Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
September 05 2021 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 53:4-7a | Psalm 146:6-10
James 2:1-5 | Mark 7:31-37
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Imagine being deaf, unable to hear any sounds. As most of you know, I have been involved with church music most of my life, as a singer, composer, and now a priest. For me, deafness would be a tragedy. I know Beethoven was deaf for the last twelve years of his life, but I am no Beethoven. I don’t think I could compose music without hearing it.
The stories of Beethoven’s life tell us that he was nominally Catholic but was not a regular church-goer and that he suffered numerous health problems. In letters and conversations, he didn’t seem much interested in Jesus. Whether or not prayer would have restored his hearing is unknown, but some scientists have theorized that present-day medical technology may have been able to help his deafness. Keep in mind that scientific advances ultimately come from God who is the source of all knowledge and wisdom that scientists discover.
The Gospels present us with several stories about Jesus restoring sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, but no stories that have Jesus restoring anyone’s sense of taste, smell, or touch. Our sight and hearing mattered to Jesus. They are the two senses through which we perceive the artistic world. Sight enables viewing the paintings of Claudia and Sharon, while hearing enables absorption of music I and others compose.
Today’s Gospel is a statement of the importance of ears that hear. In that the normative celebration of Sunday Morning Mass at 10:30 A-M at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community is, and will always be, a one-hundred percent Sung Mass, to be able to hear is a necessity to participate whether as singer or listener. However, by saying that, I am not denigrating deaf people or those who minister to them in sign language. I have the utmost respect for those ministries.
The man Jesus healed in today’s Gospel was not only unable to hear, but he had a speech impediment as well. This was to be expected, as the deaf people I’ve encountered are often unable to make their thoughts known in ways the hearing world understands, although some have been trained to read lips and use their vocal mechanisms to speak. Again, my heart goes out to them and those who teach them, but today’s homily focuses on the importance of the gifts of hearing and speech. Mass for the deaf is a topic for another homily.
The ability to speak includes singing, even if only at a rudimentary level. Indeed, our first reading today recognizes that “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”
Singing is musical speech, or as the Merriam-Webster dictionary says, “Uttering with musical inflections.” And half-way between speaking and singing is chanting, and as you’ve already heard, we do a lot of that here. Almost anyone can learn to chant the readings. You just pick one note that’s comfortable for you and go with it. Few sounds are as evocative of contemplation and prayer in the Christian imagination like the sound of plainchant, the music that was born in the ancient church. Its purpose was to glorify God, lifting up the hearts of those who sing and of those who hear it.
Why are we not like all the other churches in our area, where the overwhelming majority of the service is spoken? Each community in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion has its own particular charism. Ours is musical. For us, music is not a liturgical tool to assist us with our mission. Rather, music is our mission.
You may think that in singing and/or chanting our entire Mass we are doing something new and unique, but really, we are not. Search “Eastern Orthodox Liturgy” on YouTube, and you will discover numerous videos with liturgies sung from start to finish. They’ve done it that way for over a thousand years and have no shortage of adherents. And for the most part, it’s all unaccompanied. When we sing our liturgy, which occasionally includes some Eastern Orthodox chants, we feel a sense of spiritual camaraderie with our Eastern sisters and brothers, even though we do not agree with them on everything. Liturgical music is, in and of itself, a universal language that binds Christians to one another to transcend any differences we may have.
When Jesus gave this unnamed man in today’s Gospel the gifts of speech and hearing, Jesus gave him a future that was better than his past. The miracle that Jesus performed not only enabled him to communicate with his family, friends and community, but to participate in worship at his local synagogue and at the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
In both places of worship, the man Jesus healed would encounter the sung liturgy that continues to characterize Jewish worship. What Jesus did for him allowed him to participate in that liturgy by singing. Deacon Sharon and I occasionally attend the Desert Outreach Synagogue and can tell you from experience, that, except for the Rabbi’s sermon, everything is sung. They chant the readings from scripture and sing the psalms just as we do here. So just as we feel a sense of oneness with our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers, through a sung liturgy we experience a connection with our Jewish forbears from which Jesus himself came.
Just as, for Christians, the New Testament cannot be understood fully without a knowledge of the Old Testament; in the same way, the music of Christianity and the church cannot properly be understood without at least some knowledge of the music of the ancient Jewish people. The First Book of Chronicles offers a rich account of the musicians deployed when King David transported the holy Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The Second Book of Chronicles records the use of numerous instruments in the First Temple that King Solomon built and hundreds of paid singers.
Following the Exile of the Jews to Babylon in five-eighty-six B-C, and the subsequent return to Jerusalem of many deportees around five-thirty-seven B-C, the Second Temple was built and Temple worship recommenced. The lists of returning Jews in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah include huge choirs of paid singers and orchestral musicians.
The Book of Psalms is common to Jewish and Christian Bibles. It was, and remains, the Jewish hymnal. The psalms are meant to be sung and are still sung today in both Christian and Jewish places of worship. In recognition thereof, I have undertaken the task of composing a Responsorial Psalm and Gospel Acclamation for every Sunday and important feast day of the liturgical year. I began this project with the eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time in August, twenty-twenty have now been working on it for over a year. I will have it completed at the end of July, twenty-twenty-three. I do intend to publish it with any proceeds to benefit our music program. Nothing will go into my personal pocket.
I strongly believe that church musicians should be compensated. To pay singers is biblical. First, there are multiple scriptural references in both books of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah showing the Second Temple musicians were paid. Second, today’s Second Reading implores those of us who are well off to help and lift up those who are not. Since most professional singers are poor, our payments to singers are part of our ministry to poor people. Many times I have been asked what Saint Cecilia’s does to help poor people. I proudly respond, yes, we do help the poor with a specific ministry to poor musicians.
The professional singers we have here, however, are not just only musicians. They are ministers of music who are expected to model Christian values in the way they go about their duties in providing leadership to volunteer singers and the congregation assembled for worship. Christian values, for singers and everyone else, are as simple as the Two Great Commandments declared by Jesus, but originating in the Torah portion of the Old Testament: Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, from Deuteronomy, and love your neighbor as yourself, from Leviticus.
That Jesus would quote portions of the Torah is not surprising. Jesus was a devout Jew. The Gospel of Luke tells us he was familiar with the prophet Isaiah from which today’s first reading is taken. In it, Isaiah looks towards the future when the exiled Jewish people finally return to Jerusalem after their return from Babylon. It is a message of optimism that life will get better, just as it did for the man Jesus healed in today’s Gospel.
In a similar way, things are getting better here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community. We were closed to the public for about a year after the Covid pandemic exiled our congregation. As God brought the exiled Israelites back to Jerusalem, we here at Saint Cecilia’s have, since Easter Sunday, been fully open without restrictions and we will remain open without restrictions. Our future will continue with music as the centerpiece in our pathway to becoming one with God, or as our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers would say, achieving theosis. Oneness with the energies of God in eternity is the ultimate goal of our souls.
Music is our mission to open the ears of those who encounter us so as to bring them closer to the presence of God. Starting on the third of October, our quartet of professional singers returns for a more challenging program than we had last year. Guest soloists and instrumentalists will augment them from time to time.
Yes, our music program demonstrates our gratitude to God for the gifts of healing and the use of our vocal mechanisms. However, music has practical value for the followers of Jesus. You may recall that the disciples of Jesus sang a hymn after the Last Supper when they went to the Mount of Olives to pray in the garden at Gethsemane. What hymn they sang, we do not know, but we do know that music drives home into our hearts what spoken liturgy does not and cannot.
We as Catholics are a sacramental people. We view the world from a sacramental perspective. Not only do we recognize the usual seven sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Healing, Reconciliation, Ordination, and Marriage, but the church itself, the Bible, Jesus, and all of us, are sacraments as well. How? They are, to quote the classic definition of a sacrament, outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. The music fits that definition.
Canadian religious scholar Doctor Christina Marie Labriola wrote her doctoral dissertation explaining why the music of the church is a sacrament. Its outward and visible sign is sound. Music, by necessity, reaches us through the physical sense of hearing; when it mediates spiritual reality to us, it does so in a way that is not divorced from our bodies. Music reveals and represents to us one of the ways that our spiritual senses develop and become attuned to recognize Christ’s presence beneath that which the physical senses on their own perceptions. The sounds of music we experience with our bodies affect our inner, spiritual selves.
Doctor Labriola tells us, and I quote,
“Music’s language, capable of immense profundity and immediacy, seems particularly suited to the mysterious complexity of the inner workings of the soul. Similarly, music is our natural recourse in turning towards God in praise—lifting up our words, sanctifying our actions, giving voice to our silent innermost colloquies and desires. Humanity’s natural impulse towards music is innate, just as is our capacity for God. As human beings are religious beings, so too are we musical beings.”
Doctor Labriola goes on to say,
“…music offers the vital experience of pre-cognitive or -a verbal sense of the holiness of being alive, the real presence of the transcendent God apparent to our whole being before it comes to be named, categorized, or interpreted.”
Doctor Labriola is correct. With its tools of melody, rhythm, harmony, and timbre, music communicates emotions in a way mere words cannot. At the primordial level, faith is an emotional response to the world, not an intellectual one. It is an encounter between the soul and the universe that is way beyond anything expressed in words alone.
Hymns and other forms of music instruct us in the Good News, touching our hearts as well as our minds. Often in worship, the songs we sing reflect on the day’s readings and compact their core concepts into our hearts.
Something incredible happens when we sing. Something awakens not only in the heart of each person but also in the collective heart of the body of Christ, connecting us to each other and to God in the deepest part of who we are. By giving the man in today’s Gospel the gifts of hearing and intelligible phonation, Jesus enabled him to participate in worship beyond the level of mere mental exercise.
God created us to communicate with the very depths of our spirit. Singing is a way we can accomplish this in a profound and meaningful way. Singing is one of the ways how we express our love towards God with our whole being. We engage every part of our being in worship to God. Sung Mass changes and transforms us. It inclines our hearts to God in ways spoken worship can’t accomplish. Worship strengthens us, convicts us, builds us up, and even restores us. In other words, when we sing and devote our whole selves to God, something godly happens within us.
Singing is an essential part of whom we are and who God created us to be. Music that honors God will cause our hearts to sing. And when our hearts sing, worship happens. We’re transformed on the inside as we’re filled with the Spirit and devote everything we are to worship, praise, and thank our heavenly Father.
Think about how God has used music in worship to touch your own heart and life in a particular way. If you have a favorite hymn or song, ask yourself what about that music stirs something within you. And if you are really serious, do some musical exegesis just like you would a passage of scripture. Analyze the tune by examining the intervals in its melodic patterns and its harmonic structure. Look up the history of the tune to learn the circumstances under which it was composed, the composer’s motive for writing it, the audience for which the composer intended it, the background and life situation of the composer, how particular sets of words became married to the tune, and the frequency of its use. Listen to how different performers interpret it. In other words, don’t just let it go in one ear and out the other.
We have faith and trust in a God who calls us to be strong and free from fear. Our God is there to help us, to heal us. Our God is there to open our eyes and ears. Our response to God here at Saint Cecilia’s is to worship God in the beauty of holiness.
There is a market for what we do if we can get the word out. Doctor Winfield Bevins, a professor at Asbury Seminary, a Methodist institution in Kentucky, has written a book presenting evidence that young people actually do prefer traditional liturgy. He found that many young adults seek a holistic spirituality that embraces all aspects of their person—mind, body, and soul. Young adults want a faith that not only engages the mind but involves the senses. Music, of course, relies on the sense of hearing.
Doctor Bevins points out that many contemporary churches play worship music that echoes secular pop songs and that young adults sense intuitively that today’s churches have lost a vision for aesthetic beauty that encourages us to experience the mystery and transcendence of God. They are looking to the ancient history of the church and discovering that we are part of the larger family whose roots go back to the days of Jesus.
According to Doctor Bevins, many young adults are attracted to the liturgical forms of worship because they are tired of the schisms and splits within Christianity. They see the liturgy as a pathway for unity. Doctor Bevins concludes that the recovery of traditional liturgy is more than merely a trend among young people and that the allure of beauty in liturgy isn’t just a fad or the latest gimmick. Instead, it represents a longing for roots to connect us to the reality of a world set apart from our modern age. If only we can get the word out and let them know who we are and what we do! I invite any suggestions and would welcome any help.
The mountains and desert that surround us here in Palm Springs are alive with the sound of music. Music at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community echoes back to the God who made those mountains and that desert. Our worship is our response to God. Worship begins and ends with God. True worship music begins and ends with God. Music in worship is of God, for God, and to God. There is something profound, powerful, phenomenal, unfathomable, mesmerizing, mysterious, and just simply amazing about music.
In his play entitled Twelfth Night, Shakespeare suggested that music is the food of love. The First Epistle of John tells us that God is love and love is from God. God and music go together.
As we sing, we are filled with joy that moves our souls to pleasure that will never vanish. That is because music does inexplicable things to us.
So, allow Jesus to open your ears to music.
Allow music to move you.
Allow music to lift up your spirit.
Allow music to touch your body
Allow music to penetrate your soul.
Allow music to connect with your innermost self.
Allow music to transform you to build up the Kingdom of God.
And allow music to ultimately make you one with God and part of God. AMEN.