Music and worship

Commemoration of Cyril of Jerusalem

In all that he did he gave thanks

to the Holy One, the Most High, proclaiming his glory;

he sang praise with all his heart,

and he loved his Maker.

He placed singers before the altar,

to make sweet melody with their voices.

He gave beauty to the festivals,

and arranged their times throughout the year,

while they praised God’s holy name,

and the sanctuary resounded from early morning. — Sirach 47:8-10 NRSV

My late husband and I had a number of discussions about church over the course of our marriage. He was staunchly pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic, I was Episcopalian. I sincerely tried to go along and be a good Roman Catholic wife, sitting by her husband’s side at mass on Sunday, but there were so many things I found I just couldn’t buy into wholeheartedly. One of the biggest was music in the church. The local masses (indeed, most of the ones I’d attended in various places) either ignored music altogether or used something that was considered perhaps “new” and “relevant.” For me, it was neither. My husband told me, “You don’t go to church for the music,” and my response was, “For me, I can’t really go to church without it.”

Reading the passage from Sirach, it sounded very much like the kind of worship that I am not only accustomed to but need. The previous passage of Sirach identifies David as the motivator of the actions in today’s reading and just about everybody knows how important music and praise were to David. He threw a bit of liturgical dance into the mix as well, something that caused some great friction in his home life with his wife, but he also composed psalms and songs that were part of the worship of God. David needed music; his need and ability led to his introduction to the life of Jewish royalty with Saul and eventually his own kingship. Music was David’s response to God, just as it has been and continues to be for many of different faiths and traditions. Although the attribution is often debated, whoever came up with the saying “Who sings, prays twice” definitely had a very strong idea that music added another dimension to the words and intent of prayer and praise.

Churches all over have choirs behind, in front of or flanking altars, just as Sirach describes, and scarcely a great ecclesiastical event or festival (and quite a few completely civic ones) is held without bands, orchestras, ensembles, soloists, massed choirs or small vocal groups to help mark the occasion. Over the millennia, there have been literally millions of pieces of church music ranging from simple chants to works as complex as Bach’s B minor Mass or Tallis’ 40-part motet, Spem in Alium (“I have never put my hope in any other but in you, God of Israel”). Every year new songs and hymns are written to add to the repertoire, seeking new ways to connect the spirit of the human to the worship and praise of God in new and greater ways.

For my husband, words were the vehicle to God, but for me, I need music to add that extra something that connects me with the holy. I can pray in silence or even worship via the spoken word, but even then in the back of my head there’s usually a hymn or a piece that I’ve sung running somewhere under it all.

I can draw two conclusions from my contemplation of the reading from Sirach. One is that each person has a kind or style of worship that works for them and that is as it should be. It would be a boring world if we were all the same, even in church. The other is that it is less important how one prays and worships than the fact that one does actually do both. If music is a vehicle, then let it roll.

Now I’ve got that hymn “To God Be the Glory” running through my head. I guess, really, it’s better than a jingle for laundry detergent or some fruit-flavored drink for children. Yes, definitely much better, but I just wish it weren’t so difficult to have Spem in Alium playing though.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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