Judith Kubicki, Ph.D., doesn’t just sing hymns when she goes to church.
Kubicki, associate professor of theology and past president of the North American Academy of Liturgy (NAAL), analyzes hymns for historical, cultural and theological relevance. For her, the standard hymnal, with its well-thumbed pages and tattered place marker, is a goldmine of information about the evolution of the faith and worship of the Christian church.
“Hymns, music and text, like everything else in liturgy, express not only what we believe, but who we are, and our relationship to other people and to God,” she said. “They do this because, like all elements of the liturgy, they are symbols.”
This idea formed the basis of her first book, Liturgical Music as Ritual Symbol: A Case Study of Jacques Berthier’s Taizé Music (Peeters Publishers, 1999). This fall, she will participate in a faculty fellowship that will allow her to explore the theology of Christian hymnody in new ways.
The fellowship project is part of her ongoing focus on the liturgy, which she examined in her most recent book, The Presence of Christ in the Gathered Assembly (Continuum, 2006). In that book, Kubicki noted how the power of symbols used in the Mass can be diluted if they are executed poorly, for instance, or if there is a dissonance between what is said and what is done.
When asked to explain the phenomenon, Kubicki said it has some parallels with quantum physics.
“Quantum physics says that the world is made up of bundles of energy called ‘quanta.’ These bundles interact with each other, providing heat and light and energy to the whole world and everything in it,” she said. “I think of the symbols of the liturgy as these bundles of energy. They bombard each other, giving each other energy, illuminating each other and thereby allowing us to engage and get drawn into the liturgy.”
As an academic discipline, study of liturgical theology is not limited to Catholicism, or even Christianity. The 34th annual meeting of NAAL, held last January in Baltimore, included—in addition to representatives from several Christian denominations, Jewish participants and attendees from as far away as Europe and Australia, she said.
Kubicki noted that since the role of the laity has become more restricted lately, at least within the Catholic Church, fewer theology students are choosing to major in the liturgy. But NAAL is both ecumenical and interfaith, which has helped it grow.
“There are so many tensions regarding the way liturgy is celebrated, including battles over the kind of music that is done and the kind of instruments that are used. The reason is because all of the aspects of the liturgy are comprised of symbols,” she said. “If symbols negotiate identity and relationships, what could be more important than who we are and who we are in relationship with?”
Unlike sermons, music often affects people on a subconscious level. Certain songs appeal because of their association with experiences outside of worship, she said. This is the case with a song likeHow Great Thou Art. It is a favorite of the generation that grew up on “The Lawrence Welk Show,” a show that often featured the song on its weekly program, she said.
For her fellowship, Kubicki will rely a great deal on knowledge she has gained from teaching the course Great Christian Hymns, which starts with the book of Psalms and ends with gospel hymns and spirituals. Over the years, discussing everything from Martin Luther’s German hymns (in English translation) to how we name God—since older hymns only refer to God as male—has given her new insights, as well as a good amount of source material. Her collection of 40 or so hymnals includes one from 1881, another from 1891, an Army Navy Hymnal from World War II, and books from Catholic, Methodist, Mennonite, Lutheran and Episcopal congregations.
She acknowledged that there is enough source material to spend the rest of her life researching the subject for a book, but in the meantime she’s hoping to complete two articles during the fellowship. The first will trace the changes in the texts of three classic hymns over time. The second will explore the theological implications of revising classic texts for relevance, contemporary usage and gender inclusivity.
And what composition does an expert in hymns choose as her favorite? Kubicki has many, but first on the list is O God Beyond All Praising, a part of Gustav Holst’s The Planets.
“Holst has all these wonderful things going on in the section called ‘Jupiter.’ Then all of the sudden the orchestra breaks into a hymn tune that we know today as ‘Thaxted.’ We sang it here as the closing song of the Mass of the Holy Spirit, and we sometimes sing it for graduation,” she said. “The music is so gutsy that you can just sink your teeth into it. When I sing it, I feel that my whole body, my whole being is worshipping.”