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Musical Musings: Hymns and Hymnody

Singing for the Supper or the Sacrifice?

by Lucy E. Carroll

This article first appeared in Adoremus Bulletin: Online Edition - Vol. VIII, No. 8: November 2002, and is reprinted with the kind permission of the editor, Helen Hull Hitchcock, and the author, Dr. Carroll.

While actual numbers vary but little, most surveys today show that more than half of American Catholics either do not believe in the Real Presence, or do not understand the concept. Since the Real Presence is the primary difference between Catholicism and Protestantism (all other differences must pale in comparison), this is a serious issue. Causes are many: inadequate catechesis, incorrect catechesis, emphasis on the Liturgy of Word over the Liturgy of the Eucharist, removal of the Tabernacle, prohibitions on kneeling, bargain-counter lines to Communion, secularization of the Church's art, architecture and music....

In Catholicism, the altar is an altar of sacrifice. Replacing it with a wooden table, as in Protestant churches, shifts the emphasis from the sacrifice to the meal. This becomes only a banquet, a memorial of Holy Thursday without the blood sacrifice of Good Friday. In some denominations, the Communion service is only held once or twice a year. In other Christian churches, it is once a month. Yet to Catholics, the very purpose of the service is the Eucharist; to miss that portion means to miss Mass. It is ironic that in churches that recognize only a "presence" (Episcopal, Lutheran), Communion is received reverently, while kneeling at the altar rail. In other denominations, bread and small cups of wine or juice are passed out to the seated congregants, who partake in silence and reverence. Yet Catholics, who are to receive the transubstantiated Body and Blood, the very soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, march up to the server while juggling a paper missal and singing about ... what exactly are Catholics singing about the Eucharist these days? Are we singing for a supper? Or for the sacrifice of Calvary?

One often-overlooked issue in the erosion of belief in the Real Presence is the text of Communion hymns. As we sing, so we believe. In the rush to provide vernacular hymnody in post-Conciliar days, many Protestant hymns were adapted. Some are beautiful, suitable; interestingly, some are even more appropriate textually than modern-day hymns in "Catholic" liturgy booklets.

Contemporary hymns lead us to believe that Christ becomes bread, rather than the reverse; that the bread is only a symbol of Christ, or, worse, of something else entirely; that it is our body and our blood; that this is a meal only; or that this is a call to social activism. The words sacrifice, Real Presence, and even Body and Blood of Christ are strangely absent.

To most of Protestant Christianity, the Eucharist is a symbol; while some believe that Christ becomes somehow present in the elements of bread and wine, only Catholicism (and Orthodoxy) believe that the elements actually become Body and Blood. But in this hymn, we have only a symbol:

Welcome the symbols
Feasting and telling;
Signs of thanksgiving,
Signs of indwelling
    James Hansen: "Bless the Feast". Text © 1988 Oregon Catholic Press [OCP] Publications
Welcome the symbols? Surely this is more than a symbol. Yet in another hymn we find only a meal, and symbols yet again:
We bring the bread and wine to share a meal
Sign of grace and mercy
The presence of the Lord
    Marty Haugen: "We Remember". Text © 1980 GIA Publications
A sign of the presence of the Lord. Is that all there is? Similarly, in "Bread, Blessed and Broken" we find no reference to Body, Blood, Presence, or sacrifice:
Bread, blessed and broken for us all
Symbol of your love, from the grain so tall
    Michael Lynch: "Bread, Blessed and Broken". Text © 1978, 1979 Raven Music; published in OCP Publications

The aspect of symbolism is now enlarged upon in some current hymn texts. The bread is a sign not of Christ, but of something else entirely, as is the wine. For example:
Here we will take the wine and the water
Here we will take the bread of new birth
Give us to drink the wine of compassion
    Marty Haugen: "Gather Us In". Text © 1982 GIA Publications
Bread is re-birth, wine is compassion? They may be something else again, as in this hymn:
You are the bread of peace
You are the wine of joy
    Bernadette Farrell: "Bread of Life". Text © 1982, 1987 Bernadette Farrell; published by OCP Publications
Joyful wine? This extended symbolism continues in a text by Jerry Brubaker:
We eat the bread of teaching,
Drink wine of wisdom
    Jerry Brubaker: "Wisdom's Feast". Text © 1998 World Library Publications [WLP]
Wine of wisdom? What an interesting interpretation! Now, dramatic license is very well and good, but a steady diet of questionable interpretation can only serve to erase the true meaning of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

This extended interpretation is carried even farther in this Wisdom's Feast: here we learn that it is not Christ giving His Body and Blood, but Wisdom - the gnostic concept of Sophia! - giving us bread and wine.

Wisdom calls throughout the city
Knows our hunger and in pity
Gives her loving invitation
To the banquet of salvation

Simple ones whose hearts are yearning
Come and gain from Wisdom's learning
Bread and wine she is preparing
Know her loving in the sharing
    Jerry Brubaker: "Wisdom's Feast". Text © 1998 WLP

Perhaps reading Gnosticism into this is unfair; perhaps this is only a feminine pronoun for God, inclusive language run amok? At any rate, the concept of Wisdom preparing bread and wine for a banquet is rather far removed from orthodoxy. The Eucharist, one must repeat, is the gift of bread and wine that become - through the act of consecration, through the sacrifice of Calvary prefigured in the Last Supper - the Body and Blood. But according to another current hymn, it is the reverse:
Here is a living sign:
That one man's dying and rising
Becomes our bread and wine
    Jack Miffleton: "Give Thanks and Remember". Text and music © 1975 WLP
Here we are told that death and resurrection become bread and wine. And is it Christ's death and resurrection? The text only refers to Him as "one man." Regardless, actions cannot become elements: death does not become bread. Through Christ's death the bread becomes His Body, but how are Catholics to know that, given the texts they are given to sing?

Indeed, according to David Haas, the reverse is true: Christ becomes bread.

(verse 3) He chose to give of Himself
Became our bread
    David Haas: "Now We Remain". Text © 1983 GIA Publications
Moreover, we are to become bread and wine, as the hymn continues:
(verse 4) We are the presence of God
This is our call
Now to become bread and wine
Food for the hungry
Life for the weary
    David Haas: "Now We Remain". Text © 1983 GIA Publications
Another popular hymn repeats that we become bread:
Bread for the world,
A world of hunger
Wine for all peoples:
People who thirst
May we who eat be bread for others
May we who drink pour out our love
    Bernadette Farrell: "Bread for the World". Text © Bernadette Farrell, 1990, published by OCP
This confusion continues as some hymns now tell us that we are to become the bread of life:
I myself am the bread of life
You and I are the bread of life
Taken and blessed, broken and shared by Christ.

(verse 2) This is our body
This is our blood
Living sign of God in Christ
    Rory Cooney: "Bread of Life". Text © 1987 NALR, published by OCP Publications
So, are we all involved in this act of consecration? This is our blood? Is it any wonder Catholics are confused? It is only Jesus Christ who is the Bread of Life! And that bread is His Body, that wine becomes His Blood.

 Back to Hymns and Hymnody Index

Part 2: More bad...and some good!

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