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Reflections on Music and the Incarnation of Christ

“What are the implications of the Incarnation for the arts, and for music in particular?” and “Is there a proper theology of music?”
by Brian J. Nelson | Source:

As we move into the season of Advent, I find my thoughts naturally turning to
the mystery of the Incarnation. But this year they are more personal than in the past; closer to home. As a classically trained composer, I find myself asking questions like “What are the implications of the Incarnation for the arts, and for music in particular?” and “Is there a proper theology of music?” In attempting to frame an answer, two Church teachings inform my thoughts.

The first comes out of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787 A.D.), which addressed
a controversy about the legitimacy of icons and other religious objects. At issue was whether the veneration shown by Christians to these amounted to idolatry. The Council answered with a definitive “no,” stating first of all that: “…the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented…,”  and secondly that, since “[Christ ] has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, [we] can make an image of what [we] have seen of God . . . and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled.”  Or as St. John Damascene—a major leader at the Council—puts it more poetically, "The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God."

The second teaching guiding my thoughts is the following passage on the inspiration of Scripture from Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, on Divine Revelation: “[For] the words
of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the Word of the Eternal Father, when he took to himself the weakness of the human flesh, was in every way made like men.”

Of course, it needs to be said that applying these understandings to music
comes by way of analogy. Music is not iconography, and it is certainly not inspired Scripture. Nevertheless, I believe we can draw at least three principles from these texts to guide us along the way.

Music as Icon

The Seventh Ecumenical Council affirmed that the veneration of icons was a good and noble thing, not an idolatry. However, this does not mean that it is impossible to treat a sacred image or object in an idolatrous fashion. Indeed, we see in the Old Testament how the bronze serpent that God instructed Moses to make to save the people, later became an object of idolatrous worship in the time of Gideon.  Indeed, the tradition of iconography recognizes this danger and seeks to minimize it with certain “distortions” of perspective, proportion and the like.

Likewise music, above all when it is dealing with a sacred subject, should have a certain “transparency” about it, such that it draws the heart and mind of the listener toward Christ and not merely toward itself. As the great renaissance composer Palestrina once noted, “Music exercises great influence over the minds of men, not merely cheering them, but also guiding them.”  Indeed, more than any other art, music bypasses the intellectual faculties we use to evaluate other forms of discourse, going, as it were, “straight to the heart.”  Consequently the responsibility of the composer is that much greater. Palestrina himself was a great exemplar of this (listen to his Sicut Cervus), as was Bruckner (listen to his Os Justi).

Music as an Aid to Contemplation

Closely related to music as icon is music as an aid to contemplation. For it is not
enough to simply look through musical window to the divine; one must seek to enter into contemplation of the One who is beheld there. We music remember here that contemplation of God, which is nothing less than mystical union with Him, is first and foremost a grace from the Lord. We can only dispose ourselves to it, and in the case of composers, help to dispose others toward it in our music.

For the serious composer this involves a number of different things. First of all, the composer must know Him of whom he speaks. Like the theologian who has no relationship with God, the composer who writes sacred music absent an active love for the Lord is a sad creature to behold. I do not go so far as to say that such a man or woman cannot write good, even great sacred music, for “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.”  God can do what ever he wants and sometimes works through the most unlikely people. Nevertheless, a far more reliable way of producing quality is to be the good tree that cannot help but bear good fruits. We can only do this when we have our roots firmly planted in the Living Water of God’s Spirit.

The second requisite quality for a sincerely Catholic composer is a deep love and respect for the listener, and for the state of his or her immortal soul. After the quote given above, Palestrina goes on to say “Those, then, deserve great censure who use such a gift of God for frivolous or unworthy purposes, exciting men, by nature so prone to evil, to immorality.” How different is this compared to the romantic, Beethovenian conception of the composer bending the audience to his inexorable will!

Finally, the composer must know his craft exhaustively. However devout and pious he may be, he must remember the adage, “grace builds upon nature.” Alas, no amount of the former will compensate for a lack of the latter as given by God and developed by the composer. Indeed, mastering his craft is, if you will, the compositional equivalent of cooperation with God’s grace, ultimately disposing the composer (and his eventual listener, one hopes) toward greater union with God in contemplation.

The Musical Implications of the Incarnation of Christ

This brings us to our final point—and here I draw heavily on the Dei Verbum quote given above—namely, that the best music should participate in both aspects of the Incarnation. On the one hand, it should have a transcendent quality, drawing the listener toward the things of heaven, our ultimate destination. People have an intrinsic desire for eternal life and it is no coincidence that music which
points toward these ultimate realities tends to last.

But on the other hand, music also needs to reflect the human nature of Christ,
which is really our own human nature without sin an the effects thereof. This has at least two implications for the serious composer. The first is very personal and practical: stay humble! If Christ, who “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,” was humble and obedient to his Father, how much more do we composers need this virtue. And how lacking it has been in so many composers for the last 250 years!

Second, and flowing naturally from the first is a sense of identification with the listener and his or her struggles. Jesus was and is known for his association with the lowly, the poor, and even despised of this world. He is not afraid to meet them where they live and work…not only where they worship. As a composer the temptation is either to sugarcoat one’s music in favor of a “happy” Christianity or, conversely, to accept our fallen world as it is, with no sense of hope or ultimate destiny. But, thanks be to God, the Incarnation is our model for the right balance. Moreover the Incarnate One is the source of grace to achieve it!

The Implications for our Musical Choices

So as we move through Advent, perhaps we can all consider the effect of the Incarnation on our music, whether as a composer, performer or listener. Is our music—particularly our liturgical music—iconic. That is, is it a transparency to the divine or only a mirror reflecting our preferences back to us? Does our music dispose us to the things of God and greater union with him? Is our music, sacred and “secular” imbued with an incarnational sense, one that comes alongside the listener where he is, but also points the way to a better place? If these answer is “no,” then perhaps we need to reevaluate our musical values. May this introspection and renewal begin with we composers first of all!

A sample track from the new CD Responsorial Psalms for Advent and Christmas by composer Brian J. Nelson. This CD features 15 original settings of texts from the Catholic Lectionary during the Advent and Christmas seasons. The performers in this selection are: David Adams - Cantor, Sunny J. Sun - Organ and the St. Lawrence Choir. Available now at iTunes for download. Visist for physical purchase.

About the Author:

Brian is a composer living in Lawrence, Kansas and completing a D.M.A. in Composition at the University of Kansas. His new CD Responsorial Psalms for Advent and Christmas is available at iTunes and He can be reached at

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