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The Mass for Millennials: Recessional Hymn

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The Mass is ended. Go in peace.
Thanks be to God.

Just kidding. We’re going to sing one more hymn, even though the presider just told y’all to leave. Oh wait. A lot of you have already left. And a lot of you are packing up to leave right now. Aaannd the rest of you are looking at me like you don’t like me because you heard the word “go” and you really want to go but your good ol’ Catholic guilt is compelling you to stay. So let’s make a joyful noise, now, shall we?

If I had a dollar for every time I encountered the above reactions to the recessional hymn in my experience as a cantor, I would have many dollars. To be fair, not every Sunday played out in the way I’ve described above (only somewhat exaggeratedly). Some Sundays and major feast days I would see congregations pick up their hymnals excitedly after hearing the title of the hymn announced or seeing it in the worship aid. Celebrations of greater solemnity—Christmas and Easter and their respective seasons, Epiphany, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi—these occasions lend themselves well to a recessional hymn, allowing those present to continue contemplating a particular facet of the Paschal mystery they have just celebrated before going back out into the world.

But do we really need a recessional hymn each and every Sunday? As a liturgical musician, I’m aware of the irony in my asking this question. I’m sure it will seem as though I’m advocating slacking off in the duties of music ministry by reducing the number of hymns. But the reality is, the recessional hymn hasn’t always been a part of the liturgical celebration, and even now, we aren’t required to have one.

From the General Instruction of the Roman Missal regarding recessional hymns:

. . .

That’s right. There’s nothing in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal that requires a recessional hymn. Here’s what the GIRM instructs regarding the Concluding Rites:

To the Concluding Rites belong the following:

  1. brief announcements, should they be necessary;
  2. the Priest’s Greeting and Blessing, which on certain days and occasions is expanded and expressed by the Prayer over the People or another more solemn formula;
  3. the Dismissal of the people by the Deacon or the Priest, so that each may go back to doing good works, praising and blessing God;
  4. the kissing of the altar by the Priest and the Deacon, followed by a profound bow to the altar by the Priest the Deacon, and the other ministers. (§90)

 

That’s it.

The priest tells us “Go in peace,” and we’re supposed to go. The instinct to leave the church right after the dismissal is the right instinct. We’ve been sent forth to “go back to doing good works, praising and blessing God.” Ite missa est.

So why the addition of the extra hymn? This practice arose partially as a carry-over from Protestant worship, where hymn singing was much more prominent from the beginning of the Reformation. From a logistical and even perhaps aesthetic standpoint, too, it makes sense to lend the liturgy a certain symmetry: we begin in song; it makes sense that we would end in song. And yet, the fact that the recessional hymn still hasn’t been added to the GIRM, even after years of use in liturgical practice, says something. It says that, having participated in the source and summit of our faith, we have work to do, and we can’t put it off long enough to sing even one more hymn. We’ve got to get back out there and bring Christ to everyone we encounter while we are still bearing him physically within our bodies as living tabernacles. Now that we’ve been nourished in our Father’s house, we’ve got to be about our Father’s business out in the world.

There is a beautiful urgency in the lack of a recessional hymn. We gather in the noble solemnity of the Introductory Rite with the entrance chant or hymn, but over the course of the liturgical celebration, something happens to us. We are transformed. And we are sent out in this transformed state so that we in turn may transform the world. A favorite image of mine for this mysterious reality (with gratitude to Tim O’Malley) is that of a particle accelerator. When we receive Jesus Christ himself, present in the Eucharist—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—we become little particles become infused with divine energy, sped up in our movements until we reach maximum velocity and collide with other little particles, creating a beautiful explosion of energy that brings light to a darkened world.

Of course, all of this isn’t to say that the post-Communion liturgical action can’t be punctuated by music. Again, turning to the GIRM, we learn:

When the distribution of Communion is over, if appropriate, the Priest and faithful pray quietly for some time. If desired, a Psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may also be sung by the whole congregation. (§88)

Yet, if the moment after Communion becomes the locus of our singing, the theological focus shifts: from the quasi-self-congratulatory missioning hymns so often sung after the final blessing and dismissal to a moment of musical contemplation at the sheer gratuitousness of the gift we have just received in receiving Jesus himself. And indeed, to amend my earlier advocacy of an occasional recessional hymn for certain feasts, I would in fact argue that the moments after Communion are when particular facets of the Paschal mystery can be contemplated more deeply. “For we can only wonder at ev’ry gift you send, at blessings without number and mercies without end.” “Worthy is Christ the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God.” “O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.” Singing these texts after Communion has the capacity to imbue them with a deeper Eucharistic richness; it can bring them to life in new and profoundly beautiful ways within the hearts of the congregation.

But what to do in lieu of a recessional hymn? Play an instrumental piece, leave in prayerful silence (especially appropriate during penitential seasons), or, if the congregation is formed to sing, choose a brief seasonal acclamation that accompanies the presider and liturgical ministers as they process out of the sanctuary. Any one of these options will provide a sense of closure to the liturgy while still avoiding the scenario with which I began this post.

At the risk of incurring criticism from my peers in the field of liturgical music, the more I think about it, the more I come to believe that singing a recessional hymn is a mixed sign. We’ve been told to go. We should go. We shouldn’t stand around singing about how the Mass missions us to be disciples in the world, because there’s a danger that singing about this discipleship is all we’ll ever do. Imagine what would happen if, after the final blessing, instead of singing one more hymn, the congregation immediately went out as a parish into the community and participated in forms of service together. What a concrete sign of Eucharistic love that would be!

We need to strike while the iron is hot. We need to go out into the world, bursting through the doors of the church like accelerated particles to collide with the particles who need the Good News, proceeding in haste to those who need us, like Mary did when she visited Elizabeth in the wake of the Incarnation. When Mary received Jesus in her body, she didn’t wait around. She got up. She left. She went to those who needed her and shared with them the Good News that the Messiah had come at last, taking on our very flesh in order to redeem it. When we receive Jesus into our bodies, we shouldn’t wait around either. The people in our communities need this Good News, perhaps now more than ever, and instead of just singing about it within the walls of the church, we should do what we’re told: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life.” And emboldened by the presence of Jesus himself within us, we will be given the courage to “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15).