One of the kids in the parish recently asked me about the “spooky” music in the Mass. After asking him a few questions I realized that he was referring to the music that we hear after the entrance hymn, when the priest has arrived to the sanctuary and before he makes the Sign of the Cross. It’s usually at this time that I will incense the altar. It’s a good question – what is that strange music?
It’s called the Entrance Antiphon, the words of which you can find in the bulletin each week. We include it at our Masses because the Church’s instructions on the liturgy, called the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, ask us to do it. The words of the Antiphon come from the Roman Missal, which is the big book that the priest references as he says the Mass. The Church gives us the Antiphon to help us to contemplate the particular themes of that Sunday, feast day, or liturgical season. If you ever attend weekday Mass, where there is no music, you’ll hear the congregation recite the Entrance Antiphon as the priest enters the sanctuary at the beginning of the liturgy. But on Sundays and other special feast days, we chant the Antiphon.
So where does this strange-sounding music come from? It also comes from the Church, in its official music book, which is called the Graduale, and it’s similar to what’s called Gregorian Chant. Some may wonder if the use of Gregorian Chant is in line with the liturgical reforms called for by the Second Vatican Council. Happily, it very much is. In fact, Vatican II teaches us that Gregorian Chant is “specially suited” to our liturgy, and that “it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 116). Although originally composed to be sung in Latin, we always sing the chant in English so it might be more easily understood.
Chant sounds strange to our ears because it’s a different, more ancient kind of music than what we’re used to hearing. Contemporary music is typically played in major and minor keys, a musical development from the Rennaissance and Baroque periods. Being much older, chant doesn’t follow those same melodic patterns and it doesn’t have a rhythmic meter. This makes it harder for us to predict, and so it strikes us as strange, otherworldly, and haunting (“spooky”). Some describe it as “brightly sad.”
As the chant is sung, the Church’s instructions indicate that after reverencing the altar with a kiss, “the priest, if appropriate, also incenses the cross and altar.” Thus, it is not required that the priest use incense at the beginning of the Mass. But it does add to the solemnity of the sacred action, which is fitting since what we do at Mass is different than anything else that we do. The chant and the incense, like the priest’s vestments and the design of the church building, help us to experience in our senses what is actually happening at the Mass – the mystical meeting of heaven and earth – helping all those who are gathered to enter into the sacred mysteries in a fuller, more active, and conscious way, as the liturgical reforms of the Council called for.