A Few Notes on Music in Life and Worship
One of the most delightful gifts we human beings have is music. Thank God we can enjoy listening to it, making it, singing to it, whistling it, humming it, and dancing to it. Although preferences range from stirring classical pieces like Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” and operatic arias to rock numbers and toe-tapping songs like “Happy,” everyone likes music. It’s no surprise that music plays a dominant role in our worship. Singing is a way to use our body to praise God. As St. Augustine remarked, “Singing is praying twice,” or as my friend pointed out, the saint really said, “Singing well is praying twice”!
I used to balk at the idea of singing after receiving Communion, preferring to use this sacred time for a tete-a-tete between Jesus and me. But then I considered the explanation that in Communion we are bonded together with all other Church members and what better way to express this than by uniting our voices in song?
In the Book of Revelation everyone in heaven sings together in praise of God: angels as well as the saints. We assume angels sing (although they are pure spirits and have no body), and so art provides them with harps and the like. When angels appeared to shepherds in the Bethlehem sky, they weren’t singing but saying, “Glory to God in the highest . . . . ” (See for yourself in Luke 2:13.) Jesus sang. The gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel, has Jesus and the twelve at the Last Supper singing a hymn before going to the Mount of Olives. (Mark 14:26) I wonder what voice part Jesus sang. He also sang the psalms in Aramaic in the Temple and on the way to it.
Of course, Mary sang songs to her child Jesus. One of my favorite memories is of my mother waking us up each morning by pulling open the blinds and singing, “Lazy, Mary, will you get up?” The Blessed Mother probably taught Jesus the Aramaic equivalent of our nursery rhymes and childhood songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
No doubt, you’ve heard the expression that music has power to sooth the savage beast. It also has power to stave off death, as a true story illustrates. When three-year-old Michael was going to have a baby sister, he would sing to her in his mother’s tummy. He sang the only song in his repertoire: “You Are My Sunshine.” Sadly, the baby was born in serious condition and take to neonatal intensive care. The doctor had little hope. The parents prepared for the funeral. Michael begged to see his sister. After a week, when the baby was losing her battle, Michael’s mother defied hospital rules and took him to sing to his sister. As Michael sang, the baby’s pulse lowered to normal and her breathing became regular. The very next day, Michael’s sister was well enough to go home.
Why do we sing? We usually sing when we are happy. We sing in the shower and in the car, maybe even with the windows open. But singing can give vent to rawer emotions, such as the misery and hope reflected in the moving songs that sprung from the hearts of slaves. We sing to give joy to others by participating in talent shows and concerts. We sing to celebrate a person (“Happy Birthday”) and events (“Joy to the World”).
What if your voice sounds like a cat with its tail caught in the door? Thomas a Kempis said, “If you cannot sing like the nightingale and the lark, then sing like the crows and frogs, who sing as God meant them to” . . . and look forward to the next world where we likely will all have heavenly voices, perfect pitch, and be in complete harmony with God and others.
What role does music play in your spiritual life? When have you experienced the power of music? What is your favorite Christian song?
PS: Coincidentally, today on the Internet is a picture of a young policeman holding a two-year-old girl drenched in gasoline who survived a car crash that killed her father. He is comforting her by singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” the way he comforts his own daughter.
I must admit that I’m vocally challenged. I know that’s not a good excuse for not sing loud a church, but I sound bad even to myself.
That being said, my favorite song is “Shepherd Me O God”. A bonus is that it doesn’t have any high notes.
Is your favorite “You are mine”? We sang it at today’s mass and it reminded me of one of your favorite Bible verses, Isaiah 43.
I do like the hymn “You Are Mine” very much, Mark. However, my favorite is “Christus Vincit” (Christ Conquers). When I was a young sister, we sang this on the Feast of Christ the King (my feastday and the feastday of my province) with four-part harmony. It was glorious.
That’s one of my favorite bible verses, too, Mark.
I like “Panis Angelicus.” And I like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu.” Luckily for me, it does have high notes, since I am a first soprano.
Once at an opera I heard a soprano sing a note that simply shimmered in the air. Never experienced anything like that before or since.