Update – an affirmative Eucharistic catechesis is now set to the Drakes Broughton hymn tune by Edward Elgar.
(This article is under development, subject to continuing revision.)
Call to Petition Oregon Catholic Press (Breaking Bread hymnal) to Edit ‘See Us Lord About Your Altar’ regarding the lyric “Now his form is but a sign”
In an intrinsically subjective esthetic medium, music with lyrics, a musical piece published by OCP–”See Us Lord About Your Altar“–concerned with the Catholic Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, implicitly conveys lack of belief in the full, authentic, essential Eucharistic teaching.
Drakes Broughton hymn tune by Sir Edward Elgar, to which John Greally applied his lyrics “See Us Lord About Your Altar”
The doctrinally deficient lyrics, “Now his form is but a sign”, fail to convey the primal sacramental definition of “a sign that really and truly effects what it signifies”, an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. This is in the medium of music which, because of the immediacy of its impact, is prone to cause uncritical acceptance of any doctrinal proposition conveyed through it, whether correct or incorrect.
This will be a request for the lyrics of a song distributed to the majority of American Catholic parishes by the Oregon Catholic Press (OCP), to be slightly changed to more affirmatively reflect Jesus’ wishes, as He clearly expressed them.
This problem was remarked upon more than a decade ago, in a January 11, 2007, Catholic Answers Forums posting titled Questionable Song Lyrics.
International Liturgy Publications’ St. Augustine Hymnal publishes a version of See Us Lord About Your Altar with the problematic verse 3 as in OCP, altered to:
Wheat and grape contain the meaning: Food and drink He is to all; One in Christ, we come adoring, Gathered by His loving call.
(Cf. Jeffrey Tucker, The Hidden Hand behind Bad Catholic Music, Crisis Magazine, May 13, 2009.)
What does this mean?
The lyrics of a piece music published by the Oregon Catholic Press,
“See Us Lord About Your Altar“, can be improved to better reflect Jesus’ explicit teachings about the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
The Problematic Verse (3)
- Once were seen the blood and water:
Now is seen but bread and wine;
Once in human form he suffered,
Now his form is but a sign.
The subtle assertion that Jesus’ form within the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist “is but a sign”, less than adequately conveys the full, authentic, essential Catechesis about the Holy Eucharist, in an environment prone to non-critical acceptance of doctrinal content, the medium of music which by its very nature renders its audience prone to unthinking, emotional acceptance of its meaning. This environment requires very careful discrimination about the precise formulation of Catechetical content.
Perhaps unintentionally, the verse seems to express a belief that the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is merely a symbol, not literally our Blessed Lord Jesus’ Body and Blood.
The song’s phrase “but a sign” does not seem to correspond with our Blessed Lord Jesus’ own teaching, in which He literally states the fact that the Holy Eucharist is His very Body and Blood, as He clearly says in the Sixth Chapter of the Gospel of John:
- 48 “I am the bread of life.”…
- 51 …”I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
- 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
- 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you;
- 54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.…”
- 60 …Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
- 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, “Do you take offense at this?…
- 64 …But there are some of you that do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him.…
- 66 …After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.
- 67 Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
- 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life;
- 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
- 70 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?”
- 71 He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was to betray him.
Our Blessed Lord Jesus might have spoken otherwise, about verse 67, instead of saying, as He did,
“Do you also wish to go away?”
Our Blessed Lord Jesus might instead have said something like, “Come back, I was only speaking symbolically”.
However, a sincere reading of what Jesus did actually say, leads us to the teaching of the Catholic Church on the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
Father Joseph Fessio gave advice about how to proceed with petitioning for these lyrics to be improved, better to reflect our Blessed Lord Jesus’ actual intentions.
- Verse 3.
Once were seen the blood and water:
Now is seen but bread and wine;
Once in human form he suffered,
Now his form is but a sign.
Fr. Joseph Fessio, Catholic Answers, Open Forum, April 28, 2016
Answer to a Potential Objection
“But this is just a lyric, it isn’t that important, it’s only the third verse of an innocuous Communion hymn.”
A single word poses an insuperable controversy between the Catholic Churches, Latin and Eastern, and the Orthodox Churches – Filioque – “and the Son”, referring to how the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The Orthodox generally reject adding “Filioque” to the Creed.
A single letter, the fabled “iota”, the littlest Greek character (an i without a dot), forms the difference between the Nicene Creed–proclaiming that Jesus is uncreated–and the Arian heresy–asserting that Jesus is the first of God’s creations. Homoousios means “same substance”, pertaining to the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father, whereas the word homoiousios means “similar substance”, taking exception from the Father and the Son sharing everything except being either the Father or the Son.
The controversy about the lyrics “Now His form is but a sign” is almost unknown, yet it is the focus of an intense conflict between Jesus and Satan. The soft, subjective character of music can serve to obscure this conflict. The enemy actively utilizes this fact to accomplish his work of destruction.
The Effect of ‘But a Sign’
Consider actual conditions under which the lyrics “Now his form is but a sign” might commonly be performed, how they might be received by regular Catholics, “below the radar”.
The fact that these lyrics, which poorly reflect our Blessed Lord’s teaching about Himself, are tucked down in the third verse of the song, might be thought actually to work to a greater disadvantage against the truth, even more against His intentions because of the very obscurity of their location, not at the beginning of the song where they might throw up a red flag, but further along toward the end, after people have stopped necessarily listening to the lyrics with a high, conscious mind.
The Mom or Dad go to work during the week. They’re in discussions with members of separated Ecclesial Communities, Christians who do not accept the Church’s teaching about Jesus’ intentions about Holy Communion. From what they hear, that “it’s only a symbol”, they have the vague sense that something’s wrong, but they aren’t able to put their finger on it. The ambiguity of the song’s lyrics have served them poorly in defending a most important doctrine of the Faith.
There is little doubt, even among non-believing people, that sexual and violent lyrics in negative music have a harmful effect on people who have fallen into the habit of customarily listening to them, being influenced by their hypnotic beat, their loud volume and pernicious emotional influence. This influence extends beyond opinion, translating into action.
Rather than serving an above-board, didactic purpose, the common use of vague terms and images in our liturgical music, and the resultant, unconscious reception of the lyric “now his form is but a sign”, might be an instance of what is called “smuggling-in” substantive, erroneous ideas, fomenting tacit skepticism that Jesus can be believed for what He taught about Himself, whether or not He can be trusted.
The Intellect and Emotions
The problems with “Now His form is but a sign” involve relationships between our emotional and intellectual faculties. We have darkened intellects and weakened wills. This was originally the doing of a high creature, Lucifer, who has no emotions, only intellect; he seduced us with pride, shrewdly using our innocent human emotions against us. The fallen angel chose to oppose everything done by our Blessed Lord and His mother. It should be no surprise that this enemy would expend great effort to spoil our Blessed Lord’s act of feeding us with Himself.
The disruption of the delicate balance between our intellects and emotions was caused by our fallen, angelic enemy, because of a non-emotional, intellectual and willful pride, “disordered self-love”.
JRR Tolkien presents this history using a musical analogy: “God made first the angels, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before anything else was made. And he spoke to the Angels, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of God from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. … But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Satan to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of God, for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.” – The Silmarillion.
While the angelic nature lacks emotions, it does regard essential qualities of beauty, truth and love. When Satan corrupted these good qualities, perverting them to focus upon himself instead of God, he began to wage war upon God’s beloved children, angels and men. In his war, Satan fully exploits the emotions that are solely a human quality. Waging esthetic warfare upon Jesus’ gift of Himself in the Holy Eucharist is among Satan’s chief concerns. The erroneous verse “now his form is but a sign” fits squarely within this scope.
God and His angels have the faculties of Intellect and Will. Humans, as enfleshed persons, have the additional faculties of the emotions, The Passions. A theory that accounts for how human emotions support or work against acceptance of the truth Jesus taught about Himself, must take into account all three of these essential faculties.
The Doctrine of Affections (Affects) in the Psychology of Music
Theory about the effect of emotions in music was widely accepted until the late 18th century enlightenment overthrew millenia of carefully worked out philosophy. The music of J.S. Bach is considered the most intellectual. But few would consider that the Air on the G String was composed by Mr. Spock — the high intellectual development of Bach’s music serves as an edifice for the most subtle emotions. This is the greatest development of The Passions.
Music seldom directly affects the intellect. It usually acts on the emotions. The intellect usually receives the effect of music indirectly through these passions–emotions themselves neither good nor evil, but so important that their vital effect on belief and behavior must always be accounted for.
The primary effect of music is emotional, not intellectual. Listeners cherish music for its very ability to transcend ordinary experience prone to alienation and isolation. But a separate consideration from this emotional attribute, is the truth or falsehood of the intellectual meaning of artistic works.
When using music for the special task of Catechesis, teaching revealed truth which individuals cannot discover their own, the primarily emotional character of the medium of music presents a certain, concrete danger. The passions/emotions are prone to a common problem, adversely feeding-back through the will to subvert the Godly control of the intellect that is the crown of human faculties.
The strong emotionality of musical experience can give the illusion that whatever is conveyed through the music, whether correct or erroneous, is inherently legitimate, a principle summarized by the expression “the medium is the message”.
The cultural equivalent of a person allowing the passions to control the intellect, is allowing a purely esthetic consideration, such as the form of rhyme, to control the essential, intellectual-spiritual content of a work of art.
Plato addresses this issue in Book 10 of The Republic, with the idea that there are disadvantages inherent in the medium of imitative poetry, even as practiced by the redoubtable Homer.
The intellectual primacy of logic, the crown of human faculties, is in danger of being subordinated to the rhetorical power of poetry, music and the other arts. At their most neutral, arts must still conform with Christian values, never provoking an excessively intemperate emotional state for merely esthetic reasons. In arts concerned directly with the faith, there must be an effectively ruthless resistance to allowing the passion of art to overwhelm the control of the intellectual soul.
Liturgical music lyrics exist within the esthetic milieu that is an intentionally incarnational part of the Church’s ancient cultural patrimony. On a similar level with lyrics in popular media today, the living Catechism of ordinary people in the Middle Ages was commonly the artistic medium of stained glass windows.
Medievals knew their faith; they weren’t stupid, as our contemporaries afflicted with techno-junk are prone to assume. (This fact exceeds the customary distinction between educated and illiterate; people of all cultural levels, Manhattanites or Africans, are equally endowed with sensitivity to the truths of the Catholic faith as conveyed through the arts.)
In the Middle Ages before Gutenberg’s innovation of movable type printing, when books were prohibitively expensive, most people had no ready access to printed or written materials with which to learn to read–Bibles were even chained in Churches to prevent their theft, so valuable were books hand-written on sheep-skin.
Secular states regarded as a form of treason, the crime of hairesis (“heresy”), over-emphasis of a singular truth–that you shall not eat blood–to the diminution of the integrity of the totality of truth. Most common people likely, implicitly understood the dangers to intellectual integrity posed by incorrect teachings presented to the unwary in an easily assimilable form like art or music.
Our friend, Kathleen de Santis, has admirably expressed the principle,
“Music goes right to the core”, the emotional heart, tending to bypass the critical faculties.
Correct Use of Persuasive Media
The Vitae Caring Foundation’s “Lifesaver” advertisement is an example of using emotionally persuasive means, not to deceive people, but to increase their comprehension and receptivity to the Truth, using an integrated appeal to the Passions, the Will and the Intellect as God created them good in humans. When advertisements of this kind were shown in the test market of Kansas City, there was a corresponding 37% reduction in abortion.
It should be possible to resolve the contradiction posed by the lyrics “Now his form is but a sign” in an affirmative manner, increasing cooperation with the intentions our Blessed Lord Jesus expressed in His teaching ministry.
Many Catholic hymns have been changed in recent decades to reflect the fashion of inclusive language, regardless of the fact that a 1992 survey found that most people, even liberal Catholic women, find inclusive language in the liturgy confusing and not relevant to their lives.
The defects in this lyric can be neutralized, possibly without removing the song from OCP publications like Breaking Bread.
This petition will similarly request a change, of the verse 3 lyrics of “See Us Lord About Your Altar”, to reflect our Blessed Lord’s actual intentions about His institution of the Holy Eucharist.