N THIS FEAST of Saint Cecilia we remember in gratitude God’s great gift of song. This gift smiles upon our prayer as music expresses what words cannot. Supplication to God which emanates from the fathoms of our being often finds its true voice in song. Words may fail us in sorrow, pain, gratitude, and in joy. Music is the emissary of the heart.
While deeply personal, music is also a public expression, one that can place individuals in a vulnerable position by risking such exposure. But music is a unifying force in our communities. We are by nature social beings, and called to serve one another and lift each other up.
Why do we sing? God is there!
Why do we sing? Why sing at Mass? This is a loaded question! I’m not going to tell you how it is. You have perfectly valid reasons within your own heart. The Church puts forth its case on many levels. Both must be deeply explored together.
*(Disclaimer: Everything I write is just as much to remind myself, as it is to share with others!)
We do know God is present in various ways including when we sing:
“He is present in the sacraments…He is present in His word…He is present…when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy § 7)
Saint Augustine is attributed with the saying, “He who sings once, prays twice.” There is great wisdom in this regardless of its origin. Saint Augustine has said, “To sing is a sign of love. The singer of this new song is full of the warmth of God’s love.” (Sermon 336)
Quite fascinating is the context of Augustine’s words on singing: the celebration of the dedication of a Church. His wisdom teaches us love in a faith community:
“But Christians do not make a house of God until they are one in charity. The timber and stone must fit together in an orderly plan, must be joined in perfect harmony, must give each other the support as it were of love, or no one would enter the building…Therefore, to be raised up from your former state of ruin you must love one another. ” (Ibid.)
But what greater love is His sacrifice, which was offered on the cross for all? Our thanksgiving and joy may best find its voice in song. But to speak of music in the liturgy, to speak of community, one must first talk about the Eucharist which is the fabric of community and all our being.
Community is intrinsically tied to the Eucharist.
We cannot isolate from each other our encounter with the Divine. Sacrament, scripture, and prayer unite us in love in God’s presence. From Lumen Gentium §11:
“Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life, they offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with It.”
Pope Francis echoes this directly in his Apostolic letter Desiderio Desideravi § 37:
“There is no aspect of ecclesial life that does not find its summit and its source in the Liturgy…the consequence of placing the Sunday Eucharist, the foundation of communion, at the centre of the life of the community.”
The Eucharist is something in which we, the community — the Body of Christ participate.
From the catechism of the Catholic Church, §1322: “The holy Eucharist completes Christian initiation. Those who have been raised to the dignity of the royal priesthood by Baptism…participate with the whole community in the Lord’s own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.”
We see over and over that the community is intrinsically tied to the Eucharist. From the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy § 7:
“[I]n the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.”
As members of the Body of Christ, we are reminded that we participate in the Lord’s own sacrifice. Therefore, (as Alan Hommerding reminds us) the Eucharist is not just a thing or an object to behold. Our celebration is a communal participation and our response is an action. We are not passive in the presence of God. The Eucharist is our sacramental food to go into the world and bear fruit that will last (John 15:16).
Sacred Song is Prayer
Sacred song is prayer. In this prayer God dwells among us. As a consequence, we are reminded of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, and Lex Vivendi: The rule of prayer is the rule of belief, which leads to the rule of how we live out our lives — and quite bluntly, how we treat each other.
What we pray – how we pray – and sing – forms our belief which informs our action. The faith community is formed by what we sing. This is the power of song. This power is a call to responsibility for one another. What and how we sing is an act of love and of service. Each rehearsal is a prayer. Each carefully prepared song is a fulfillment of Jesus’ greatest Commandment to “Love one another.” God and each other is all we have.
Will I Make a Difference?
Whether in your parish choir or in the pews, if you think your voice may not make a difference, consider the following from Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope” 1965 Vatican II) §8:
“The Paschal hymn, of course, does not cease when a liturgical celebration ends. Christ, whose praises we have sung, remains with us and leads us through church doors to the whole world, with its joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties.”
Remember this always: One never knows the pain, griefs, anxieties, hopes, joys, burdens, that one carries when they enter the doors of our churches, our parish communities. You will impact people’s lives in ways that you will never know. You will alter their lives for the better and forever. Your song may offer the one bit of hope that someone needs.
Your act of love through song ushers beauty to human hearts. Such beauty is redemptive and salvific.
But the Church is in a difficult state
Yet, the Church is in a difficult state, wrestling with its own horrific sins and struggling post-pandemic to welcome back with open arms a dispersed flock. Many parishes struggle to get families, parishioners, servers, and ministers to return. Many choirs are rebuilding with no recruitment or development for two years. This makes your presence, your voice, your witness to the love of Christ that much more important!
We persist because when one sings, the Kingdom of God is found not beyond one’s reach, but within your own heart. We persist because we offer an example of service to others. We persist because we give witness to the love for all of Jesus Christ who died for all. We persist because singing is a treasure of inestimable value to be pursued inexorably. We persist as song brings us closer in relationship with God and with each other. We sing to answer God’s call to love one another. We persist because of the deep need groaning within our soul to sing God’s praise.
The Mustard Seed
As many children and adult choirs rebuild, always remember: singing even with smaller numbers is like the mustard seed:
Matthew 13: 31-32 “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’”
DO NOT BE DISCOURAGED, but be joyful! The small or imperfect efforts we make now become the mustard seed that transforms a life forever. The seed you plant may convert one soul or many souls. The seeds you plant may in time save us all. Be joyful. It is time to reclaim our humanity with song. It is past time to reclaim our role in the sung Mass glorifying God and bring our brothers and sisters close to God. Sacred music, a healing balm is needed now more than ever.
Finally, it must be understood that the simple is often beautiful. We do not have endless resources, financial and otherwise, to create the most beautiful sacred liturgy. We must do what is possible. The simplest of chant and inspired melody, sung well and with prayerful heart expresses truth. One might evoke Pope Francis who calls for a Church of and for the poor. In the recognition of all human dignity, the poor especially deserve truth from which beauty emanates. The greatest beauty often comes from the least among us.
Soli Deo gloria
To God alone the Glory
Oremus pro invicem
Let us pray for each other.