The Power of Music in the Church
Being a coroner and a family physician for the past 32 years don’t constitute very impressive credentials for delivering a sermon. Neither, I fear, does being a chorister or even being the Chair of the Elora Festival and Singers. My friends and family complain that I preach all the time but they don’t mean this sort of preaching! I therefore want to thank our rector for his sense of adventure in turning over his pulpit to a neophyte and then leaving the country. This happens to be the closest Sunday to November 22 – St Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music and musicians.
Bless O Lord, us thy servants, who minister in thy temple. Grant that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This prayer is known as the choristers’ prayer, and the implication is that as choristers, as ministers in the temple, should we ever be put on trial for being Christians, there ought to be at least enough evidence to convict us! Furthermore First Chronicles list the four characteristics for musicians in the temple to be: skill, sensitivity, submission, and sanctification. Given the artistic temperament submission is problematic at the best of times. Why the restrictions? Why the caution? Because there is great power in music. That is the theme of my sermon: “The Power of Music”.
C S Lewis, in an essay on church music makes the point very well. “It seems to me that we must define rather carefully the way in which music can glorify God. There is a sense in which all natural agents, even inanimate ones, glorify God by revealing the powers He has given them. An excellently performed piece of music, as a natural operation which reveals in a very high degree the peculiar powers given to man, will thus always glorify God whatever the intention of the performers. But that kind of glorifying is shared with the dragons and great deeps, with the frost and snow. What is looked for in us is another kind of glorifying, which depends on intention. How easy or how hard it may be for a whole choir to preserve that intention through all the discussions and decisions, all the corrections and the disappointments, all the temptations to pride, rivalry, and ambition, which precede the performance, I do not know. But it is on the intention that all depends. When it succeeds, I think the performers are the most enviable of people; privileged while mortals to honour God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall of man.”
Heady stuff, and that is only the performance. Can you doubt that Bach was a true and devout believer when he penned the St Matthew Passion or that Mozart stood firm in the belief that he was about to come face to face with his Saviour when he wrote the Requiem? In Canada today there are many composers whose music is often performed here, whose faith shines forth in the sincerity and passion of their music. Eleanor Daley, Mark Sirett, Jeff Enns come to mind as well as Barry Cabena.
St. Augustine tells us that when we sing we pray twice; once with the actual words of the hymn or anthem and again in the melody and harmony lifting the words heavenward as once incense in worship services was intended to do. The links between music and worship are deep seated; both spring from a God implanted desire to search for truth and order. God must surely love singing. The desire to sing comes to human kind almost as an instinct; albeit the ability sometimes not so naturally. Every culture has its own form of singing. Religious singing especially has the power to lift us above ourselves; stirring our minds and hearts to a greater love of God. A finely crafted hymn or anthem beautifully sung is not a performance but an act of worship and an offering to God.
Igor Stravinsky once said: “The church knows what the psalmist knew. Music praises God. Music is as well or better able to praise Him than the building of a cathedral itself with all its decorations; it is the Church’s greatest ornament.
The importance of singing in religion is evident all through the Bible. The prophetic and inspirational psalms of David were hymns to God to be sung by the people of Israel.
I tend to approach psalms much as I do single malt. There are no bad ones, many are great and some are superb but it is hard to have one favourite. It depends on your mood, your circumstances and even the weather!
Various psalms exhort the people to:
-sing unto the Lord a new song, lustily with good courage or to
-sing unto the Lord all the earth, or to
-sing unto the Lord a new song for he has done marvellous things or to
-sing unto the Lord a new song; let the congregation of saints praise him.
Music IS the one activity that we share with the angels. In some mysterious way when we sing we bring our hearts, our minds and our spirits into the presence of God
Set as we all are, in our narrow fixed reference of time and place we can never hope to appreciate the true nature of God or his universe; but through music we catch a glimpse of God’s glory. Our love of music reflects the mystery of our faith.
That sense of mystery is captured in the last verse of the hymn we will sing following the sermon:
“And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far out pass the power of human telling.
For none can guess its grace, Till he become the place,
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.”
St Paul in the New Testament, exhorts us in the Epistle to the Colossians to “Sing psalms and hymns, and inspired songs to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Hymns are the strongest expression of religion still deeply imbedded in our secular society. For many, they provide a more familiar and accessible source of teaching about the Christian faith than the Bible itself. The repetitious nature of music is an excellent tool for memory. Half remembered verses from childhood hymns remain a source of inspiration and comfort to many who would not count themselves as regular church goers or committed believers.
Elderly patients love the music from their childhood especially hymns and other sacred music. When Alzheimer’s Disease patients can no longer recognize family members or stay oriented to time and place, they can still often hear familiar music, enjoy it and even sing along. Afterwards they are invariably calmer and sleep better.
Inspirational words married to a beautiful melody can challenge our intellect and uplift our spirit. They can just as easily inspire joy, compassion, reflection, or sadness. Some hymns like those chosen for the service today can explain the nature of Christ – incarnation, sacrifice, resurrection, and ascension – a whole theological course in the five stanzas of “Lord Enthroned in Heavenly Splendour”. The hymn even uses a verse to express again the longing for understanding of the mystery of our faith”
“Here our humblest homage pay we,
Here in loving reverence bow,
Here for faith’s discernment pray we,
Lest we fail to know thee now,
Alleluia, Thou art here, we ask not how.”
Our processional hymn Praise to the Holiest in the Height” written by once Anglican theologian and then Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman is taken from the Dream of Gerontius and explains the scripture that while all are doomed to die through original sin, all have the promise of salvation through the sacrifice of God’s own son, the second Adam. The implication is that all heaven and all earth should be singing God’s praise in thanks for “that highest gift of grace”.
Our recessional hymn “O Lord Compassionate and Kind” was penned by James Greenleaf Whittier, an American poet who was actually writing about the evils and hardships of dependency on opium and I will have more to say about that particular hymn later in the sermon.
One of the greatest glories of Christian Hymnody is that it is a truly ecumenical enterprise, crossing denominational barriers and uniting Christians of every persuasion. Roman Catholics sing the lyrics of some of the sixty-five hundred hymns penned by Charles Wesley while Baptists and Presbyterians happily sing the words of Cardinal Newman. Speaking of the words to hymns, It would be very instructive if we were to habitually take a few minutes before the start of a service to read over the words of the hymns we were about to sing that day. We have already seen how powerful some of those words can be and it can be hard to concentrate on the message while we are singing – I know I find it difficult as a chorister.
From ancient times the power of music has been appreciated; power over both the spiritual and physical being. The ancient Greeks felt that the different scales and modes of music stimulated different emotional responses from fierce conflict to a desire for heavenly things or a soothing of the soul. Apollo was both the God of music and of medicine. Pythagoras, who was a physician as well as a mathematician used music to treat the emotionally disturbed and mentally challenged of his day. From the Bible too, In First Samuel Chapter 16, “and so whenever the spirit tormented Saul, David took the harp and played and Saul grew calm and recovered and the evil spirit left him”.
Entrainment, a principle of physics tells us that our biorhythms tend to synchronize with the tempo or pulse of the music. We instinctively choose slow music to calm down and faster music to energize ourselves. The Mozart effect has been studied extensively and some validity established. The premise is that students with some form of music in their course of study (appreciation or performance) score higher on verbal and math tests than those who don’t. Einstein got some of his greatest inspirations while playing the violin. He said it liberated his brain so he could imagine. England’s George the 1st felt he made much better decisions when listening to music, hence Handel’s Water Music.
Music is known to accelerate plant growth and stimulate egg production in chickens. Ultrasound, which you could think of as low monotonous music (like a very low bass line), promotes the healing of bones and soft tissues but can also shatter kidney stones. Modern music therapy is based on the premise of the healing power of music. Music has of course the power to entertain but also the power to excite, to persuade, to move and to cure.
Think of all the religions that use hymns, chants or other music as an integral part of worship. They do not do this on a whim. In church a quiet organ prelude establishes a mood of reverence and tranquility. Congregational singing seems to draw people together and medical research that I saw recently reported in the Globe and Mail (so it must be true) shows making music en masse has a mood enhancing effect. Maybe this is why we feel better on leaving church; closer to one another and more resolved to practice the beliefs of our faith. Listening carefully to a choir anthem leads worshippers to reflect on beliefs and values and the implications for them as individuals. Perhaps the most powerful force of persuasion in the church is not in the hands of the priest but in the hands of the musician! We do not begin to realize the force in our midst, shaping our lives, and our beliefs and healing our wounds.
At their last concert of the Spring season the Elora Festival Singers sang a setting of “Music, All Powerful” by A K White. Listen to some of the words:
Oh, surely harmony from heav’n was sent,
To cheer the soul when tried with human strife;
To soothe the wayward heart by sorrow rent,
And soften down the rugged road of life.
At her command, the various passions lie,
She stirs to battle, or she lulls to peace,
Melts the charm’d soul to thrilling ecstasy,
And bids the jarring world’s harsh clangour cease.
Hymns have been one of the Church of England’s greatest gifts to the English speaking world. The mid to late nineteenth century remains the golden age of hymnody by virtue of the sheer volume of hymns written. Most of our hymns this morning came from that period. They all represent in my view inspired words paired with wonderful melodies and that is why they are still sung today. Not all hymns from that era, or from our own, are inspired, and many have been deleted from successive hymnals as no longer appropriate. Gone thank goodness, is “God of Concrete, God of Steel, God of piston, God of wheel.” And too “Now thank we God for Bodies Strong” with that memorable line:
“For all the bodies appetites which can fulfillment find,
And for the sacrament of sex that recreates our kind”
(or I suppose procreates if you prefer).
I hope that neither of these was your very favourite hymn and you were not devastated by the omission. My particular pet peeve if will indulge me ranting for another minute, is over changes to the hymns that have been kept. Meaning and intention is often lost in altering old hymns in the name of political correctness in order to remove any reference to both the human and divine male from their lyrics. “Dear Lord and Father of mankind forgive our foolish ways” which we sang this morning has become “Dear God compassionate and kind, ….”. and has lost the author’s sense of benevolent paternal tolerance. “O brother man, hold to thy heart thy brother” didn’t have a chance! By the way, both of these poems were written by James Greenleaf Whittier who, as a Quaker, would have been horrified to have them sung during worship at all! In my opinion, should anyone ask, if the hymn committee doesn’t like the words of a hymn let them leave it out.
As I draw my remarks to a close, I want to quote Robert Bridges from the introduction to the old blue Anglican hymnbook: “Music, being the universal expression of the mysterious and supernatural, the best that man has ever attained to, is capable of uniting in common devotion, minds that are only separated by creeds. If we ask ourselves what sort of music we should want to hear on entering a church, we should surely say that it should be a sacred music, devoted to its purpose; a music whose peace should still our passion, whose dignity should strengthen our faith, and whose unquestioned beauty would find a home in our hearts to cheer us in both life and death. What power for good such music would have”.
In view of all this, it does seem strange to me to hear someone criticized by the comment: “so and so only goes to church for the music”. That is a little like saying “ so and so only goes to church to see the face of God” In the Book of Revelation, St John tells us about hearing a great crowd in heaven that was singing: “Alleluia, Victory and Glory and Praise to our God”. If we are going to be singing in heaven for all eternity, we had better start practicing now.
And to quote composer Paul Halley: “I can practically guarantee that in the enthusiastic singing of our next hymn “Come Down O Love Divine”, we will catch a glimpse of the dazzling brightness that IS the Kingdom of God and we will be blessed with the awesome sense of His presence here among us”.
Dr. Jay Baker