Back in the day, before the parish repertoire was expanded to accommodate the hymn sandwich (the “opening hymn” and “closing hymn”), the “offertory hymn,” and the almost-never-sung-by-parishioners “communion hymn,” Catholics in the U.S. didn’t know a lot of hymns. Everyone knew “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name:” disfigured by those baroque trills (“In-fih-ih-neh-ett thy vast do-oh-main”) that aren’t in the score, but the American Catholic fight song, nonetheless. Then there were the Marian standards, of which the treacly confections (“Bring Flowers of the Fairest, Bring Flowers of the Rarest”) were more prevalent than the noble classics (“O Sanctissima”).
And there was “Lord, Who at Thy First Eucharist,” which I may have learned for my first Holy Communion in 1958, but which was certainly a standard long before then. In an era of theologically thin hymn-texts, it was a eucharistic hymn chock-full of theology. It centered the Church’s identity and unity in the Eucharist. It reminded Catholics of the ecumenical imperative. It closed with an image of the Supper of the Lamb, in the Kingdom where the redeemed live in the unity of trinitarian light and love.
It’s a fine hymn. And it’s now been wrecked by that great wreckovator, “alt.” You say you’ve never heard of “alt.”? Go to the bottom of any page in the hymn section of your worship aide, and there you will find the ubiquitous “alt.,” a protean character who seems to have re-written virtually the entire repertoire. “Alt.” did a particularly egregious job on “Lord, Who at Thy First Eucharist.”
Here’s the original last verse:
So, Lord, at length when sacraments shall cease
May we be one with all Thy Church above,
One with Thy saints in one unbroken peace,
One with Thy saints in one unbounded love;
More blessed still, in peace and love to be
One with the Trinity in unity.
“Alt.,” who breaks out into hives whenever he encounters “Thy,” was not content to wreckovate that into Eliza Doolittle English. No, “alt.” had to flatten the theology as well as the vocabulary. Thus the wreckovated hymn now limps to the finish-line with a slavish repetition of previous verses: “O may we all one bread, one body be/Through this blest sacrament of unity.”
What happened to the Kingdom-to-come? Or to the life of the blessed who live within the really Real Presence of the Most Holy Trinity? They’ve been jettisoned in favor of togetherness. This kind of gelding is not without consequences, and the consequences aren’t only literary; the deeper consequences are theological and liturgical. Lex cantandi, lex credendi, lex orandi — what we sing affects what we believe and how we pray.
As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the celebration of the Eucharist here-and-now is our privileged participation in the liturgy of angels and saints that goes on constantly around the Throne of Grace. In the Eucharist, we experience the unity of the Church in this world, true; even more importantly, we experience our unity with what we used to call the “Church Triumphant.” The Eucharist doesn’t simply focus our attention on us, and on now. The Eucharist, rightly understood, points us toward our fuller communion with the redeemed of the Lamb, in the time-beyond-time that is God’s time, trinitarian time. To diminish this Kingdom-sense is to diminish an essential element of the Eucharist.
As I’ve argued in this space before, losing a sense of the Kingdom-to-come is one key factor in our post-Vatican II liturgical languors. If the reformed liturgy has failed to do what two generations of liturgical reformers expected it to do — equip the People of God for a new evangelical Pentecost in the world — that may have something to do with too intense a focus in our prayer and song on us, and on now.
The answer? Catechetical preaching on the Kingdom-dimension of the liturgy is essential. And might I suggest the proper authorities consigning hymnals defaced by the arch-wreckovator, “alt.,” to the parish dumpster?
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.