Closing out our four-part look at music in the Mass last week, we discussed progressive solemnity, particularly in how it is applied when it comes to singing. In employing progressive solemnity, we see that the higher the rank of the feast, more singing is included as demanded by the nature of the celebration (cf. Musicam Sacram, 7). When celebrating a liturgy that has the rank of feast or higher, all three degrees or levels of singing should be used if at all possible. Each Sunday celebration effectively has the rank of solemnity, but there are different degrees of solemnities. Since we are already singing about as much as possible on any given Sunday and holyday, how do we elevate those higher ranking solemnities to celebrate them more profoundly and give them due reverence? This is where progressive solemnity is not limited to just singing: it applies to other aspects of the liturgy as well.
Art & Environment: Just like we decorate our homes for special occasions, we decorate the church for special feasts. For Ordinary Time we usually have just a few green plants in the sanctuary. It is simple and effective. For a higher ranking solemnity than an Ordinary Time Sunday, we could add flowers (especially in the color of the feast), decorative fabric around the plants, and/or a more ornate altar cloth. In Advent and Lent, the decorations are at a minimum (a fast for the eyes) so that Christmas and Easter decorations are much more joyful (a feast for the eyes). Of course we give great thanks to our Art & Environment committee which does a beautiful job of decorating and drawing us into these seasons and feast days.
Candles: Mass is always required to be celebrated with lighted candles. The candles represent Christ who is the light of the world (John 8:12). They also remind us of our ancestors in the faith who celebrated Mass in the darkness of the catacombs because of persecution. Candles used to be required to be 100% beeswax; now only a minimum of 51% is required. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the beeswax symbolizes the pure flesh of Christ received from Mary, the wick symbolizes his soul, and the flame represents his divinity. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 117 says: “On or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in every celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or Holyday of Obligation, or if the Diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candlesticks with lighted candles.” The number of candles changes based on the rank of the celebration. For ferial days and memorials, we use two; for feasts we use four; for Feasts of the Lord and solemnities, we use six. Finally, if you attended the Confirmation Mass back in April (or have been at Mass at the cathedral when the bishop is the celebrant), you will see a seventh candle which is known as the jurisdiction candle. This candle is only used when the diocesan bishop celebrates Mass in his diocese. The seventh candle could also allude to the seven gold candlesticks mentioned in Revelation 1:12.
Incense: Adding a degree of transcendence, incense is another way to utilize progressive solemnity. Its use symbolizes purification and sanctification. The use of incense goes back to our Jewish roots when God commanded it to be made for the Tent of Meeting in Exodus 30. In liturgical processions, incense always leads which is to remind us of God preceding the Israelites in the column of smoke and fire in the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:21-22). We further read in the Scriptures of our prayers rising up to God “like incense before [him]” (Psalm 141:2) and the angel holding the censer of gold from which the prayers of the people go before God (Revelation 8:4). In this way, incense adds a level of mystery and solemnity to the celebration. The visual of the smoke rising and the sweet fragrance are to draw our minds and hearts into God’s presence as heaven and earth unite in the Mass. We use incense on holydays and the highest ranking solemnities in the liturgical year.
Other Musical Instruments/Other Songs: Adding other musical instruments and/or other music such as preludes and postludes is another way to add solemnity. Sing to the Lord, no. 89, says: “From the days when the Ark of the Covenant was accompanied in procession by cymbals, harps, lyres, and trumpets, God’s people have, in various periods, used a variety of musical instruments to sing his praise.” On some of the highest solemnities, we add brass and other instruments not normally used on most weekends. These extra instruments add great festivity to our celebrations. Similarly, throughout the year, there is normally only one prelude song prior to Mass; however, on feasts like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, our musicians will offer an extended prelude of multiple songs to draw us further into the joy of these great feast days.