latter two into pseudo-ordinaries (the canticle “Create in Me” is the Offertory, and the Post-Communion “O give thanks...” takes the place of the Communio). 

So what’s so special about all of this?  Sounds like a lot of fancy Latin, but of what practical use is it?  First and foremost,  the historic Propers are nothing other than selections from Sacred Scripture.  And as far as I’m concerned, there can never be too much Scripture in the Divine Service.  But even more integrally, they are Scriptures that belong to the people.  One of the the major concerns the Reformers had with the direction the Papists were taking the Mass was the fact that it was going away from the people.  The Papists imagined that simply hearing the Mass in Latin was of some value.  There were little to no hymns or recapitulation of the Scriptures in a language the people could understand - in terms they would remember.  Contrary to these pernicious problems, the Reformers contended that ceremonies exist to teach.  The Propers can be immensely helpful to this end, bringing the Scriptures to the mouth of the people and recapitulating the theme of the day.  This brings us to another practical application of the historic Propers:  they set the tone for the day or feast being observed.  They highlight major themes and help to draw out the points exemplified in the Scripture lessons.

Let’s take the Feast of the Reformation as an example.  Here are the Propers we utilized:

INTROIT: Antiphon: The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, (Psalm 46:7, 2).
Psalm: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)
GRADUAL: Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised
In the city of our God,
In His holy mountain.
Walk about Zion,
And go all around her.
Count her towers;
Mark well her bulwarks;
Consider her palaces;
That you may tell it to the generation following.  (Psalm 48:1, 12-13)
ALLELUIA: For this God is our God for ever and ever:
He will be our guide even unto death (Psalm 48:14).

OFFERTORY:  The angel of the Lord encamps all around those who fear Him,
And delivers them.
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good;
Blessed is the man who trusts in Him! (Psalm 34:7-8)
COMMUNIO:  “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,
and all these things shall be added to you.”  (St. Matthew 6:33)

The relevance of these selections to the theme of the day is readily apparent.  The Introit immediately calls to mind the Reformation favorite, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”  In Him we have no fear, though the earth rage about us.  The Gradual calls to mind the faithfulness of God to His Holy City, the Church, and encourages us to recount such things to the next generation - something that seemed all but lost at the time of the Reformation.  The Offertory is poignant, especially in lieu of the struggles that our Lutheran forebears went through to persevere in the faith.  The Lord delivers His Church, even from enemies within.  The Offertory then bids us to taste and see the Lord’s goodness, preparing and beckoning us toward the Holy Supper.  Finally, the Communio recalls the Lord’s words to His disciples concerning worry about physical needs.  Indeed, even physical persecution and the turmoil we face in this world is something best left in God’s hands.  If He cares for the grass of the field, will He not care for us?  If we trust in ourselves and our merits, we will be left worrying about today, tomorrow, and every day to come, for our works are always insufficient.  But if we seek first His Kingdom and righteousness - that which comes by faith alone in His merits - He will provide all that we need in this life and the life to come.  What a fantastic concluding thought for a Reformation Sunday!

I hope this brief (okay, maybe not so brief) introduction to the Proper of the Mass helps to highlight its significance and importance in the Divine Service.  In future posts, I hope to examine the intricacies and historical development of each individual chant (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia/Tract, Offertory, and Communio).  They are not arbitrary recitations, but selections from the Sacred Scriptures that our Fathers in the faith chose to complement and teach us - the people, to whom the propers belong - the theme of the day.  They were retained by the Reformers because they are Scripture and ceremony that "teach the people.”  And if that’s not enough, they are well kept in our day to broaden our exposure to Sacred Scripture.  They help keep the focus of the day in view (even when the pastor and his Sermon sometimes don’t).  And they keep us connected to our brothers - past and present - who also use them.  

*Some people recognize a sixth Proper, the Sequence.  In Medieval times, the Sequence was observed immediately following the Alleluia verse and had the same function as what we know as "the Hymn of the Day."  In fact, the hymns of the day used by early Lutherans were often translations of the Sequence (which may explain why some early rites put the hymn after the Epistle instead of the Gospel, as we are used to).  For example, the Sequences for Easter and Pentecost, as observed by the Roman Rite (until Vatican II), became the Blessed Reformer’s famous hymns “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” and “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord,” respectively.  In this context, I would contend that the Hymn of the Day is a Proper in the spirit of the Sequence itself.  But that’s an argument for another day - and another post!

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