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IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT. Darkness creeps upon the city as folks rush about to parties and dinners. On one street corner, a group of worshippers gathers around a recently lit fire. Strange words are uttered over a colossal candle that will soon illuminate a pitch-black church. The worshippers shuffle in off the street, professing that Christ is the light of the world. Then, from the darkness, we hear the first words of an ancient hymn of blessing: “Exult, let them exult.”

The singing of the Exsultet, that ancient Latin blessing prayer, captures the imagination of even the staunchest ecclesial critic. The text of the hymn juxtaposes the dawning light of the resurrection with the brilliance of the recently lit candle. The earth-shattering quality of the resurrection is represented by the voice of the people, who now cause this holy building to tremble with joy. All of salvation history becomes present in this single night of joy. This is the night of the Exodus. This is the night of the pilgrimage in the desert. This is the night of the resurrection.

Even the candle is transformed through the power of this night. The poetry of the Exsultet culminates in a nuptial song: “O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.” Through this hymn of praise, this poem of astonishment, the wonder of fiery brilliance becomes even more wondrous. It is Christ’s resurrection made present among us.

The Exsultet functions as an icon of liturgical poetry. The singing of hymns of praise in the liturgy is not reducible to aesthetic delight. Liturgical hymnody operates in what the ritual theorist Victor Turner calls the subjunctive mood, creating a world “as if.” This night is the night. This singing is the chorus of angels. This candle becomes the light of the resurrection. There is an efficacious quality to the liturgical lyric whereby words are not merely objects of aesthetic contemplation. Liturgical hymnody is a performance of salvation that unfolds through seeding the imagination, cultivating desire, and inviting the singer to become an actor in the narrative of salvation.

In her work on medieval memory, Mary Carruthers describes the intimate connection between memory and imagination in medieval psychology. Through the senses, human beings collect a variety of images of the world. These experiences become part of the faculty of the memory, a storehouse of the human person’s experiences. These images (which may be aural, tactile, or visual) become the playground for the imagination. The imagination can combine them into new structures, opening up the possibility of novel experiences, enriching the faculty of memory.

For example, I have had an experience of both snow and a horse. Even if I’ve never seen a horse in the snow, my imagination allows me to bring to mind the image of a horse running in the snow. Although it would be odd to do so, I have the capacity to contemplate this constructed image interiorly as much as I’d like to, undoubtedly changing the way that I relate to snow and horses alike.

The close connection between memory and imagination is essential to grasping the formative quality of liturgical hymnody. Liturgical hymns take up well-known images of salvation, grounded in the church’s memory, allowing them to be savored anew through the act of imagining. Adam of St. Victor’s sequence for the feast of the Purification reads: Verbum patris lux est vera / virginalis caro cera / Christus splendens cereus (“The Word of the Father is the true light / the flesh of the Virgin is the wax / Christ is the shining candle”). The liturgical act of processing with lit candles now becomes a poetic image for the mystery of the incarnation. The Father’s Word becomes luminous. The Virgin’s flesh is the soft wax that feeds the flame of love. And the candle itself is Christ. The visit to Simeon in the Gospel of Luke is enriched in the memory of the singer through the liturgical poet’s imaginative faculty.

This transformation of the memory may be found particularly in the devotional poetry of Christina Rossetti. Her famous “A Christmas Carol” (which later became the Christmas hymn “In the Bleak Midwinter”) paints a pastoral scene of a snow-encrusted English countryside. Within this frosty landscape, Christ is born among the poor beasts of the field. He receives a loving kiss from his mother, an act of worship more radical than that of the angels. The poem juxtaposes the memory of a snowy field and the Christmas story, but not out of Pollyannaish sentimentality. Instead, the reader is to perceive his or her own world as the space of the incarnation: “What can I give Him, / Poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd / I would bring a lamb, / If I were a Wise Man / I would do my part,— / Yet what I can I give Him, / Give my heart.”

The hymn underlines the fact that remembering the incarnation is insufficient unto itself. Instead, the singer of this hymn in a liturgical context participates in an imaginative reconstruction of the incarnation, one where the proper response is the offering of oneself.

Liturgical poetry and hymnody alike elicit desire. Perfect praise necessitates that the singer endlessly desire a more perfect way to praise the living God. In Robert Southwell’s Eucharistic poem “Christ’s bloody sweate,” the Eucharistic species is denominated as “Fatt soyle, full springe, sweete olive, grape of blisse / That yeldes, that streames, that powres, that dost distil / Untild, undrawne, unstampde, untouchd of presse / Deare fruit, cleare brooks, fayre oyle, sweete wine at will.” There is no acceptable act of speech that can capture the gift of the Eucharistic sacrifice. And thus human speech must begin anew each time.

The liturgical hymn must be dedicated to increasing the Christian’s desire to participate in the impossible act of perfect praise. Liturgical hymns do so in three ways. First, they address God as the one who can never be adequately praised. Michael Perry’s contemporary hymn “O God Beyond All Praising” is an intentionally ironic piece. If God is beyond all praising, why is the human voice continuing to offer to God “songs that cannot repay”? The poetic form of the liturgical hymn allows the composer to continue to revise the act of praise, enabling the singer to never rest with one single moment of adoration.

Second, liturgical hymns in the West have tended to end with doxologies or an eschatological motif. “The Church’s One Foundation,” a hymn written during a conflict in the Anglican communion, bestows a final vision of the heavenly vocation of humanity:

Yet she on earth hath union
with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we,
like them, the meek and lowly,
on high may dwell with Thee.

One concludes the act of praise not through settling upon a final idea of the church’s existence in history. Rather, the singer ends with a desire to become part of the communion of saints. As the hymn concludes, as the music ceases, this desire is the one that is to remain in the heart of the singer.

Lastly, liturgical hymnody sets words to music. Music is related intimately to the act of desire. For music creates patterns in the memory that the ears want to hear completed. The silence at the end of any hymn, the end of speech and music alike, now becomes an image of the soul’s very desire for God. To sing a liturgical hymn in poetic form is to long for God’s completion. It is to desire anew. Hymnody thus creates a world in which one’s heart is restless for perfect divine praise.

Liturgical hymns invite the singer to participate in the lyric through the act of singing. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns contemplate the various mysteries of salvation. But the final stanza always turns upon the singer such as in this hymn on the resurrection of Christ:

May my dead soul, O Savior, rise again with you.
Do not let grief destroy it, and may it not come to forget
those songs that sanctify it.
Yes, O Merciful Lord, I implore you, do not abandon me
who am stained with offences,
For in iniquities and in sins my mother bore me.

The self is implicated in the act of the hymn, transformed in the process of singing. The resurrection is not an abstract phenomenon now captured using an aesthetic medium. Instead, it is an event that has meaning for the singer. The singer dies to sin and rises to new life through the act of singing.

Liturgical hymnody, in this sense, reveals the ultimate power of poetry as a whole. Poetry is not merely about appreciation. It is a way of participating anew in reality, of becoming a new kind of person. When one is reading Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz,” the poetic experience is not a matter of merely appreciating the narrative and lyric genius of the poet. Dickinson wants one to enter into the experience of dying, to let her lyric “I” become “me.” I, like Dickinson, must imagine what it means to “not see to see—.” To read Dickinson is to practice dying.

Liturgical hymns in particular maintain this performative dimension of poetry. A hymn like “We Three Kings” successfully invites the singer to become the kings who offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the hymn concludes as the entire assembly becomes the communion of saints who offer their voices in praise to God: “Glorious now behold Him arise; / King and God and sacrifice; / Alleluia! Alleluia! / Earth to Heaven replies.” The singers’ voices now become the sacrifice of praise to God. It’s not gold that is offered. It’s the entire self, who becomes a gift to the epiphanic Word made flesh.

Liturgical hymnody creates a subjunctive world. A world in which the memory of the singer is renewed through the act of imagination. A world in which no act of speech is a complete gift to God. A world in which the singer becomes a participant in the mystery of salvation. It is the poetic dimension of this hymnody that allows the worshipper to participate in divine salvation. And perhaps this hymnody may remind the poet that the purpose of the lyric or epic is not merely didactic or aesthetic. It is the creation of a world “as if.” A world, in the case of the Christian, that is.

After all, this is the night.

Timothy P. O’Malley, PhD, is director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life. He also teaches in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame in liturgical-sacramental theology, catechesis, and spirituality. 

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