I Hear Music in the Air! – A Homily for Christmas

122414The mysteries of Christmas are many. Among them is the mystery of the music heard that night. The angels shouted the great declaration, “Glory to God in the Highest,” and creation takes it up as a song. But why this music? Is it merely window dressing, or does it disclose a mystery to us? Is it merely for us, or do the angels also have need of the declaration?

As always with the things of God, there are realities far deeper than most of us imagine. But tonight’s Christmas feast weaves together, among many other mysteries, those of music and descent, and points up to music and ascent.

You see, over my head I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere. And the Lord descends to one song so that we might ascend to a new song in a new place: in the highest heavens. Let’s see how.

I. Divine Condescension – The text says, Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (Lk 2:8-12).

We look first to the divine descent of Jesus. Note that Jesus, who is called Savior, the Anointed One, and Lord, is said to be found wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a feed box, a trough from which animals are fed.

What sort of King and Lord is this? It is almost a divine comedy. Imagine the shepherds quaking in fear at the presence of an awesome angel. And then the angel tells them that they will find the Christ lying in a feed box, in a stable somewhere nearby. One can almost image one shepherd saying to another in a sort of whisper, “Did that angel say ‘feeding trough’?” And then the other nervous shepherd whispers back, “Yeah, that’s what he said.” It is comedic because it is so anti-climactic.

Indeed, there is a remarkable divine condescension here! The Lord did not merely descend from Heaven to earth. He descended to one of the lowest places on the earth, to a stinking cave, among animals, and has for His bed a feeding trough meant for animals.

And though Bethlehem was called the “City of David” it was hardly fit for a King. It was then, and is now, a run-down, dusty, ramshackle, poor town.

So here is the King of the Universe born, not in a stately palace, but in a stinking pen; not in a cozy cradle, but in a messy manger.

Yet God speaks eloquently in this poverty and condescension. Here is the Bread of Life, in a town called Bethlehem (House of Bread), lying in a feed trough. In His littleness and poverty He is approachable and calls to the poor.

But do not miss the radical nature of this descent! So radical was it, that this very thing is said in tradition to be the reason that one-third of the angels rebelled, turning against God and falling to the earth as demons (fallen angels). In both Jewish apocryphal writings as well as the writings of the Fathers of the Church, Lucifer, one of the highest ranking angels and among the seraphim, recoiled at the idea that God would choose to join Himself to His physical creation. Man was a mere mud doll to Lucifer, something and someone so far beneath him as to merit no real attention. The thought of God becoming flesh caused Lucifer to rebel, and he took a third of the angels with him in rebellion against so absurd a plan: God as mud doll, taking on human flesh and being joined to mere material creation. It was unbecoming, beneath the dignity of the spiritual world!

Condescension was unthinkable to Lucifer’s pride and he fell, refusing to accept such an absurd notion. Ever since that time, he and the fallen angels with him have envied the human person whom God was pleased to indwell, and by this envy have sought to destroy our truest dignity: an indwelling relationship with God.

Why this condescension? He condescends today to one song in order that we may ascend one day with Him to a new place and sing a new song. To what song does He descend and to what song will we ascend? Let’s read on.

II. Dancing Choirs –  The text says, And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

But the angels who did not fall had rejoiced in God’s plan and longed for its day! Thus on this day, as the Lord is manifest to the world, the highest angels who descended with Christ at the Annunciation now send word through and to the lower ranks of angels and a great heavenly throng makes the declaration, Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth Peace! The great hymn that is sung (or more literally, declared) is not just for the human family; according to the Fathers of the Church it is also a signal to the lower ranking angels from the higher ranking angels. All Heaven has revealed to it the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his holy ones (Col 1:26). A mystery, a wisdom which is hidden, which God ordained before the world, unto our glory (1 Cor 2:7). …The things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:12).

Perhaps a little background will help understand the dance of the choirs and the communication that takes place.

The inner life of the Trinity, according to sacred tradition and the teaching of the Fathers, is not a mere static vision of the three persons for one another. The inner of the live of the Trinity is a movement of love. The Father loves the Son; the Son loves the Father; the Holy Spirit processes between them in this great movement which the Greek Fathers call the divine perichoresis, a kind of dance of love.

And the angels are arranged around God in ranks or choirs somewhat like concentric circles.  And they, too, take up the dance of love, passing love and revelation from God through each rank or choir and back again. Yes, here is the great dance, the perichoresis of God’s inner love radiating out to angels, down through the ranks to us, and from us back through them to God.

The nine choirs (ranks) of angels are divided into three tiers, or triads, each with specific concerns:

  1. The Highest Tier: Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, who concern themselves with contemplating the glory of God. It is the six-winged seraphim who sing the Sanctus, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:3).
  2. The Middle Tier: Dominations, Virtues, and Powers, who are known as the “angels of creation” because they concern themselves with the ordering of the cosmos and the causes of things.
  3. The Lower Tier: Principalities, Archangels, and Angels, who concern themselves with the minute ordering of the universe and with specific causes, including the welfare of people. Each human being, each church, and each country has a guardian angel.

Thus, the “Gloria in Excelsis” is a declaration of praise not just overheard and taken up by humanity; it is not just a hymn of praise, it is a dance and a passing of information down the chain of angelic choirs. The highest choirs of angels have descended with the Word made Flesh, Jesus, since it is their role to surround Him with perpetual adoration.

The Church Father, Origen, has the higher angels say,

“If he has put on mortal flesh, How can we remain, doing nothing!? Come Angels, let us descend from heaven!” That is why [Scripture says] there was a multitude of the heavenly Hosts praising and glorifying God when Christ was born. Everything is filled with angels! (Hom in Ex. 1:7)

And now at Jesus’ birth, the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones signal the lower angels: “This is He, who is Lord of all Creation; He who is ever to be adored and glorified.” The lower angels take up the information and cry out, “Glory to God in the Highest.”

Another Church Father, Pseudo-Dionysius, says of this great heavenly hymn that is declared,

The highest order composed of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, and which is closest of all, by reason of its dignity, to the secret sanctuary of God [instructs]  the second order, composed of Dominations, Virtues and Powers. This order in turn reveals the mysteries to the lower tier of angels the Principalities, Archangels and Angels who are set in charge of the human hierarchies (Hier Ceol. 9,2).

And thus the great “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” resounds in the heavens, not just on the earth. The angels are given the good news along with us! An ancient hymn from the Liturgy of St. James says of this moment,

  • Rank on rank the host of heaven
  • spreads its vanguard on the way,
  • as the Light of light descendeth
  • from the realms of endless day,
  • that the powers of hell may vanish
  • as the shadows clear away.
  • At his feet the six-winged seraph,
  • cherubim, with sleepless eye,
  • veil their faces to the presence,
  • as with ceaseless voice they cry,
  • “Alleluia, alleluia,
  • Alleluia, Lord most high!”

And to us on earth comes the call to hear the music, the great hymn of praise and instruction, and to respond with our souls!

I have it on the best of authority that as the shepherds heard the great song of the angels, one of them said, Over my head I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere!

All of creation echoed that night with the song of the angels communicating this truth to one another and to us.

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echo back the joyous strains

The animals, too, lifted their eyes heavenward, and one was said to say,

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
A song, a song, high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea!

But why all this music at the divine descent? Because the music (Gloria in Excelsis) and the descent are related and meant to signal and lead us higher. Christ descends to one song in order to lead us to an even nobler and higher song,

III Destiny of the Christian – The Psalm says, Sing to the LORD a new song, sing to the LORD, all you lands. Sing to the LORD; bless his name (Ps 96:1-2).

So again, this music (Gloria in Excelsis) and the descent are related and meant to signal and lead us higher. Christ descends to one song in order to lead us to an even nobler and higher song, a song sung in the highest heavens! And without this descent and this first song, the second song and our ascent are impossible. Christ descends to the song of the lower heavens so that we, by His saving grace, may ascend to the place and song of the higher heavens.

And what is this new song and place? Isaiah heard the music and saw the place:

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  6 Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven”  (Isaiah 6:1-8).

Here is a our new song, a higher song, one sung only in the highest Heaven before the throne of God, one sung only by the redeemed: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts! At every Mass, our High Priest, Jesus, speaking through His ministerial priest says, Lift up your hearts! We reply that we have them lifted up to the Lord. In other words we are told to come up higher, to come into the Holy of Holies in Heaven, to come before the throne and sing the hymn of the highest in Heaven.

Our ascent to this highest place is made possible only by the Lord’s descent to the lowest places here: the manger, the Cross, and Sheol. In the early Church, only the baptized could sing the Sanctus at Mass. The unbaptized were not allowed to attend. The catechumens, though permitted to sing the hymn of the lower heavens (The Gloria), were dismissed prior to the singing of the Sanctus, the song of the higher heavens. Only when we are caught up higher by grace can we hear and join the Sanctus. And one day it will be fully our song when God, who descended, says to us, “Come up higher.” And then, by Him who descended, we will ascend and sing a new song to the Lord!

Over my head I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere. And the Lord descends to one song so that we might ascend to a new song in a new place, in the highest heavens. May HE, who descends to the manger today, cause you to ascend to the highest heavens to sing that new song.

What is Sacred Music? Historically it’s a bit more complex than you may think.

120913-PopeRecently  there was a discussion on my Facebook page about Church music. My parish, Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, here in Washington DC, was featured on EWTN’s nightly news (video is below), and discussion centered on that report.

Among the many forms of music we use here the parish, gospel music is predominant at our 11:00 AM Mass. While many of the comments on the Facebook page were encouraging and supportive of this music, there were a significant minority of comments that spoke of gospel music, as being inappropriate for Catholic liturgy, and of it not being sacred. Chant, polyphony, and traditional hymns were held up as being sacred, whereas is Gospel, and other modern forms of music, are “not sacred,” and /or not appropriate for Catholic worship.

While everyone is certainly entitled to personal preferences, the question arises, what do we mean by sacred music, and how have some forms of music come to be more widely regarded as sacred than others?

The answer to this is a little more complex than most people today realize. With the exception of chant, almost every form of music today regarded as sacred, had a stormy reception in the Church, early on, before being admitted to the ranks of music called “sacred.”

That music is controversial in Church, is nothing new, as we shall see in this modest survey that I make of the history of music in Catholic liturgy. I list the sources for the survey at the end of the article, but I gleaned this basic description of the history of Church music from many years of reading and studying.

At some level, it is my hope to provide perspective on the problem that is often raised today that certain modern forms of music are inadmissible, because they are not “sacred.” In no way do I intend to baptize every form of modern music and encourage its admission into the liturgy. But it is worth appreciating that the category “sacred, music” has varied and grown over time, and there have been, sometimes reluctantly, new forms admitted into the exulted status that we refer to as “sacred music.”

Here then, is a brief (probably not brief enough) look at the history of Church music in terms of what has been considered sacred, and what is not been.

I. The early, pre-Constantine Period. Chant reigns supreme – While little if any music survives in written form from the earliest days of the Church, it seems clear, as Johannes Quasten records, that the leaders of the early Church, (The Fathers and Bishops) preferred monophonic music,  that is to say, music with little or no harmony. This seems largely due, to the association of harmony with the excesses of the pagan world, and pagan worship.

It is also worth mentioning that the rich harmonies of the modern 12 tone scale which we have today, were unknown in the ancient world. The harmonies that were used were of a more pentatonic nature, using lots of hollow fourths and  some fifths.

Thus, given its association with pagan and secular music and its less appealing quality, the use of this sort of harmony was largely resisted in the early Church and would not reappear until the late Middle Ages.

Another reason that the early Church seems to have favored non-harmonic singing was somewhat rooted in the cosmology of the time wherein the early Christians emphasized the unity of all things. Whatever diversity was discovered, it all came from the one hand of God. Monophonic, (non-harmonized) music seemed to better express this unity, at least to the ancient Christian mind.

This cosmology of unity, still finds its expression in the way that most Prefaces in the Mass are ended. The Latin text speaks of the multitude of the choirs of angels, joining with the voices of the many saints (cum Angelis, et archangelis, cum Thronis, et Domininationes….et òmnibus Sanctis). And yet despite the vast multitude of voices it says, at the end of the preface that they all sing “as with one voice saying” (una voce dicentes): Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts!

And so, at the earliest stage, the sacred was associated with what we call today chant. To the ancient Church, harmony was widely considered to be secular, even pagan.

II. The Church after Persecution. Chant develops – The earliest chants, it would seem were quite simple, largely monosyllabic, (with one note per syllable) and only a few elaborations. However, as the Church came out of a more hidden worship after the Edict of Constantine (321 AD), the use of large cavernous buildings began to influence the singing. Cantors began to elaborate the chant, making full use of the echoes in the larger basilica-like buildings. Syllables such as the end of the Alleluia (ia….) began to take on an extended quality of longer and longer melismas, especially in festival seasons.

Singers also “yielded to the spirit,” and the long melismas became a  kind of an ecstatic “singing in tongues.”  Eventually as these melodies became increasingly elaborate, they were written down and collected by, among others, Pope St. Gregory;  hence our modern designation of “Gregorian Chant.”

It is less clear, as these chants became more and more elaborate, how they were regarded in terms of the question of sacredness. What is clear, is that they became so increasingly elaborate that the faithful in the congregation were less able to join in most of the chants, and special choirs, called Scholas,  had to be developed.

And thus sacred music began to move from the people to specialized choirs, in the period of late antiquity and into the early Middle Ages.

III. The High Middle Ages. Harmony enters. – The next major development in Church music takes place in the high Middle Ages, generally speaking in the 13th century. The first developments of harmony  centered in the musical schools around Paris and other places in France. It here that we see the first widespread introduction of harmony into Church music.

Several factors influenced the introduction of harmony. First there was the reintroduction of Greek philosophy and some of its views back into the Western world through Scholasticism.

Among the Greek notions, was a cosmology that spoke of the planets circling the sun in perfect circles, each of them ringing out a different tone, and creating a beautiful celestial harmony in the heavens as they did so. Here was the “music of the spheres” and the idea of a great and beautiful harmonic sound in the heavens. And thus the identification of harmonies and the sacred began in the imagination of Christians to seem more plausible.

The first experimentation with harmony seem to have been singing the Gregorian melodies and adding a hollow harmony of a fourth or fifth. Sometimes this involved several singers singing the words in those harmonies. Other times the harmonizers simply “droned” in the background, something like the sound that bagpipe drones make today.

Architecture was another factor that influenced the harmonies. The soaring new Cathedrals that began to dot the landscape of Western Europe seemed to demand a music more soaring, even as the vaulted ceilings soared upward, ever higher. They were the skyscrapers of their day.

Interestingly enough, as a harmonies began to sound pleasing to the ears, scholars worked to study harmony, using, of all things, the Pythagorean theorem to mathematically set forth the harmonic scale. Thus math and music came together to quantify a kind of music theory. As the years just prior to the 16th Century tick by, we come gradually to have what we know today as the 12 tone scale.

As with most things musical, in the Church, the introduction of these harmonies was not always without controversy, and some complained that the words were harder to understand, a problem that would plague polyphonic music and it’s early stages.

Nevertheless, as a general rule, the new harmonies from the Paris school swept through Europe to widespread acclaim. Many flocked to the cathedrals to hear this splendid new music.

IV. Late Middle Ages to Renaissance, Musical Revolution and growing crisis for polyphony- It is hard to describe what took place in music from the late 1300s to 1500 as anything less than revolutionary. The modern harmonic scale as we now know it came in full realization, harmony from two-part, to three-part, and then to four and more parts amazed listeners everywhere.

The incredible development of music in this period,  paralleled also the remarkable developments in painting with shadow and light, perspective and depth. By the early 1500s Renaissance Polyphony was in all of its glory. Composers such as Isaac, Lassus, Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, Byrd and many others, brought this art form to an amazing richness.

The music was not without controversy. Two main problems seem to presents with this new style called polyphony (=many voices).

The first problem, was the intelligibility of the text. With multiple harmonies being sung, the Latin text, often being staggered across many parts and voices,  became harder and harder to understand. Clergy especially complained of this, arguing that the sacred text was taking a backseat to musical flourishes,  and a kind of “theatrical showiness”  seemed secular to many.

The second thing that troubled many about polyphony was that many of the composers of the day drew their melodies from secular melodies that were often heard in the taverns, in the streets, and  in theaters. They would often take these recognizable melodies and set them as a cantus firmus (musical theme or foundation) of sacred compositions, including the parts of the Mass.

Heinrich Isaac, as early as the 1400s in his Missa Carminum drew from many of the songs heard in taverns. But perhaps the most egregious example of this, and an incident which almost caused all polyphony to be utterly banned from the Catholic Church, was an incident caused by the composer Orlando De Lassus.

The Mass in question was his Missa Entre Vous Filles. Here he drew, for the main melody of both the Kyrie and the Gloria, from a secular piece by the French composer Clemens non-Papa. The song featured a text that was so lewd that it cannot be translated here. To be frank, the text was  outright pornographic. As the Mass grew widely popular (for it is a lovely melody), the Church authorities discovered its source and a great uproar ensued.

This controversy took place during the years of the Council of Trent, and though some scholars are dubious of all the details, it is reported that there were Council Fathers who were serious about seeing that sacred polyphony was forever banned from the Catholic liturgy.

Among those who came to the rescue, I am happy to report, was my patron Saint, St. Charles Borromeo. For some increasingly dubious bishops and cardinals who attended some of the sessions of the Council of Trent, Borromeo assembled them for hearing of the Pope Marcellus Mass by Palestrina. The Mass seems to have been specifically composed to address some of the critiques about the intelligibility of the text and the secular origins of many melodies. The presentation to the select Cardinals seems to have calmed some of the controversy regarding this new music. And thus, the crisis seems to have largely passed.

Nevertheless, this incident goes a long way to show how, what many today consider a very sacred sound, namely Renaissance polyphony, was quite controversial in it’s day, and had something of a stormy relationship with the Church at first. It was thought of as sacred in a widespread way only later. Polyphony, generally after passing this first crisis, became less “florid” and gave emphasis to the intelligibility of the text, secular melodies were also excluded. Later Palestrina is more austere than the works from his earlier period, for these reasons.

Hence, we see how our notions of what makes for sacred music, had already passed through two major periods. The first, where harmonies were considered secular. The second, where harmonies were introduced, but only slowly accepted as sacred in nature.

V. The Renaissance to the Baroque – New controversies, old problems – In the period of the middle  Renaissance, A new cosmology began to replace the perfect symmetry of the planets revolving the sun in perfect circles. Astronomy began to reveal that most of the planets revolved the sun, not in a perfect circle, but had elliptical orbits,   some of them rather steep ellipses. And thus the perfect circles of the planets, symbolized by  the “music of the spheres”  and imitated by Renaissance polyphony, began to give way to the understanding of the mathematical progression of elliptical orbits, a kind of Bach Fugue in the sky. This change in cosmology helped usher in the rather more elaborate, yet mathematical music of the Baroque.

Yes, here we find the wonderful and mathematically precise music of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Gabrieli, Schubert, Scarlatti and so many others. Perhaps the Fugue most exemplifies the kind of mathematical cosmology of the time. In the fugue, mastered by Bach, but not wholly unique to him, a musical theme is set forth.  For example, quarter notes may annouce the theme of the fugue. And this theme is repeated in the left hand, then in the feet (of the organist) and also adapted mathematically, sub-dividing it to eighth notes, then sixteenth, even 32nd notes. Math meets music. Other forms like canons emerged similarly. Symphonies also grew to have movements often named for their time: Allegro, adagio, presto, etc.

The classical and baroque periods brought in the great orchestral or “Classical” Masses, by composers such as Mozart, Schubert, Scarlatti, and many others. Even Bach and Beethoven set the Catholic Mass in great symphonic and orchestral renderings.

Great controversies accompanied these newer forms. Principle among the concerns was, once again, the intelligibility of the text, and also the rather lengthy quality that many of these masses tended to have. Some Glorias and Credos could go on for  twenty minutes or more.

Some complained to these musical settings of the Mass sounded more like being at the opera, than  Church. Indeed, they often broke the sacred text into movements, speckled with Soprano or tenor solos and duets, grand choral sections and all most often supported by a full symphonic accompaniment. It was quite the sonic experience!   These masses were generally so elaborate, that they could only be performed in the larger city churches that were well endowed.

The controversy concerning these kinds of Masses continued for many years, such that,  as the liturgical reforms began at the turn the last century, Pope Pius X, referring to these orchestral Masses as “theatrical”   (see Tra Le Sollecitudini # 6), frowned on their usage. This led to a de facto banishing of the form at that time from the Catholic liturgy. Only after the second Vatican Council was this form rehabilitated in a small way.

Here too we see that what many Catholics today consider unquestionably sacred, for example a great Mozart Mass, had to endure much of its own controversy and even a kind of banishment. What is thought of as sacred today, has not always enjoyed that rarefied distinction!

VI. The Modern Era – New Musical forms, new controversies. And this leads us to the modern era. As we have seen,  those who think that debates about what constitutes sacred music are new, would be sadly mistaken. These debates have been quite consistently a part of church life almost from the beginning. To simply place them at the feet of the Second Vatican Council is to lack historical perspective.

It is true Musicam Sacram, and Sacrosanctum Concilium, documents of the Second Vatican Council, opened the door to newer forms with a greater freedom toward inculturation, (e.g. MS #s 18 & 63) but it also reasserted the special accord to be given to Chant (# 50a), polyphony and the Pipe Organ (# 4a).

The fact is, debates continue about newer forms and what is sacred, but such tensions have long existed. Some newer forms have already been tried and found wanting (e.g. Polka Masses). Other forms such as “folk” or contemporary music have, with adaptions along the way, remained a mainstay.

As for “Gospel Music,” the debate about which occasioned this rather lengthy article, a few things can be said.

  1. Simply saying “It is not sacred” or “It is not appropriate for Catholic liturgy” does not make it so. As we have seen, the judgement about what is sacred often takes time to be worked out. The notion of what sounds or seems sacred also changes, and what was once dubious is later admitted to the ranks of the sacred.
  2. Gospel music, unlike many other modern forms (e.g. Polka or Mariachi) has real sacred roots. It emerged from the Spirituals and hymns of antebellum and early 20th century time periods. And while not strictly Catholic in origin, it does not per se offend against what is allowed in Catholic liturgy.
  3. One virtue of Gospel music, unlike most other contemporary expressions, is its focus on God. Too many modern contemporary “worship songs” speak more of us and the “gathered community” than God. Not so Gospel, which almost wholly focuses on God.
  4. Like almost any form of music, Gospel can have its excesses, but this does not mean the whole form is flawed, only that certain rational limits should be observed. This was the case with early polyphony and the Classical Masses, and it is also true of Gospel.
  5. Many complain that Gospel looks too “performed.” Generally however most “outsiders” confuse the exuberance of congregation and singers, with performance. Applause is also not for the performer per se but is directed to God and in gratitude for this manifestation of the Spirit.
  6. As is the case with many previous forms, discussions will and should continue.
  7. If one does not “prefer” or even like Gospel Music, they are free to stay away from it. But mere preference or taste does not mean that Gospel is intrinsically lacking in sacred qualities.
  8. Similar things can be said for the use of hymnody. To this author’s mind, the use of metrical hymnody is a good way to once again engage the faithful in the singing of sacred texts in ways that are melodic, memorable, appropriate, and easily learned. Yet for others the Protestant origins of this form and most of its repertoire remains a sticking point.   Here too time must prove where wisdom lies, and over time, many of these hymns are finding a solid place in Catholic liturgy.

Summation: Historically we can see that, except for Gregorian Chant, no form of music currently considered sacred, was without its controversy. Time ultimately proves where wisdom lies and mediates for us what is ultimately sacred in a way that transcends mere passing tastes or preferences. Music has made several revolutionary leaps in the age of the Church, as we saw above. With necessary and rational limits, there is no need to rush to exclude every newer form. Were that the case, ONLY Chant would exist in the Church and we would be deprived of a great treasury of music from the era of polyphony and the classical period.

I do not, in saying this, mean to indicate that all music is just fine and that all modern forms are here to stay or should be unquestioned. It is clear that some forms are wholly inimical to the Sacred Liturgy. Rather, I seek to remind of this fact: that what we call “sacred music” is historically more complex than many understand. It is the result of often long and vigorous discussions, refinements, and other factors as diverse and remote as cosmology, architecture, mathematics, and culture.

We do well to let some of the conversations and controversies work themselves out, lest in too quickly ending them by mere judicial fiat, we impoverish ourselves and block what might bless others, and even our very self.

Some of my sources for the above article are

  1. Johannes Quasten, Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity
  2. Msgr Robert F. Hayburn, Papal Legislation on Sacred Music
  3. BBC Four Part Production Sacred Music
  4. Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way
  5. Thomas Day, Why Catholic Can’t Sing

Here are the videos that sparked the discussion on my Facebook page.

For all the Saints – Reflecting on a Great Hymn of the Church

103113One of the greatest English hymns ever written, is “For All the Saints.” It is a wide and sweeping vision of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. It’s imagery is regal and joyful, it’s poetry majestic and masterful. A vivid picture is painted in the mind as the wondrous words move by. If you ask me it is a masterpiece. Many people know the opening line, but most have never sung it all the way through and thus miss its wondrous portrait. A number of years ago I committed words of this hymn to memory, very much like my father who loved to memorize things that moved him.

Spend a few moments now reflecting on this masterwork. It was written in 1864 by William Walsham How, an Anglican Bishop. Ralph Vaughan Williams set it to a stirring melody in 1906. I love to play this hymn at the organ since it has a challenging but exciting “walking base” played by the feet and big rich chords in the hands. In his recent outreach to the Anglicans the Pope speaks of the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion as a “precious gift” and treasure to shared”. This hymn from the Anglican tradition is surely one of those treasures. Permit me to set forth each verse and then comment.

First we cast our eyes heavenward to the Church Triumphant:

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,

Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.


Here then in the first verses is stated the purpose of the hymn. Namely, that we sing to and praise God for all those saints who have finished their course here and entered into the rest of the Lord. Like the the Lord they can say, “It is finished.” Like St. Paul they can say, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day (2 Tim 4:7-8). These saints declared to world the holy and blessed name of Jesus by their words and deeds. They confessed and did not deny him. To them and us Jesus made a promise: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven (Matt 10:32). And we too are summoned to take up the cry: “Blessed be the Name of the Lord!”

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.

Salvation and the living of a holy and courageous life is only possible by the grace of God. Only if God be our rock, our defender and our strength can we stand a chance in the battle of this earthly life. Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5) St. Paul taught that the ancient Israelites made it through the desert only by Christ for he wrote: they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them in the desert, and that rock was Christ. (1 Cor 10:4). So Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in a time of storm! Only in Christ and by his light could they have the strength for the battle and win through to the victory.

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

Ah here then is our connecting verse. We, here on earth (the Church Militant) share blessed communion with the saints in heaven because we are one in Christ. The body of Christ is one and so we hav communion with the saints. We are not in separate compartments unconnected to the saints in heaven. No, we are one in Christ and have communion with them. And though we feebly struggle here on earth, the vision of the glory they already share and our communion with them strengthens us. The Book of Hebrews referring to the saints in heaven says: Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us! (Heb 12:1-2)

Having gazed heavenward and derived strength from our mystical communion with the Saints in Christ, the hymn now sets forth the trials of the Church militant and counsels: Courage!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.

We now who live here are told to be like courageous soldiers holding firm and loyal to the end to the true faith. We like they must often fight bravely in a world that is hostile to Christ and his truth. So fight we must, in a noble way for the crown comes only after the cross. But the victory will one day be ours. It doesn’t always look that way now, But Christ has already won the victory. And even if this world deprives us, ridicules us or even kills us, the victor’s Crown awaits to all who remain faithful. Jesus said, You will be hated by all because of me, be he who perseveres to the end will be saved. (Matt 10:22)

Now comes a call to courage rooted in song that faith puts in our hearts. Psalm 40 says: I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. It is a song that echoes from heaven, through the words of scripture and the teachings of the Church: Victory is our today! Here the call and source of courage in this verse:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.

For now, it is God’s will that we hear the call “still to fight on.” For now we are in the Church militant. But here the verses of the hymn direct us back toward heavenly things and the last things. For, one day the battle will end for us. The hymn speaks elegantly of the “golden evening” of life and the “rest” that death will one day bring. And, likely through the purifying effects of purgatory, we shall one day pass where we will cast off our burdens, our sorrows and final sins. There the Lord will wipe every tear from our eyes (cf Rev. 21:4).

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.

And then an even more glorious day breaks forth. The hymn closes the circle and we are back in heaven again! There the saints are clothed in bright array and the heavenly liturgy is beautifully captured in two lines as it describes the saints in worshipful praise as the King of Glory, Jesus passes by in triumphal procession. What a glorious vision this verse provides:

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.

And the hymn takes one final look. We have come full circle from heaven to earth and back to heaven again. We have made our journey but now the hymn bids us to cast our glance outward and see the magnificent procession that continues for all who will come after us. Jesus had said, “And I when I be lifted from the earth with draw all men unto me.” (Jn 12:32) So now look fellow Christian! Look outward from a heavenly perspective and see the harvest as Christ draws countless numbers to himself:

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:

Ah, what a hymn. What a sweeping vision and wondrous celebration of the Christian life. Though the battle be now engaged, victory is sure if we but stand firm and hold to God’s unchanging hand.

A Reflection on the mystery of Art as a capacity of the Human soul

"Brush and watercolours" Jennifer Rensel - Flickr: Let's paint!.  Licensed under  CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Brush and watercolours” Jennifer Rensel – Flickr: Let’s paint!. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I cannot draw or paint. Yet I have always marveled at how some can take an empty canvas and bring it to life with color, form, depth, and shadow. And, little by little, from the painter’s brush and soul a picture emerges. So too with sculpting. A mere block of marble, with each blow of the sculptor’s tools, it comes to resemble the form of a human being or some other reality with nature.

Some years ago, there was a painter, on PBS (Bob Ross) who would, over the course of a half hour paint a picture and describe what he was doing as he went. I watched that show most every week for a number of years and, though I watched him, saw what he did, and even heard him describe the techniques, I never really ceased to be amazed by the mystery before me. How did he do it? Yes, he spoke of method and technique, but there was some deeper mystery at work; a power of the soul, a gift. He claimed we all have it. But I am more inclined to think some have it as a special gift.

Michelangelo famously said, Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. He also said, I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. Yes, but how does he see it? How does he set it free? Indeed, another great mystery and faculty of the human soul of some.

As with music, the art of painting and sculpting seems a unique capacity of the human soul. Animals do not draw, they do not sculpt, they do not even appreciate art. It is a special gift to the human person to be captivated by beauty, and also for beauty, once it is seen and experienced, to emerge from his soul in expressive praise. There are special glories and a unique gifts given only to the human person, a mysterious gift to be sure. It is caught up in our desire for what is good, true and beautiful, caught up in our soul’s ultimate longing for God.

Perhaps Michelangelo should have the last word: Every beauty which is seen here by persons of perception resembles more than anything else that celestial source from which we all are come.

Picture: A Painter in his Studio by Francois Boucher

Here’s a painter at work on a speed painting with a surprise end:

David Garibaldi: Jesus Painting from Thriving Churches on Vimeo.

Here’s a video of Bob Ross, the Joy of Painting show I mentioned above. In this brief passage he teaches us to paint a mountain and gives a little philosophy as well.

If you have time this video shows a remarkable transformation of a block of marble to a face.

The Conquering Power of Praise – A Meditation on a Text From Second Chronicles

072113Last week in the Breviary we read the remarkable story of King Jehoshaphat and the victory of Israel against the Moabites, Ammonites and Meunites (2 Chronicles 20). It is a story that speaks of the power of praise to defeat a numberless army. Simply singing a hymn of praise can cast out demons, avert war, and send evil threats limping away.

Yes, praise! It is not always weapons of iron and steal and fiery bombs that wins the day. Often it is simple praise, hands lifted in prayer, voices raised in praise.

Never underestimate the power of the liturgy to change world history, to turn back threats and see the devil’s power crushed. Indeed, scripture says, Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger (Psalm 8:2).

I would like to take a more detailed look at this passage from Second Chronicles to see what praise and communal prayer can do. As a Church musician myself, and now a priest, I have often used this text to speak to Church Choirs of the power of praise. For, in this text we see that it is the choir, not the army that wins the day! Lets look at the text.

I. THE ANXIETY PORTRAYED – We begin with a description of a looming Crisis. The text says, After this the Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle.  Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazontamar” (that is, Engedi). Then Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. (2 Chron 20:1-3)

Now all this may seem a bit remote to us moderns. Indeed it my sound more like recitation for an ancient atlas or recitations from a “Jewish telephone book.” Don’t let all the names and places distract you. You and I also face a triple threat from the world, the flesh and the devil; from sins, sorrows and sufferings or just that situation you’re going through!

Indeed, as a pastor I am keenly aware that many come into our parishes on Sunday fighting demons and enemies. Many are overwhelmed, discouraged  and afraid. They seek wisdom from God through his word and Sacraments.

And we who would pastor and lead parishes must seek above all to make our parishes, and the celebration of our liturgies, healing moments for God’s people, moments that give them hope and victory over afflictions and demons and difficulties. It is much like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who, encountering the Lord, had  their hearts set on fire and their path redirected toward the heavenly Jerusalem.

People come with burdens, and we must be a place of blessing, or instruction in the Lord and a place that reminds of victory to those who persevere. And thus it makes sense that we head to the next step where in the faithful are assembled to seek healing, blessing and victory.

II. THE ASSEMBLING OF THE PEOPLE –  The text says,  And Judah assembled to seek help from the LORD; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD. And Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the LORD, before the new court, and said, “O LORD, God of our fathers, art thou not God in heaven? Dost thou not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations? In thy hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand thee. Didst thou not, O our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before thy people Israel, and give it for ever to the descendants of Abraham thy friend? And they have dwelt in it, and have built thee in it a sanctuary for thy name, saying, ‘If evil comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before thee, for thy name is in this house, and cry to thee in our affliction, and thou wilt hear and save.’ And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir, whom thou would not let Israel invade when they came from the land of Egypt, and whom they avoided and did not destroy– behold, they reward us by coming to drive us out of thy possession, which thou hast given us to inherit. O our God, wilt thou not execute judgment upon them? For we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon thee.”  Meanwhile all the men of Judah stood before the LORD, with their little ones, their wives, and their children. (2 Chron 20:4-11)

Notice that the people all assemble: Men and women, young and old, children too. Here is sacred assembly and the power of communal prayer. Private prayer is both necessary and good. But there comes a time each week when all the faithful must assemble and join their collective prayers and praises. Here is a time of collective praise and, as we shall see of the sharing of wisdom and mutual support.

Isn’t this what we do each Sunday? We face demons and enemies and struggle with fear, just as did these people of old. But we, like them assemble and find strength. We tell the biblical and personal stories of how we’ve overcome and we draw strength from our story. Yes, there we are, clergy and people together with our God who instructs us in the battle reminds us of the victory, feeds us to strengthen us, and gives us a pledge of future glory in the Eucharist.

The Book of Hebrews says, And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25)

Note that in this ancient gathering Jehoshaphat and the people do four things. There is:

1. The PRAISE of POWER (OF GOD)-  For they say: O LORD, God of our fathers, art thou not God in heaven? Dost thou not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations? In thy hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand thee. (vv. 4-6). And this is very much what we do in the Gloria, our collects, and in the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. In praising the power of God we acknowledge his capacity to save us and are stirred to hope that He, who can make a way out of no way, will save us.

2. The PROCLAMATION of PAST DEEDS – For they recall that God settled them in this land as blessed them day by day. And they recall God’s promise to answer their prayer. And we too, as we read God’s word every Sunday of affliction, but then of deliverance. We learn that weaping ay endure for a night, but Joy does come with the morning light! This proclamation and reminder of God’s steadfast help in the past, steels our confidence that, as Scripture says, But this I will call to mind; therefore I will hope: The LORD’s mercy is not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness! The LORD is my portion, I tell myself therefore I will hope in him. The LORD is good to those who trust in him, to the one that seeks him; It is good to hope in silence for the LORD’s deliverance. -(Lamentations 3:21-26). Yes, we tell the story of how we’ve overcome and we’ll understand it better, by an by! In remembering the Lord’s mercy and deeds of the past we are encouraged that he did not bring us this far to leave us.

3. The PRESENTATION of the PROBLEM – For they say,  And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir…are coming to drive us out of thy possession, which thou hast given us to inherit. (vv. 10 – 11) Yes, Lord we are afflicted on every side, be it these ancient enemies or the even more ancient enemies of the World the flesh and the devil. Yes, Lord we are in need, we are afflicted.

4. The PETITION of the POWERLESS – And thus they say standing before the Lord with hands raised: O our God, wilt thou not execute judgment upon them? For we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us.  (v. 11-12) And we too cry out: Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us O Lord by thy grace. We afflicted and powerless! Save us O Lord, spare us! And in acknowledging our powerlessness, comes our true power for then we start to rely on God.

III. THE ANSWER PROCLAIMED – And the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah, son of Benaiah, son of Jeiel, son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph, in the midst of the assembly. And he said, “Hearken, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the LORD to you, ‘Fear not, and be not dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s.  Tomorrow go down against them; behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz; you will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Fear not, and be not dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, and the LORD will be with you.”  Then Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell down before the LORD, worshiping the LORD.  And the Levites, of the Kohathites and the Korahites, stood up to praise the LORD, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice. 2 Chron 20:14-14)

And thus in this sacred assembly comes an answer from God. And thus we note:

1. RESPONSE – For God speaks an answer through the Prophet Jahaziel, just as the prophetic voice of His Church continues to speak for him today. And notice too its in the context of the assembled community that the answer comes.

2. REASSURANCE – And Jahaziel says, Fear not, and be not dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s….‘ Fear not, and be not dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, and the LORD will be with you.”  Yes, we do well to remember that the battle is ultimately the Lord’s. It is he who will win, it does not all depend on us alone. And we do well to remember this today when we are beset by many difficulties and discouraging cultural trends. The Lord has already won.  Nations may rise and fall, empires come and go, wicked philosophies have their time, and this has all happened in the age of the Church, but the Church and the Lord and the Gospel are still here and we have buried every one and everything that announced our death. Where is Caesar? Where is Napoleon, where is the USSR? God has already won, only the news has not yet dawned on some who choose the losing side.

3. REQUIREMENT – Tomorrow go down against them; behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz; you will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem. But the Lord who made us without us, with not save us without us. He DOES have something for each of us to do. Our task is to discover our role and take our position on the field!  Perhaps it is being a priest, catechist, teacher or parent. Perhaps it is the witness to and renewal of the temporal order. Perhaps it is raising children in Godly fear or summoning others to holiness. But find your place on the battlefield and be still and stable there, doing what the Lord says, knowing that he is with us and that the battle is His and that he does the real fighting.

In effect we have here a quick synopsis of what a good homily should be. A homily should give, using God’s Word and the teachings of the Church, a response and reassurance regarding the issues and afflictions faced by God’s people. And, it should remind us of our role in finding our place on the battlefield, remaining stably there and doing what the Lord asks, but to do so in supreme confidence.

IV. THE AWESOME POWER OF PRAISE –  And finally comes the remarkable victory, a victory not won by military power, but by mighty praise. It is the praise of God that defeats his enemies round about. The text says: And they rose early in the morning and went out into the wilderness of Tekoa; and as they went out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Hear me, Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the LORD your God, and you will be established; believe his prophets, and you will succeed.” And when he had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the LORD and praise him in holy array, as they went before the army, and say, “Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures for ever.” And when they began to sing and praise, the LORD set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed. For the men of Ammon and Moab rose against the inhabitants of Mount Seir, destroying them utterly, and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, they all helped to destroy one another. When Judah came to the watchtower of the wilderness, they looked toward the multitude; and behold, they were dead bodies lying on the ground; none had escaped. When Jehoshaphat and his people came to take the spoil from them, they found cattle in great numbers, goods, clothing, and precious things, which they took for themselves until they could carry no more. They were three days in taking the spoil, it was so much. On the fourth day they assembled in the Valley of Beracah, for there they blessed the LORD; therefore the name of that place has been called the Valley of Beracah to this day. (2 Chronicles 20:20-26)

Note carefully that the Choir, dressed in holy array went in front of the Army! It is praise that will prevail this day! And as they go in front they sing: Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures for ever! And this praise throws the enemy into confusion! The threefold opposing armies turn on each other. No one escaped, they were all killed by one another.

Pay attention, there is power in praise. Nothing discourages the evil one more than the praise. Nothing confutes and confuses the world, the flesh and devil more than the joyful shout of a Christian. There is a glory and a power to joy and confident praise that cannot be denied.

I myself am a witness to the transformative power of God’s praise and its capacity to put the world, the flesh and devil to flight. I have spent most of my priesthood in African American Parishes where jubilant praise is a constant practice. Songs of hope, and joy and blessings abound and even our many songs that summon us to repentance are quite often humorous and hopeful, warning of judgment, but promising mercy to the steadfast. And this praise has changed my life. It has put demons to flight, subdued fleshly anxiety, sins, and thinking, and put the world on trial. I am more confident, more courageous, and more equipped to speak the truth in love.

Praise works, my life has had to many victories to say anything else. When the praises go up, the blessings come down and the victory is won. Yes, I am a witness. How about you?

Lord,  save us from sour-faced saints! God grant us joyful, confident and praise-filled Catholics all throughout this world. For in our praise, and joyful confidence in the truth of God’s Word and teaching comes a witness that is hard to refute. Yes Lord, even from the mouth of babes you have found praise to foil your enemies! (Ps 8:2). Yes Lord, teach us to praise you! Teach us the power of our song and of our joyful testimony.

Happy the people that know the joyful shout; that walk, O LORD, in the light of Thy face. (Psalm 89:16)

Where Words Fail, Music Speaks – Amazing Video of Music’s Power to Awaken a Sleeping Soul

I have learned in my life, that music is powerful beyond words, and often does what words alone can never do. I have often heard or read a certain Scripture which may have had only marginal impact on me. And then the choir takes it up in song, and it is pressed on my heart like never before, such that I can never forget it.

I have also learned with humility that I may preach boldly, but that it is often the choir’s sung response that makes the thought catch fire. I have learned to link what I preach to what is sung and work carefully with the choir and musicians. For while the spoken word my inform and even energize, the sung word strikes even deeper, engraving the word not only in the mind, but touching the deepest parts of the heart.

There is an old saying:

Bach gave us God’s Word, Mozart gave us God’s laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s fire. God gave us music that we might pray without words. — quote from outside a German opera house

Scripture says the Lord puts music in our hearts and that many, by it will be summoned to faith: The Lord set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. (Psalm 40:3-4)

Yes, music can often reach where mere words cannot.

In this remarkable video, there is a older man, Henry,  who, likely due to a seizures or other age-related factors, had largely turned inward. In fact his very posture illustrates well St. Augustine’s remarkable diagnosis of our problem: curvatus in se (turned in on himself).

Henry’s daughter remembers a lively vivacious man who quite literally danced through life a had such a joix de vivre. But in the last ten years he had shut down and turned in.

Then the miracle, a miracle in something ordinary, yet mystical: music. Wait till you see how it awakens Henry. Quite an astonishing difference. Yes, and suddenly there came the discovery for the staff of the nursing home, and Henry’s daughter, that there was someone “alive inside” Henry’s aging body. Alive indeed, the human soul still deeply touched by the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Henry says when he hears music, “I feel loved….the Lord came to me and made me a holy man…So he gave me these sounds.”

It’s the old Henry, the real Henry, alive and joyful. Where word’s fail, music speaks. Where therapy struggles, music soars.

I am mindful of an older woman I used to visit, Ms. Lorena, she died some years back at age 104. And when I’d visit, there wasn’t much she or I could say. But suddenly, gently, I’d start singing one of those old hymns, “Hmm…By and by….yes, we’ll understand it better by and by.” And Ms. Lorena would light up and join in. She’d sit up straight and be young again.

An old spiritual says, Over my head, I hear music in the air, there must be a God somewhere. Yes, Mr. Henry knows, yes, Ms. Lorena knows, there IS a God somewhere. And when words alone fail, He still calls through music.

Enjoy this powerful video:

On The Power of Music that Stretches Beyond Words – How Beauty Serves Truth and Goodness

I have learned in all this that music is powerful beyond words, and often does what words alone can never do. I have often heard or read a Scripture, which may have had only marginal impact on me. And then the choir takes it up in song and it is pressed on my heart like never before, such that I can never forget it.

I have also learned with humility that I may preach boldly, but that it is often the choir’s sung response that makes the thought catch fire. I have learned to link what I preach to what is sung and work carefully with the choir and musicians. For while the spoken word my inform and even energize, the sung word strikes even deeper, engraving the word not only in the mind, but touching the deepest parts of the heart.

Music can often go where the word alone cannot. Beauty draw us to goodness and truth.

In my parish tonight our choir had its annual concert. 900+ in attendance, standing room only. There was a 20 piece orchestra and music that ranged from classical to Gospel, all religious in nature.

In tonight’s praise-filled concert, the congregation spent as much time on its feet in praise as seated and listening. Twice, they would not let the choir stop, and the refrain had to be taken up on both occasions, three times before the Spirit said, “It is well.” No one could leave Church tonight without the words and melodies of those songs alive: Great is thy faithfulness Oh God my Father….A change, A change has come over me….For every mountain you brought me over, for every trial, you’ve seen me though….I’ve got to say Thank you Lord!

In the concert a song was sung that, to some extent helps to illustrate how music can go where words cannot. The song stretches back to a scene in the movie, The Mission.

The scene is of a 17th Century Jesuit missionary priest, Father Gabriel, who goes deep into the rain forest seeking to win souls for Christ. He has heard that the indigenous people living there, though hostile to strangers, have a wonderful gift for music. Arriving near a settlement, he is aware that suspicious and fierce warriors lurking among the trees, likely intent on killing him, surround him. But Fr. Gabriel takes out his oboe and begins to play the melody that was the theme for the movie.I have included the scene in a video below.

As he plays the beautiful melody, the men emerge from the trees and begin to listen, now aware that no man who means them harm could play such a beautiful melody.

It is all a perfect illustration of the ancient insight that the beauty is powerfully related to truth and goodness. So Fr. Gabriel opened the door to truth by the beauty of music. And where his words would likely have had no impact, or be met with hostility, the beauty of the melody he played made most of them drop their weapons and open the door to him. Now they were ready to hear his words. But it was music, it was beauty, that opened the way.

In recent years the beautiful melody played by “Fr Gabriel” has been set to words and is now sung to new audiences who never saw the now old movie. The song in Italian is called Nella Fantasia and a quick summary of the translation is:

I my dream I see a place where all live in peace and in truth, and souls are always free,  and fully human in the depth of their hearts.

Tonight in our concert the choir sing this beautiful piece, and I thought how, once a gain, it wasn’t just the words that had impact, it was the magnificent beauty of the melody. And, somehow the vision of the words was alive if, but for a moment, and the Kingdom of God shown through: that place of peace, truth, freedom and the human person fully alive.

Through beauty the vision, good and true, was shared in the depths of every soul present at the concert. For, in the end it is not a dream, it is the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven. The words may speak of a distant future, but the beauty of the music made it present now. Yes, the goodness and truth of the Kingdom were now, if but for a moment, expressed in the beauty of music and deepening the the commitment to follow the beauty, to goodness and truth.

Perhaps it was Fr. Gabriel playing his oboe all over again to us, hostile denizens of a cynical and jaded 21st Century. But the melody by its beauty rings true. And the beauty points to the truth and goodness of the vision and opens doors to the heart that mere words could never do. The cynical mind tell us it will never happen, but beauty tells us it will, and that it already does, for true beauty echoes from haeven.

And in a hushed Church, a word went forth, preceded by beauty, and for just a moment a dream, good and true, echoed in many hearts: In my dream I see a place where all live in peace and in truth, and souls are always free, and fully human in the depth of their hearts.

Music is powerful beyond words.

Here is the original scene from The Mission where Fr. Gabriel reaches the people through beauty (all but one).

And here is a version of the song based on the melody of Gabriel’s oboe. I regret I don’t have a recording of it by my own choir to share with you, but this video captures the beauty.  Again the Words are in Italian and the basic translation is I my dream I see a place where all live in peace and in truth, and souls are always free, and fully human in the depth of their hearts

Music as the "6th Proof" for the Existence of God

There is an old African American Spiritual that says,

Over my head, I hear music in the air!
There must be a God somewhere.

Yes, God has to exist. How else could we explain music?

Now, please understand, I speak here, not a theologian, but as a poet;  not as a philosopher, but as lover of music. And in the mode of poet and lover,  I want to say that, for me, music is the 6th proof for the existence of God. St. Thomas designated five proofs for the existence of God (motion, efficient cause, contingency, perfection and design). I am not in his league, I am just hitchhiking a ride on his idea in a poetic, not a theological way.

Yes, I know God exists for, among other reasons: I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere!

It was through music (and beauty) that God called me (for I joined the Church choir to meet the pretty girls who sang there). And God put a song in my heart and called me through the majesty and exquisite beauty of Church music: The metrical march of the hymn and the joy of playing its counterpoint with my feet at the organ; the sighing of Gregorian chant, almost as if singing in tongues;  the mystical harmony of Renaissance polyphony; the joy and fun of singing Mozart, the dignity of Bach; the soaring majesty of a Viennese Classical Mass, the haunting beauty of the African American Spirituals in their pentatonic scale; the exuberance of Gospel music so centered on the greatness of God. Yes, these have been God’s gift to me whereby he has spoken to the depths of my soul.

There is an old saying:

Bach gave us God’s Word, Mozart gave us God’s laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s fire. God gave us music that we might pray without words. — quote from outside a German opera house

Scripture says the Lord puts music in our hearts and that many, by it will be summoned to faith: The Lord  set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. (Psalm 40:3-4) I can only say, Amen. This is exactly what happened for me.

And music seems to be a unique gift of God to the human person. Animals do not sing. Oh perhaps some say the birds do “sing” but it sounds more like a Morse code type of communication than true song. Only the human person, by the charism of God’s grace,  has produced the majesty of music, and surely it emerges from the deep mysterious places of our soul. So singing is a special trait of human beings and part of our dignity.

And to some extent only humans grasp it. I have often marveled at how unaffected by a great song my pets have been. I can be tapping my toe, be moved to tears, filled with zeal  by a song and the dogs and cats I have had just lie there bored. Proof again that music is distinctly human and requires an immortal, God breathed soul to grasp it.

Yes, music can stir, it can call forth tears, it makes us swell with healthy pride and exuberance, it can instill joy, provoke our deepest thoughts, and it make us want to dance. Music unites, it also divides, some love what others hate, it can make you mad, it can make you sad, it can make you glad but seldom are we merely neutral as to it’s quality or influence.

The genius and variety of music is astonishingly remarkable: from country to classical, modern to medieval, blues to ballads, solos to symphonies,  jazz to jewsharp, renaissance to rap, and polyphony to parade music.

Music is the soul’s way to exhale, to express itself beyond words. It bespeaks the soul’s longing, its sighing, its joy and its sorrow, words are optional.  Appreciate anew this miracle of human existence, this unique gift to the human person, this flash of beauty and dignity in the soul of every human person.

Of course God exists. One way I know he exists is that he put a song in my heart and gave me ears to hear his glory:

Over my head I hear music in the air!
There must be a God somewhere.

Photo Credit: Screen shot from The Sound of Music

Here’s a little video I put together based on the spiritual: Over My Head