Allegorical (Noncritical) Use of Scripture in Gregorian Chant

The liturgy loves allegory. The Old Testament, especially the Psalter, is used in the Mass propers to celebrate the mystery of Christ.

As St. Augustine said,

In vetere novum latet
et in novo vetus patet.

In the Old (Testament) the New is hidden;
in the New (Testament) the Old is made apparent.

In the introit of Christmas Mass in the Night, a royal psalm about the Israelite king being God’s representative is made to speak of the incarnation: “You are my son, today I have begotten you” (Ps 2:7).

(The eleventh-century lineless neumes from Einsiedeln Abbey in the Graduale Triplex indicate that “meus”/”my” is to be emphasized, expressing Christ’s divine sonship. “Hodie”/”today” is also emphasized, for the event is not merely in the past, but is made sacramentally present now in the liturgical celebration. But such niceties of medieval chant interpretation are another topic for another day.)

The introit for the Fifth Sunday of Lent makes Psalm 43, a lament of one far from Israel who longs for the temple liturgy, to be the words of Christ on the Cross: “Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the unholy nation; deliver me from the evil and deceitful person, for you are God, my strength.” Formerly this was Passion Sunday. That term has been dropped in the liturgical reform, but the spirit of the day remains, and the option remains in current legislation of veiling the statues on this day. In its liturgical context, the final part of this text looks forward with hope to Easter Sunday.

(The eleventh-century lineless neumes from Einsiedeln Abbey in the Graduale Triplex indicate that “quia tu/for you” is to be brought out, and that the two words “Deus meus” “my God” are to be tied together, indicating Jesus’ trust that the Father is his God. But as I say, the niceties of chant interpretation are for another day, so I’ll stop.)

The introit for Easter Sunday uses Psalm 139:8, which you probably know as something like “If I climb the heavens, you are there.” The Latin (mis)translation, “Resurrexi, et adhuc tecum sum,” lends itself well to the liturgical mystery celebrated: “I arose, and I am with you still.”

The Bible itself gives precedent for giving new (Christian) meaning to Old Testament passages, especially Psalm 2 cited above. Acts 13:33 says that God “has brought to fulfillment for us, their children, by raising up Jesus, as it is written in the second psalm, ‘You are my son; this day I have begotten you’.” Hebrew opens with the assertion that “in these last days, (God) spoke to us through a son,” then goes on to say, referring to the son Jesus, “For to which of the angels did God ever say: ‘You are my son; this day I have begotten you’?”

What the New Testament does with moderation, the later liturgical tradition does almost without bounds. Most every page of the Graduale Romanum gives us an Old Testament text understood to apply to Christ, Mary, the saints, or the Christian life.

I raise the issue of allegory because of Vince Smiles’ excellent post “Historical Criticism: Essential for the Interpretation of Scripture.” The second of Vince’s two principles for the Christian interpretation of Scripture is this:

2. Careful reading of texts on their own terms.

Question for Vince Smiles, and for all of you:

How much does modern Biblical criticism call into question the allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament which runs all through Catholic liturgy?

I’m sure Vince didn’t have the chant propers in mind when he wrote the following:

The perennial problem with all interpretation is the human tendency to make the text say what we want it to say – to read it on our terms.

But is that what the chant propers are doing with their allegorical, Christ-centered reading of the Psalter?

I suppose a defense of allegorical, Christological reading of the Psalms would be that God, as author of both Old and New Testament, had in mind the fuller Christian meaning of Old Testament texts when he inspired the human authors to pen them, even if they weren’t aware of it at the time. In this view, allegory isn’t imposing meaning on the Old Testament text, but finding the full meaning contained within the text itself. I believe it is Martin Luther who said that Christ is found on every page of the Old Testament.

Or perhaps a weaker defense works. One could legitimize allegorical interpretation while retaining one’s scholarly scruples by admitting forthrightly that the text didn’t originally mean what the Church has imposed on it, nor did God intend that the Church impose this precise meaning. But it is not at odds with God’s purposes for the Church to reuse texts for any number of worthy liturgical and spiritual purposes, as long as we are clear in admitting what we are doing. (The part about God not intending the allegorical meaning gets tricky when it is the New Testament itself which allegorizes.)

What do you think? Is it legitimate to find or impose new meanings on old texts? Within what limits?

Let’s have this discussion in just one place. Comments are closed here – go over to the featured post and comment there.