Expressions of the Sacred

Signs of the Holy One: Liturgy, Ritual, and Expression of the Sacred

by Uwe Michael Lang, C.O.
2015 Ignatius Press, 177 pages, $17.95
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A short time ago I visited a Carmelite Monastery, and during my conversation with one of the nuns in the speakroom she mentioned that she had just completed Father Lang’s book Signs of the Holy One. Before I could inquire what she thought of the work, she continued with how the book filled her mind with solid and enduring ideas. Liturgical conversations today often include references to the scholarly and informative studies provided by the Oratorian Father Uwe Michael Lang. His Signs of the Holy One: Liturgy, Ritual and Expression of the Sacred deserves a studied reading to further enrich present day discussions of the sacred liturgy.

The book itself brings together five lectures from various conferences and seminars with a short excursus among them. In his introduction, Father Lang summarized his thesis, which is developed throughout the book with the acknowledgement “of how important . . . nonlinguistic or symbolic expressions are for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery” and how he is “convinced that they are more significant than language itself.” Overall, Lang provides a valid critique of easily accepted ideas on ritual studies, notions of the sacred, architecture, art, and music—a critique that places the action of Christ in the celebration of the sacred liturgy as the starting point for an evaluation of these ideas and not vice versa.

As Father Lang develops each chapter, he culls from a variety of significant sources and studies pertinent data to identify the popular or current thought on the topic. Often, as the author notes, the current thought reveals a departure from a received theological understanding of the sacred liturgy and places the ideas on ritual, architecture, art, and music above the celebration of the sacred liturgy. The corrective that Father Lang employs in each of these topic areas is to re-regard the data collected and provide guidance for a rereading of the data according to principles found in magisterial and papal sources on the sacred liturgy.

There are two chapters in Father Lang’s book that I found especially successful: chapter 3, “Sacred Architecture: Crisis and Renewal,” and chapter 5, “Sacred Music: Between Theological Millstones.” In chapter 3, the author identifies several significant contemporary church buildings and asks of each of them if they are visible signs of the sacred. More importantly, he raises the question of whether or not these same church buildings originated in form from the requirements for the celebration of the sacred liturgy. It is not an uncommon experience today for churchgoers to be bewildered by the style and shape of their place of worship and perhaps not be so much aware of how these same buildings limit access to the fullness of the Mysteries celebrated within them. After a careful presentation of current thought and practice on the topic, Father Lang delivers four universally understood principles to take the current status of church architecture and restore its sacred dimension and theological foundations. At the root of his principles is the determination that “an architecture that is not ready, or even refuses, to let itself be formed by the Church’s liturgy does not work as a church building, as the historical styles of Christianity do.”

In chapter 5, Father Lang gives a succinct presentation of sacred music in the reform of the rites since the Council—an overview of liturgy and music which concludes with remarks on Pope Benedict XVI and sacred music. In these sections of the chapter, the author is clear that church music has a definite purpose related to the celebration of the sacred liturgy and—with some historical consistency—has been regulated to insure that it corresponds to the event and action of the Mysteries of Christ. Frankly, Father Lang laments, “Church music is not in good shape—not everywhere, not in every parish or community, but on balance and in every corner of the Catholic world.” As part of the recovery of sacred music as a sign of the Holy One, Father Lang offers three practical suggestions that aptly address current thought and practice: the serious need to critique often-employed forms of music that are not suited to the action of the liturgy and to instead use music that is, especially from the tradition; the selective use of instruments which lead to the sacred; and the actually singing of the propers, the music and texts intended for the celebration.

Father Lang’s book Signs of the Holy One not only heightens awareness of the many and varied languages that speak of the Mysteries of Christ in the celebration of the sacred liturgy, but also raises the equally compelling point that these languages, to insure their authenticity and integrity, require a grammar that originates in the Mystery the liturgy celebrates.