FROM THE RECTOR:
This Sunday is the final Sunday for the full choir before they go on summer recess. Certainly, we will want to thank Andrew and the singers for faithfully leading our praises of God this past year. Apropos of this, I reproduce these thoughts on the Theology of music, abridged from an article by my good friend, Fr Barry Swain of the Church of the Resurrection, Manhattan.
THE THEOLOGY OF MUSIC
The song of the angels, Gloria in excelsis Deo, is the first Christian hymn and one which is still the most commonly sung in the Christian world. Now the angels are there because God has sent them, it is true, but we almost have the feeling in reading Luke that they have taken up this song because they cannot help it. They are watching the birth of God into the world as a human being, they know what it means, and they simply cannot help singing. St Augustine famously said that he who sings worships twice, and certainly we know that to be true. The normal form of Mass throughout the Universal Church is High Mass or what is known in the East as the Divine Liturgy. Low Mass is simply a concession to the fact that daily masses celebrated outside religious communities cannot normally be sung easily, if at all. All the traditional ceremonial surrounding Low Mass makes it plain that it is High Mass with the parts we cannot quite manage removed. High Mass is not Low Mass with extra bits, but the other way ‘round, Low Mass is High Mass as much as we can manage without a singing community. The essence of worship is singing, and this comes from the heart of God’s creation itself.
There is music at the very heart of Creation, and the Bible makes it plain that music is at the very heart of worship, and therefore at the heart of God. There is no preaching in heaven, it isn’t needed. There is no edifying reading in heaven, it isn’t needed. There is no social work in heaven, it isn’t needed. There is no pastoral care in heaven, it isn’t needed. There isn’t even any Bible reading in heaven, it isn’t needed. The only thing that we know about Heaven for certain is that it is the presence of God and that he is worshipped by all there, and that that worship is cast in song. In the Bible, music is seen as a means of worship, a means of expressing joy, thanksgiving, penitence, prayer, teaching and spiritual communication. There is absolutely no question of its paramount importance in the life of the Christian either in this world or, especially, in the next.
In the Prado, in Madrid, there is an immense and fantastic triptych by Hieronymous Bosch, which shows in its three parts the three parts of the Church, Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. Heaven is shown in customary terms: God the Father is suggested, the Son is shown, and the Holy Spirit is in the shape of a dove. Angels and Saints praise God, and the angels are shown playing lovely and shiny musical instruments, both brass and strings. In purgatory, there is no music visible, only souls being purged and prepared for God. Their mind is on penitence and preparation. In the Hell panel, music returns, but this time it is Music Hell. Wild and crazed looking demons play terrible instruments, squeeze bladders with reeds attached, bang on loud looking drums, scream at the top of their lungs with ugly expressions, and everywhere souls of the damned are trying desperately to stop their ears, but cannot. For Bosch, beautiful music praises God and is the inevitable accompaniment to Heaven, but Hell consists of the absence of God and the constant terror of dissonant and horrible music.
If we reflect on the fact that angels, in their worship and in their underlining of the Divine to the world, are a kind of paradigm for Christians in the world, then the musical vocation of angels also comes into play. Today, perhaps more than ever, one of the most important practical aspects of our vocation is to use music properly in worship. The best possible music we can have in our churches is an extremely important priority. Music often expresses what the spoken word cannot, and speaks for the soul when it cannot speak for itself. Conversely, ugly music is destructive, it contradicts God’s presence in the world, and if we aren’t careful, music can suggest Hell more often than Heaven. Sad to say, most modern Christian music simply will not do. Stupid lyrics and repetitive simple melodies do not elevate the soul. Great hymns teach by their poetry, and their musical settings serve the texts and lift the heart. It is the same with great choral music, whether it is the Church’s own music – plainsong, Mozart or Victorian hymns. It is the priest’s absolute responsibility and should be the care and enthusiasm of all parishioners to ensure that music offered is suitable, that it is edifying and uplifting and that it speaks of God rather than being enmeshed in our own modern popular culture. The musicians may have the technical expertise and artistic inspiration, but it is the priest and the people of God in a place who co-operate to make certain that their talents are harnessed to serve God and His Church. The angels taught us that on the first Christmas at Bethlehem.