Virtual Corpus Christi, corporeal computer

Corpus Christi online

We have had Easter online, Pentecost online, Trinity Sunday online, and now here we are at the celebration of the physical reality of Christ’s presence…….still mediated through a television or a computer screen. It does not feel the same, and this is a feast where the lack of Communion really stings, a digital celebration of the unavailable Eucharist.

God presiding over an early Eucharist
One of the older ‘added’ feasts

I vaguely thought that Corpus Christi was a Counter-Reformation feast, but in fact it’s much older, dating from the thirteenth century and pushed for by Thomas Aquinas.  In some countries it’s a public holiday, in others a holy day of obligation;  those against the Pope got rid of it in England at the Reformation, but for two hundred years it had been the date when the mystery plays were performed in York.  Nowadays if it isn’t a holy day of obligation, it is transferred to the next Sunday, which is why it’s the Sunday after Trinity Sunday, and why we are celebrating it this week before we pick up Ordinary Time again.

Melchisedek at altar
Melchisedek and Abram, brass altar piece, 1181
Fun local customs for Corpus Christi
another version of a liturgical procession

There are various local customs attached.  There always used to be Corpus Christi processions with the Sacrament when I was little, and there still are in some countries, as well as parts of the US.  There are various fascinating and baffling local customs associated with the feast in different countries, though some seem to have slipped over from other dates.  The baby jumping in Castile sounds to me to have links with the devil figure in the St Nicholas celebrations in Eastern Europe and the Krampus in Austria.  I am intrigued by the Catalan dancing egg, but I’m not sure where it comes from.  But this is obviously a significant and beloved feast, with lots of attached traditions and fun, like May Day.

Corpus Christi and Adoration
Melchisedek Athos icon
Athos icon of Melchisedek

Liturgically, it is the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, simply a chance to celebrate the fact of the Lord being still here bodily in the form of consecrated bread and wine.  It is the feast of his presence.  In my church we are lucky enough to have Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for a substantial amount of time, and I have always felt that Corpus Christi is the festival which specially celebrates this.  It celebrates the physical reality of God in an almost shocking way: the Lord is still here and he looks like this.  Our flat screens will feel even more unreal and two-dimensional than ever.

Celebrating the Body, when bodies are in danger

This year, our physical evidence of religion feels totally housebound.  We will have no processions; we will have Masses only via computer;  there is currently in the UK a chink of hope that churches might soon open for private prayer, but I don’t know whether that is going to mean we can go back to having Adoration.  Social distancing would not be a problem, but doorways are always bottlenecks, people touch pews, and our priests are mostly elderly and vulnerable, so this will all need to be worked out carefully.

Digital problems

My family has had trouble even accessing Mass on line (except the big, professional ones, which leave their recordings up).  We aren’t allowed to watch them live, as we don’t have a television licence (or a television), but when we try to watch a local Mass, or one from a place we know, it quite often goes wrong.  It makes me laugh when we find our recording stopped on the grounds that it is ‘adult content’, but this is a glitch we can’t get past (it seems to cut in just before the sermon).  And we are good with tech and have access to children who are even better, so there must be a lot of people out there having even more trouble.

The desire for Communion

Intellectually, I know that weekly Communion is a very modern phenomenon for the laity (it used to be very much more restricted); I know that you can’t have weekly Masses even online in large parts of the world.  Our current pain should make us much more sympathetic and empathetic to those who have to live like this, and I think for the laity it does; but it’s difficult for those who still can get to Mass to feel it as much.  And as the laity, especially the invisible female laity, we have no say in how any of this develops, we simply have to do as we are told about not going to church, not participating in Mass except digitally, not having communion.

Psalms for Corpus Christi

However, some of you are lucky enough to be going back to church already, so you will be celebrating Corpus Christi on Sunday.  The readings for the feast vary across the three years of the Lectionary cycle, but they are all good psalms : Year A, Ps 147; Year B, Ps 115/116 (The cup of salvation); and Year C, Ps 109/110 (A priest like Melchisedek of old). 

Melchisedek bringing forth bread and wine
Psalm 147 for Year A

The psalm for Year A is a four-square solid little psalm, which we sing almost in its entirety (there is one other stanza, about the Lord hurling hailstones).  It has a very brief Response, but it’s the first line of the psalm, and feels like an arrow prayer, so it works.  The whole psalm is a joyful celebration of God’s goodness and protection, simple and direct, so it’s a simple happy tune which runs into the Response each time without a pause.  The Response should just emerge each time like a flower, or a firework if you’re feeling more explosive (but in a good way).

An alternative to the ‘Act of Spiritual Communion’

I’d like to offer one other suggestion for the feast of Corpus Christi.  We have been encouraged to use the ‘Act of Spiritual Communion’ Prayer, but I’m sorry to say that I don’t find it works for me. The language is too alien, and I am uncomfortable with addressing the Lord as ‘my Jesus’.  Here is a possible alternative, which is one of the prayers for the priest before Communion  (just after the Lamb of God) out of the previous version of the Missal.  I’ve loved it for years; I committed it to memory years ago, because it expressed exactly what I wanted to say, and I now find it helps more than anything else to bridge the awful gap in the middle of digital Masses, when we can see someone else receiving Communion, but know that we can’t.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God / by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit / your death brought life to the world./ By your holy body and blood / free me from all my sins and from every evil. / Keep me faithful to your teaching, / and never let me be parted from you.

That prayer is still there in the new version of the Mass, but it’s much more wordy and less elegant, so I stick with the old version.  It couldn’t be more appropriate for Corpus Christi, with its specific references to the body and blood, and I find it very comforting.  It makes me feel part of the Body of Christ in a way that nearly everything else doesn’t, at the moment.  If we are all there, not to be parted from him, we are all together, even if we can’t see or touch each other; and he will keep us safe.

separated from the feast, but still there, and still listening

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What is the purpose of a church choir?

Speaking as a choir member…

I’ve been a member of at least one choir, off and on, ever since I was at school, and the first ‘outside school’ choir I joined was a church one. I love singing in a choir. I have joined the church choir in most of the places we have lived for any length of time. I even met my husband in a church choir (and that’s where he learned to play the guitar).  I am not being nasty about church choirs.

One day I’ll get him to move on to a theorbo…

This summer on our travels we got to see more different churches than usual for Sunday Masses, and I found myself thinking about church choirs and what they are actually for.  My first ever blog was about why we have music at all in church, but now I’m thinking about how we do it.

Differences between choir and church choir

I would distinguish very carefully between a church choir and a choir. Choirs learn to sing something exactly and beautifully, by doing a lot of practice. They sing different sorts of music, and often outside any context except that of a concert.  Their reason for existence is to perform the music.  Church choirs on the other hand lead the people at an event (usually a religious celebration) so that those people can take part confidently in the event itself.  The church choir may sing during a time when the congregation is doing something else (e.g. handling the collection, lining up for Communion), but it is not there to replace the effort of the congregation but to enable and enhance it. Mass is not a concert, and music should never be an excuse to stop people joining in.  I was delighted to discover that the Pope made the same point last year.

too much discipline here for a real congregation

What a choir can do

Deciding to concentrate on a choir instead of getting the people to sing is an easy trap for church musicians to fall into, because most musicians, even the non-professionals, are thinking all the time about how they can make the performance better, to do a better job at bringing the music to life, making it flower.  Using a choir instead of the congregation is a short cut.

a rare picture of a mixed choir

It’s quite difficult to find early pictures of choirs singing, because there are really only a few stock options, and in some ways it’s a relatively modern idea.  One version is the group of monks singing in community, and this is still the only model of church music which pleases some people.   Another is the single singer, often with instrument: the minstrel or the troubadour model originally, like the singer-songwriter of today.  We’ve all come across people like this singing at Mass, and it doesn’t work as a community effort.

Don’t leave it to the professionals

When we’re talking about Sunday Mass, we’re not talking about a congregation made up entirely of musicians.  Obviously any church on a Sunday is going to contain people who don’t know the music, who can’t sing in tune, who just want it to be over, who don’t feel like joining in, who can’t sing because the last time they sang that hymn was at a funeral, and the loss is still raw (and that’s even before you look at the congregation as well as the clergy).

Children can (will?) be restless and babies noisy (one old priest I knew always called that the ‘chorus of angels’).  People will take breaths in the middle of words;  they will sing passing notes that aren’t there in the text;  they know a different version of the tune (or the words – I often sing the wrong words in an older hymn because the text has been subtly altered and I’m singing from memory).  Often they don’t have a very big repertoire of hymns, so if you want to extend it, you will need to do it gently and encourage them.  As soon as they feel uncomfortable, they will simply stop singing.   They are frightened of getting something wrong and other people noticing, with a fear totally out of proportion to the likelihood of that happening.

So the music produced by a congregation is less polished and accomplished, but it’s their music, and they’re not doing it for any other audience than God.  I suspect at Mass on Sundays he’d rather hear them than a choir singing alone,  – just as you’d be disappointed if you went to your child’s school play and they had outsourced the singing to professionals.

…even if they came with a great set of instruments

Sing a new song

Having discussed the possible drawbacks of congregational singing, it’s only fair to say that it’s great to hear how well a congregation can sing if you give it the chance.  This is why we stress ‘singable’ (awful word) as the point of the music on the website, and why I try to give all my church music tunes which are easy to pick up.  Good unison is much more likely than bad harmony to allow people to feel secure enough to join in.  If your congregation consists of the same people singing the same words every day, you can decide to sing in Latin or anything else, but for most Anglophone people at church on a Sunday, it needs to be English.  If your congregation is, remarkably, exactly the same people turning up every week and they know the words, you can get them to sing chant; but for most congregations, chant will put them off, and they will leave the singing to the choir (and if you want to do chant well, weekly rehearsals are not usually enough).  Tunes were invented after chant, for a reason : they are easier for non-monks to pick up and join in.

New every Sunday?

I’m very aware that the psalm and response change every week, so accessibility is extremely important.  I’ve talked before about what makes a good psalm response.  I do ask quite a lot of my cantors, but the shape of the tune should be strong enough to help you to get back on the rails before the end of the stanza if the irregular words have thrown you off.  Then the congregation’s part is simpler, but still strong.   Only very rarely do I change the last line of a stanza, because the congregation really needs to recognise the lead-in (and of course, the cantor’s looking up, and if necessary waving at them, will also help).  Psalms do get repeated in the Lectionary (especially around Christmas and Easter), and this helps too, if it’s recent enough for the congregation to remember.  The Alleluia verse changes from week to week, but the Alleluia itself not so often (and they are modular, so you can decide just to keep to one, though I think it’s good to wake the congregation up and make them refocus every now and again).

Growing accustomed to the tune…

The Mass parts have much more chance to bed in to people’s memories, so it is worth spending time on getting them right, maybe even running through one of them before Mass if you have the chance.  It is an advantage that the congregation mostly knows the words for the Mass parts;  and/or having a tune is a great help to settling the words in your head if they have been changed.  Deciding to sing the Latin (or Greek, for the Kyrie) version every week to avoid getting to grips with the (new) English version is actually selling your congregation short, as they will end up stumbling over the English words (even while speaking) for a long time when they visit other churches.  Singing the Our Father in Latin at the standard parish Sunday Mass means that small children can’t join in with the one prayer they may know by heart, and it really annoys some young adults too (one of them being my youngest daughter).  There is a case for not singing the Our Father at all (Jesus didn’t, so far as we know).  I’ve set it so that you can sing it if you want to, but I’d always keep an eye on how many people are actually joining in, because surely that’s the most important thing.

The other version of the church choir

The other obvious version of a group of singers in this context is the angels, who turn up either alone as messengers or in a group as a choir.   Traditionally, there are nine choirs of angels, though I have no information on whether they pool their auditions, and I have heroically refrained from discussing the way in which the Church has used church choirs throughout its history as a way to prevent women singing.  But I take great comfort from the fact that the main choirs in the Bible are angels, since they do not have gender, so women can sing with the angels as much as they like.  The angels are like the best sort of church choir : they strengthen the congregation and make it brave to join in.

And here is a lovely picture of these wonderful inclusive angels with possibly the first version of a singalong sheet.  Why are they holding up the music?  Because, at any Mass, what matters is that everyone can take part.

Sing all ye citizens; all you need is the words and a full heart

[Read this in Spanish]

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.