Mrs. Johnson sat at the Baldwin upright and played three notes in a row that sounded like the NBC chimes. Knees locked, hands clenched at my sides, I tried to match the sounds with my quavering voice.
“Again,” she said. “N-B-C,” she sang, pure as wind, as she pressed the keys.
“N-B-C,” I croaked.
Mrs. Johnson put me in the back row, between two of our high school’s strongest, loudest basses, perhaps hoping that they would drown me out. In that choir, I never reached the “realm of higher things” that St. Augustine promised was the destination for those who can do music (see Epis. 161, De origine animae hominis as quoted in On Sacred Music 5).
To sing is to love
But Augustine also said, “Singing is for the one who loves” (Sermo 336). “Anyone, therefore, who has learned to love the new life,” he said, “has learned to sing a new song” (Sermo 34).
This is why we sing so much in liturgy. We have new life, and we have a new song. We are loved by God, and we love God back. The liturgy is, in fact, one giant love song. Or more like a love opera. In the liturgical opera, there are individual moments of powerful love. But the sacred drama is more complete within the entire communal love song that rushes like a wave to shore, pulling back, and crashing in on us again, over and over.We sing so much in the liturgy. We have new life, and we have a new song. We are loved by God, and we love God back. The liturgy is, in fact, one giant love song. Click To Tweet
Love has that kind of power, but you can’t see it or touch it or taste it. However, you can hear it. The song of the liturgy is elusive. You can play the notes on the page. You can sing the words in the hymnal. But you can never freeze the music in amber, isolating it in a single moment in time.
Music is an encounter with the Holy
Throughout our tradition then, when we wanted to talk to God or talk about God, we sang something or strummed something or beat a rhythm into something. In that way, we could say much more than mere words could say. Making music about God is a way encountering the Holy without shrinking God down to human size. It is a way being in God’s presence without trying to freeze God in amber. Music is ambiguous enough and fluid enough that we can express God without defining God.
Pope Pius XII wrote:
No one, therefore, will be astonished that always and everywhere, even among pagan peoples, sacred song and the art of music have been used to ornament and decorate religious ceremonies…. No one will be astonished that these arts have been used especially for the worship of the true and sovereign God from the earliest times. Miraculously preserved unharmed from the Red Sea by God’s power, the people of God sang a song of victory to the Lord, and Miriam, the sister of Moses, their leader, endowed with prophetic inspiration, sang with the people while playing a tambourine. (On Sacred Music 5)
Listening for the divine voice
I’m not astonished that people sing to praise God. I’m more astonished that they don’t sing. I think of lot of us learned in high school choir or karaoke nights in college that we “can’t sing.” But that realm of higher things that Augustine promises is not just for the musicians. He told his parishioners:
All you who have been born again in Christ and whose life is from above, listen to me; or rather, listen to the Holy Spirit saying through me: Sing to the Lord a new song. (Sermo 34)
When in our song, in our liturgical love opera, we sing a new song, we are swept into the waves of divine love crashing all around us. We can hear, just for moment…and then another…and then another…the divine voice. “Thus, it is no wonder,” wrote the U.S. bishops, “that singing together in church expresses so well the sacramental presence of God to his people” (Sing to the Lord, 2).
I still can’t sing N-B-C. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve learned to sing a new song.
Image credit: Rod Long, Unsplash