Singing the Gospel

This morning I wanted to step aside from our regular pattern of preaching on the readings of the day, and reflect with you on an aspect of the service itself: the role of music, and specifically hymns, in our weekly liturgy.

In part this comes out of the discussions we have been having at the last couple of meetings of the worship planning group. Hymns are something everyone seems to have an opinion on. Some people are saying we don’t sing enough modern hymns, there are too many of the older hymns that don’t really speak to us. Some people are saying there are too many new hymns we don’t know, and find difficult to sing. And everybody wants to sing their favourites, of course. That is understandable, I hope we do all get the chance to sing our favourites from time to time. But that isn’t really the point of singing hymns together here in worship: there is a lot more going on in the hymns we sing than just singing our favourites. And that’s what I wanted to reflect on with you this morning: why hymns are such an important part of our service.

The place to start is simply by recognizing how very blessed we are in this parish. We have two very fine church musicians leading our worship, Cheryl and Shannon (supported by a wider cast of choir members and other musicians). Thanks to these people, music is such an important part of our time together here. We sing a wide variety of music. We have our own parish song book in addition to the hymn book. And from the hymn book, we tend to sing a much wider variety of hymns than most parishes. We have come to know and love many of the newer hymns in the book. We sing a rich variety of different styles. So if we are talking about changes in our music, printing a new edition of the parish songbook, or fine-tuning our hymn selection, let us be clear that we are simply trying to continually strengthen what is already a really solid musical tradition in this parish.

Sometimes it can feel as though hymns we just an added extra to our services, a decorative touch that isn’t that important. And sure, we can have a service without singing, as we do at 8 o’clock. Fr. Ed pointed out that we mostly sing hymns when we are moving around: coming in and going out, going down for the gospel or bringing up the offertory. That could lead us to the conclusion that music is just filler in our services. But I would suggest to you that hymns have a very important place to play in our worship.

Why are hymns so important? Well, first of all, they are a part of the service where we find ourselves participating most fully in worship. Throughout the service, we find ourselves participating in different ways: by listening, and ideally having our hearts and imaginations stirred by the words we hear from our Christian tradition. We participate by speaking, confessing our faith and our sins, joining in prayer aloud together, and quietly each one within our hearts. We participate by relating to each other, as we pass the peace, for example. We participate in receiving the sacrament. But we participate in worship in a particular way when we sing.

When we sing, we worship not just with our words and our minds, but with our bodies. Our singing voices come from deep within us, starting down in our lungs – close to our hearts, in fact. When we sing, our breathing and our posture changes, we put our whole bodies behind it. We may even sway to the music. When we sing, we are worshipping not just with our minds, but with mind and body and soul. We stand before God as what we essentially are, souls incarnated in flesh. Much of our lives we live in our heads, out of touch with our bodies, even in conflict with them. When we sing, body and soul are reconciled, we are made whole again, whole in worship. It is a holy moment.

Hymns are important also because they link the words of our faith tradition with an emotional weight. They speak not just to our heads, but through the music they address and shape our feelings directly. They remind us that faith is not just a matter of having ideas and opinions; faith speaks to us as whole persons, with the capacity to feel, to be touched and moved and inspired, to ache and to be roused in indignation.

Often we talk about our feelings as something that just happens to us, a kind of blind inner reaction we have to what is going on around us. As though feelings were something we have no control over, except that we learn to suppress those feelings that we consider unacceptable. But when we start to think about music, we realize that it is not that simple at all. The thing about a good piece of music, is that it can make us feel something we have never felt before. Think about a tune that moves you: a favourite hymn tune, or a favourite pop song, or a classical piece, if you like classical music. The way that makes you feel – that’s something you don’t feel with anything else in your life, just with that particular piece of music. A tune doesn’t just make us feel sad, or joyful, or restless, or strong: it makes us feel a very precise shade or flavour of sad or joyful or whatever.

So what music does is teach us that our emotions are not just blind waves of inarticulate feeling that wash over us, but a rich world of precise nuances that we can cultivate and grow. Music gives us a language for our feelings, and shapes what goes on inside of us. So when we sing music in church, it allows us to experience the feelings that have to do with our faith much more clearly. It can make us more self-aware about what it might mean to feel compassion, or awe, or joy, or sorrow in dozens of precise, slightly different shades.

The English musician and theologian Jeremy Begbie – and by the way, if you are interested in how music and faith connect, I would recommend looking at some of the videos he has on the internet – makes the point that the emotional shape of a lot of music is itself theological; it mirrors the shape of the gospel. Think of sad music: it’s strange, isn’t it, none of us likes feeling sad, but sad music can give us intense enjoyment. Why is that? Why is a song like the Beatles’ Yesterday so beloved? Well, Jeremy Begbie suggests it is because the music helps us take the sadness that is in our lives and face it in a form that we can process emotionally. What can otherwise feel so threatening and overwhelming, when it is expressed by music, becomes bearable, familiar – in fact, more than that, it becomes transformed into something beautiful. That is the pleasure of sad music: the possibility that there may be beauty to be found even in sadness.

Jeremy Begbie points out that there is a basic pattern to so much of the music we find pleasurable, a pattern of discord and resolution. Music will so often use discords, unsatisfying tones and rhythms, to awaken in us a sense of longing: “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.” You just can’t stop there! It calls for a resolution of some kind. “Now it seems like they are here to stay” – the longing is sustained – “Oh, I believe in yesterday” – there it is, a sense of closure that gives satisfaction.

And that, Jeremy Begbie points out, is precisely the shape of the Christian story. The gospel takes us to places we might rather not go, places where the pain of this world and our own lives is visible. It cultivates a longing in us, a hunger and thirst for justice, a longing for mercy and healing. And it proclaims that very justice and mercy and healing we long for to be present for us in the love of God. But the way to the promises of glory are through the path of compassion and caring, by opening ourselves to the sorrow of the world. That is the pattern of the gospel. And it is precisely the pattern of so much meaningful and beautiful music. When we listen to music like that, and perhaps especially when we sing it, when we join together in singing meaningful hymns, we are imprinting that pattern on ourselves, not only through our heads, but through our way of feeling.

I want to make one last point today – I think I’ll come back to this in a future sermon. Because each piece of music shapes us emotionally in a precise and unique way, it is so important that we sing hymns from a wide variety of traditions. From medieval plainsong to German chorales to Black Spirituals to Taize chants to Celtic folk tunes, hymns ancient and modern, each one drawing on the experience of the saints in different ages. That is why it ultimately really isn’t about singing my favourite hymns. Because we are a family of brothers and sisters, called to share our faith in community, maybe it is more important for each of us to be singing other people’s favourite hymns, to try to find and understand the beauty in them that speaks so strongly to someone else. Because with each new piece of beauty we find, we touch another register in the emotional shape of the gospel, we understand the gospel (maybe not with our heads, but in our hearts) in a fresh way. And that is always a gift.

So let us give the hymns we sing the respect due to them. They are a crucially important part of our worship. Music and faith go closely together, because music can express and shape our faith in ways that nothing else can.