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Kathleen Harmon’s The Mystery We Celebrate, the Song We Sing: A Theology of Liturgical Music

(Liturgical Press, 2008)

by David Gambrell

Harmon’s work is based on Joyce Ann Zimmerman’s proposal that liturgy is a ritual enactment of the dialectic tension of the paschal mystery — that is, the tension between the soteriological “not yet” and the eschatological “already” of our redemption in Christ. In other words, in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we can see that God’s new creation has already begun; yet it is abundantly clear (think of the recent earthquake in China or the cyclone in Myanmar) that the salvation of the world is, as of yet, incomplete. The “ritual enactment” that Harmon describes is a way of remembering (anamnesis) and entering into the “originary” events of the faith (the Exodus, e.g., or the Christ event) that reveal to us who we are and how we are called to live.

Harmon also develops a liturgical interpretation of Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of participation (the preunderstanding of communal identity; for Christians, this is rooted in baptism), distanciation (conscious and analytical interpretation, yielding new understanding; this requires stepping outside of our liturgical participation, at least to some extent) and appropriation (a moment of dialectical synthesis, involving the relinquishment of the self and the embrace of new possibility; in Christian terms, dying and rising with Christ).

What does all this have to do with music? Harmon argues that music is integral to the liturgy because it allows us to participate in the enactment of the paschal mystery at the deepest level of human action — transcending the limitations of physical space (what she calls “Field 1,” following David Burrows) as well as the cognitive architecture of thought and language (“Field 2”). In the realm of the spirit (“Field 3”), music helps to dissolve the boundaries between self and other, promoting a sense of the oneness of all. This is possible only because sound “reveals presence,” “binds interiorities” and “manifests the exercise of power.” Furthermore, when sound is organized and experienced as music, it “reveals the nature of reality,” “catalyzes participation” in the liturgical event and “clarifies the nature of time” through meter and rhythm.

Harmon also believes that music has an inherent centripetal quality, in contrast to the centrifugal nature of language. In other words, music draws meaning and energy in, condensing and intensifying it, whereas speech alone tends to spin off into abstraction and fragmentation. Finally, music-making involves a dialectic movement of force meeting resistance, as all sound is derived from collision or friction between two things — a mallet meeting a cymbal, a bow dragging across a cello string, air passing over the reed of a clarinet or through the vocal chords.

Liturgical music, then, communicates our presence and enables our full participation in the rite — calling for a deeper level of self-awareness than merely speaking, disclosing the engagement of will and intention, bridging the divisions of language, focusing attention, dissolving the distinction between center and periphery, and drawing us into relationship with God and one another as the body of Christ. The nature of melody — its linear movement through time, building on past notes and anticipating future ones — connects us with the history of salvation and our eschatological hope. (Jeremy Begbie makes a similar case in Theology, Music and Time.) The force-resistance dialectic implicit in musical performance helps us to understand the constructive relationship between participation and resistance (non-participation) within any liturgical assembly and in the Christian life itself. The force of divine power (incarnate in liturgical song) moves through our suffering and struggle, our rebellion and weakness, to transform our common life into an embodiment of the paschal mystery — the song of faith.


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