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PRIOR TO THE SERMON, THE SENIOR CHOIR DELIVERED A STIRRING RENDITION OF SANCTUS, By Charles Gounod
The Elements of Worship: When In Our Music…
Texts: Matthew 26: 26-30; Colossians 3: 16-17
I’d like to set the stage for what will follow today with some important lines from a poem by Jack Gilbert, called “A Brief for the Defense.” In it, he chronicles scenes of hardship and pain, while simultaneously mounting a defense for the experience of beauty, and of pleasure. Here’s Gilbert:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
Hang onto those lines. They have everything to do with what I want to convey to you this morning – about music, about beauty, and about the habits we cultivate every week in this place. There will be music, despite everything.
For now, I’d like to describe a scene that took place in the heart of Havana on my visit to that city back in January. It was evening and the sun had set, though the air was still pleasant and warm. A small group of interested travelers, composed of academics, musicians, artists, teachers, and yes, a minister, made our way toward a small house located on a corner lot. Outside the house was a courtyard, fenced in and surrounded by lush vegetation. From inside the courtyard, the sound of drums could be heard, accompanied by singing. We entered through a small gate, and joined a small crowd gathered around three drummers and a singer. The singer would call out a line, and then everyone gathered would sing the line back at full volume. Everyone knew the songs. They were songs of praise, sung to ancient deities brought to Cuba from Africa, songs that have sustained people in the ruthless furnace of the world for several centuries. There was a sense of festivity in that Havana courtyard. But there was also a seriousness of purpose, as the music guided the participants into realms of the spirit that informed all of their living. On a warm Havana night, songs of praise rose above the houses, rose above whatever life had delivered to those gathered in that space. It was a reminder that there will be music, despite everything.
It was a worship service that I witnessed that night. Since returning from Cuba, I’ve wanted to reflect on the elements of our own worship, and the ways our own gatherings are designed to aid us in our living. Just as ceremonies that originated in Africa and were adapted throughout the Americas provided an entire population with strength and inner resolve to withstand the furnace of the world, I believe our own worship can guide and orient us in a confusing and alienating moment. Our worship is the centerpiece of our identity as a community, but each singular element is designed to speak to particular aspects of our lives, as we do our best to stay human amidst inhumane conditions.
It’s true, sometimes services of Christian worship have been used to prop up the powerful, and there have been times when liturgies and ceremonies of the church have aided and abetted the worst tendencies of human beings. It’s true, there are times that a church service can feel routine, lifeless, and mind-numbingly dull. I’ve sat through more than a few of those, and I’ve probably presided over my fair share. I myself sometimes conduct a lover’s quarrel with the elements of Christian worship, but it’s the lover’s side of that equation that sustains me. Because at heart, I believe and I trust that these are practices meant to support and encourage, to upbuild and to nourish what is best in the human heart. They’re practices that are meant to enhance our capacity for critical thought, and to warn us away from lives of passivity, indifference, and isolation. Sunday matters – maybe more than any of us fully realize.
Last week I shared some insights related to the prelude, including what happens when we cross the threshold into this space. Today I’d like to move just a little further into the order of worship by noting how, and asking why, music is used to begin each of our services. There’s music playing during the prelude. But following the prelude, the choir will immediately sing an anthem or, if the choir is singing at the opposite service, we’ll move directly into the singing of a hymn. What does it mean that the very first thing we do in a service of worship is to sing a song, or listen to one? What does it mean that before we do anything else, we turn to music? Think about it – Scripture doesn’t come first. Music does. A public prayer doesn’t come first. Music does. The sermon does not come first. Music does. For that matter, even the call to worship, what can feel like the beginning of the liturgy – that doesn’t come first. Before we even arrive at the call, there is music. Why should that be?
It’s worth noting, parenthetically, that we’re not the only ones who do it. Most other Christian traditions begin with music. Not all, but most. And a good many other religious traditions also begin with music. Not all, but many. If you find yourself in a synagogue some Friday, the service will likely begin with music. If you go to a mosque, you’ll hear a melismatic call to prayer that is sung by the leader. It’s not music per se, but it is definitely musical. To move back to my opening scene in Havana, every ceremony to the orishas, to the spirits, begins with the drums. There are, of course, some religious expressions that prize silence above all. Still, they seem to be far more the exception than the rule. And so what’s happening in all of those disparate moments of music across so many different traditions? When people wish to touch the sacred, why is that music is such a crucial component of that reach?
I am bold enough to say that where there is music, religion is almost always near at hand, with or without a determinate tradition, with or without conscious intentionality about touching the sacred. I understand Woodstock and Bonnaroo and Coachella to be latter day open air revivals, updates of the sort found in 19th century America. I read jazz clubs as forms of secular devotion, and most of the rhythms found in rock and roll originated in the African religions I’ve been tracking. Opera and orchestras – in the 19th century, these often served as alternative spiritual practices for those disenchanted with established forms of religion. I sometimes think that religion and music are like an old married couple who travel together, often bickering, but also able to understand, and to meet, the needs of that partner better than anyone else.
That’s because in music, as in religion, we’re opened to the realm of feeling. Both religion and music allow us to move beyond what is merely rational, opening toward an experience of the transcendent. Music and religion both have the capacity to suspend our own individual egos, and to get us in touch with something greater than ourselves – even if it’s only an awareness of the others with whom we’re sharing the experience. Music, like religion in the best sense of that word, renders our hearts and our minds porous, open, somewhere closer to free.
It’s that very porousness, that very opening, that has made a lot of people, including a lot of Christians across the centuries, very nervous. Despite an abundance of references throughout the whole of the Bible to the making of music – Jesus and his disciples sang a song prior to his arrest, and Paul counseled his congregations strengthen themselves by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs – despite this, various theologians have worried about the power of music to supplant critical consciousness, allowing people to do what they ordinarily wouldn’t. Augustine, in his Confessions, has this to say about music:
I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know from experience, can accrue from singing. Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church…Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.
Writing in the fifth century, Augustine is nervous about the way an experience of beauty might distract from a deeper experience of truth. More than a thousand years after Augustine, John Calvin too embraced music in worship, but with a similar sense of caution. Calvin thought that music had the power to inflame the spirit, for good or ill, and so he argued that only vocal singing should occur in worship, and that the words should be taken only from the Psalms. It’s an attitude that the Puritans inherited, and brought with them to the New World, where they established places like the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.
It’s easy to mock those thinkers now. It all sounds incredibly uptight. But they do have a point. The very porousness of the heart and mind created by music can turn it into a potent tool for manipulation, inflaming the spirit for ill. At its most benign (maybe!) we can think of the ways music is used in advertising to create a particular affect within viewers or listeners, which then makes us far more likely to purchase that product. At its most malignant, we also know that music is often used to heighten emotions at political rallies. If you’ve never watched Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, it’s worth doing so, paying attention to the way music is used to mobilize all those ordinary Germans to march, and then to fight, for a grotesque purpose. But I confess that I cringe in much the same way whenever Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” is played before a fireworks display, or at a Presidential rally for that matter. I’m reluctant about national anthems for the very same reason – it’s an instance of music being used to establish loyalty toward what is, at best, an ambiguous end. Music can and does inflame the spirit, sometimes with dangerous or tragic consequences. Augustine, Calvin, the Puritans – they sensed that potential, and knew it was worth guarding against. They wished to retain some semblance of critical consciousness amidst the powerful emotional undertow that exists in the arrangement of sound.
Even so, they recognized the need for music in worship. In time, music came to have a prominence of place in Christian liturgies that, for many, outstrips the spoken word. Why? Three reasons predominate.
First, while it’s important to preserve our critical consciousness, we also need ways to bypass the cognitive, to circumvent that part of ourselves which continually stands in judgment upon our emotions. It’s the part that continually asks, how do I feel about this, what’s happening in here, do I believe this, what do I believe about this, and on and on. It’s a great gift to have that voice within, and we need it. But it can also lock us inside our own heads. Sometimes, we need to let go. Sometimes, we need to feel things if we are to access our own humanity. Sometimes we need to let our guard down, and let our bodies move, opening ourselves to the possibility of ecstasy, lament, exaltation, and praise. We can and do experience the sacred with our minds, but we also need to experience God with our emotions, with our senses, with our bodies. Music allows for that. It delivers us from the captivity of our own selves, opening us to what is greater than our own individual egos, the drill sergeants that often take up residence in our minds, policing our propriety. And so music comes first.
The second reason has to do primarily with the introit and the singing of hymns. Singing is how we experience a communal spirituality. The choir does that as a subgroup of the wider congregation, but when we come to the hymn, we all do it together. With the exception of a few brief moments, the singing of hymns is the part of our service that we all do together, where we’re called out of our private interior lives. You might have a good voice. You might not be able to carry a tune at all. You might know the song, or might be fumbling your way through it. But we do it together. Do you have any idea how rare that is? Where else, apart from the national anthem at sports events, does that happen? It’s an exceedingly rare occurrence, but it’s also a necessary one. We join our voices with others. The stronger voices support the weaker ones. But at best, every voice is a part of the song, no matter how half hearted it is, no matter how soaring. Not only that, some of those old hymns have been sung for hundreds of years. And so our voices are somehow joined to all of those who have sung those hymns before, our parents, our grandparents, and so on down the line. To sing a hymn is to become a part of that great cloud of witnesses written about in the book of Hebrews. To sing a hymn is to be joined with the living and the dead, and to know that we too have a part to play in it all. And so yes, music comes first.
But the final reason has to do with the lines of poetry that I began with: “We must risk delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. We must admit there will be music despite everything.” To begin with music, then, is to acknowledge the need for experiences of beauty, no matter what we might face in our lives. It is to confess that the need for beauty, for art, for aesthetic experience is as fundamental to our existence as the need for bread. Yes, there are struggles that we wage. Yes, there are injustices to confront. Yes, there is a need for truth telling, for accountability, for the public stand required to roll back the shadow of indecency that threatens to overwhelm us all. Yes, there are the cold facts of our bodily existence – our illnesses, our aging, our sorrows, our needs and our wants. We each of us wage our own battles, down there where the spirit meets the bone. Still, we begin with music. In the furnace of our lives, we stubbornly accept our gladness. Despite everything, there will be, there shall always be, music.
That’s why we begin as we do – in the quiet music of the prelude, and in the raising of voices found in the introit and the opening hymn. We are stubbornly insisting that in the furnace of the world, music, beauty, must come first if we are to stay human. It’s true in our communal life – I hope you make it a part of your personal life as well.
But I’ve gone on long enough. It’s time to sing. In the words of the hymn writer:
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
 Augustine, Confessions, Book 10, chapter 33.