Solemnity of Christ the King / Saint Cecilia’s Day
November 22 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Ezekiel 34:11-12;15-17 | Psalm 23:1-3;5-6
I Corinthians 15:20-26;28 | Matthew 25:31-46
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Today is a double feast. We are celebrating the Solemnity of Christ the King and the Feast of Saint Cecilia, the Patronal Feast for this Parish. Saint Cecilia Catholic Community celebrated its fifth anniversary of existence on April fifth of this year, which was Easter Sunday. When this liturgical year started last December, I was looking forward to a huge celebration today, with full choir with instruments, and a church full of people. But the pandemic intervened, so we are doing the best we can under the circumstances.
Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music. Here, we take her patronage very, very seriously. We sing our entire Mass every Sunday, and music is our single largest budget item. We literally put our money where our mouth is.
When Deacon Sharon and I started the parish, our dream was not to be just another church doing what other churches are already doing. We are, and will always be, some place special and different. What distinguishes us is the priority we place on music. In most every other church, music is a tool for their mission to do other things, like celebrating the sacraments, evangelization, pastoral care, and social activism. We use music to do all of those things as well. But here, our unique mission is the music itself in the context of the Catholic spiritual tradition and Catholic social teaching. Music is our connection to God.
Unlike all other Western-Rite Christian churches here in the Coachella Valley, and by that I mean, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Protestant, we sing our entire liturgy every Sunday and Major Feast. But in the grand arc of history of the Christian tradition, we are not alone. Eastern Christians have sung their Eucharistic Liturgy every Sunday for over fifteen hundred years.
Why do they do that? Today’s feast gives us some answers. It celebrates the reign of Jesus as King of the Universe. A king is a leader. A leader sets examples for his or her subjects. A leader’s role is to inspire those whom he or she leads. Jesus inspires us to make music, whether one be a singer, instrumentalist, or composer.
Scripture depicts the earthly Jesus in a leadership role. Jesus, as an observant Jew, more likely than not, attended completely sung liturgies in the Second Temple and in the local synagogue in Galilee. Before the Pandemic, Deacon Sharon and I attended the Desert Outreach Synagogue to broaden our understanding of the spirituality of Jesus. We were not surprised that the service was completely sung. To share in some semblance of the same kind of worship Jesus experienced was deeply meaningful for us.
If you read the Old Testament, you will find numerous references to music in worship. The Books of Nehemiah and Chronicles contain numerous references to singers in their descriptions of the temple restored for worship after the Jewish people returned to their land after the Babylonian exile.
But Second Chronicles is particularly instructive on the relationship between God and music. The author of Chronicles praises God every time music is mentioned. Sometimes the author does so by quoting worship songs, and sometimes it is the author’s own spontaneous worship in the words used to narrate the plot. This author tells us that hundreds of people who could have been put to work in other ways were instead hired for the permanent task of praising God through music.
As many of you know, King David composed a substantial portion of the Book of Psalms. King David invested time and money into manufacturing musical instruments for worship. The author of Chronicles celebrates the fact that so many resources were set aside for worshiping the one true God whose worship we share with our Jewish sisters and brothers. In Chronicles, worshiping God through music always involves the giving of thanks and celebrating God’s goodness and steadfast love.
The Psalms are poetry meant to be sung. The Psalms are replete with references to song in worship. Here are some examples. “It is a good thing to give thanks to the LORD, and to sing praises to your Name, O Most High” (Psalm ninety-two, verse one) “Come, let us sing to the LORD” (Psalm ninety-five, verse one); “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the whole earth Sing to the LORD and bless his Name” (Psalm ninety-six, verses one and two); “Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things” (Psalm ninety-eight, verse 0ne) “Be joyful in the LORD, all you lands; serve the LORD with gladness and come before his presence with a song” (Psalm 100, verse on) “I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being “(Psalm one-hundred-four, verse thirty-four).
So, without a doubt, sung liturgy was how Jesus worshipped. Here at Saint Cecilia’s, we focus on Jesus. If sung liturgy was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us.
Some who have visited our congregation have criticized us for “doing too much singing.” In the past, I responded to those comments by introducing spoken words into the service. I am sorry I did that. It confused our identity. But there will be no more of that going forward! Yes, other churches speak rather than sing parts of the Sunday liturgy to accommodate human preferences but allowing politics to permeate our liturgical decisions that is not who we are.
We have a special mission here to be a church for musicians to perform for God, and we also serve those who show their love for music by listening to it. I am not worried about Sung Mass not filling the chairs. Before the pandemic, our attendance was growing steadily. We were becoming not only a church, but a musical entity in the Coachella Valley as well.
Lest anyone accuse us of being unwelcoming, we do accommodate those who desire a spoken liturgy. Before the pandemic, we celebrated a spoken Mass on one or more weekdays, and when the church reopens, we will resume that ministry to serve those who prefer that liturgical style. At some time in the future, should another priest join us, we might consider more spoken Masses. However, the main service on Sunday here will always be a one-hundred-percent Sung Mass.
Many times people have asked me, “What do you to help the poor,” to which I respond, “We help poor church musicians.” The fact is, most musicians are, indeed, poor. The capitalist society in which live assigns wealth and income to people based on the demands of the free marketplace. Unfortunately, that free marketplace does not assign the same monetary value to church musicians as it does to popstars, athletes, and doctors. Therefore, Saint Cecilia’s is here for church musicians to help support them in doing what they love for the glory of God.
Next week, Saint Cecilia Catholic Community will receive a substantial gift to its music endowment. The endowment is invested to produce income to pay musicians. Because we will not be spending the principal, the endowment will support music here in perpetuity. As Jesus told us, “Where your heart is, your treasure will be there also.” Our heart is in music, and so will be our treasure.
The endowment income will allow us to be commit to hosting a choir as many Sundays as we can. You might ask why we pay musicians. Shouldn’t they perform out of the goodness of their hearts? True, some churches can’t afford to pay their musicians, but those who can, like us, should do so. There is biblical precedent for it. In Chapter twenty-two of the Book of Nehemiah, we read,
“[The] descendants of Asaph [were] the singers, in charge of the work of the house of God. For there was a command from the king concerning them, and a settled provision for the singers, as was required every day.”
Our present plan is to have a choir on all Sundays except in Ordinary Time when we will have just a cantor. When the pandemic recedes and health conditions allow us to open the church, we will invite instrumentalists as well from time to time. Guitars, flutes, trumpets, oboes, violins, and harps…bring it on! And we encourage local composers to create music for us. Saint Cecilia Catholic Community will intentionally be a place where as many people as possible can offer musical gifts to the glory of God. It will also be a place where one can connect with God as a music listener.
Music inspires people to accept Jesus. In the course of my over fifty-year involvement with church music, I’ve known many unchurched people who were inspired by music to become Christians in the formal sense. Several choir members with whom I sang in years past ultimately became clergy. And here at Saint Cecilia’s, I have no doubt that the time Natalya served us faithfully and skillfully our Music Director and Pianist played at least some role in inspiring her to become a baptized Christian.
Eastern Christians have sung their entire liturgy for over fifteen hundred years, and the Jews for over five thousand years. Both of those groups have no shortage of worship attenders. For them, connecting to ancient traditions overrides short-term political considerations in their congregations. Like them, we do what we do to succeed over the long haul.
The experiences of Judaism and of the Eastern Church convince us that music do a better job of connecting people to God than does the spoken word. So, how does music inspire people to worship Jesus, our King? The reasons are both physiological and psychological.
At a Jewish home for the elderly in Washington, D.C., a dozen residents with dementia gathered for their weekly rhythm exercises. The therapist directed each member to bang out numbers and shake maracas to the tune of Yankee Doodle. Some who seemed otherwise non compis mentis could nonetheless tap perfectly on cue. Alzheimer’s researchers report that patients unable to speak can sing childhood melodies. So far, neuroscience can’t explain this, but some experts think the brain’s receptors for music and rhythm are spared the ravages of senility.
The point is this: music communicates with us on a level beyond our verbal understanding, on a different circuit than mere speech. St. Augustine tells us in his Dissertation on the Psalms, “to sing is to pray twice.” Augustine correctly recognized the empathetic chord between music and the human soul.
In particular, why do we want the readings sung rather than spoken? Sung words are not meant to enter one ear and leave the other. Instead, sung words communicate with the listener at the level of the heart. Sung words sink into our brains in an entirely different way than spoken words. When I hear sung reading, it is burned into my mind with far greater force than if it were merely read to me. This is not surprising. Music plays an invaluable role in education. According to the National Education Society for Young Children,
“Music is a great way to engage young children because it is a natural and enjoyable part of their everyday lives. Many young children learn to recite the alphabet by singing the ABCs, and educational researchers have found that music can help children learn multiplication tables and improve early literacy skills. Many adults still remember lessons connected to music from their childhood.”
The Gospel according to Matthew tells us,
“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who humble themselves like children are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
To truly “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Gospel of Jesus, we must allow scripture to touch our souls, not just hear the words. We must listen to the singing of the Mass, and in particular, the readings, with the innocence and openness of children learning the alphabet and remembering it. Surely the Mass is as important as the alphabet?
When the pandemic ends, you have my word that Deacon Sharon and I will work earnestly to rebuild the congregation bigger and better than it was previously. Not only will we be helping to support professional singers and instrumentalists, but we will be engaging in other music ministries. For example:
We will help people who are embarrassed about singing in public to acquire the confidence to do it. We are not looking for perfection, but participation. God loves all voices, not just operatic ones.
We will be a place where local church music composers can hear their music performed.
We will be a place where aspiring young musicians can gain performance experience.
We will be a small, intimate concert venue for delicate sounds like those of the harp or the clavichord.
We will be a place where music teachers who don’t have a studio can teach their students.
We will be a place where, during the workweek, musical groups can conduct rehearsals and jam sessions.
And in particular, we will recognize the Coachella Valley’s sizable population of Hispanics by honoring their musical heritage, along with other ethnicities and cultures.
But more than anything else, we will be a holy place where love is found and hearts are freed to change the world. We are here to change church music to reflect the ideals Jesus taught. In my long experience as a church singer, I have encountered and been the victim of, insensitive and unloving environments. A church music program is not something to be run like a merit-based secular organization responsive to a marketplace.
Here, our ministry is to the people making and listening to music. Yes, we want everyone to give their very best, but we are not going to kick anyone out the door or jump down anyone’s throat for a less than perfect musical offering. Doing or saying something that will likely hurt someone’s feelings has no place whatsoever in any church.
Myself, Deacon Sharon, Natalya, and Raul, are all here to work with our people individually to help them be the best musicians they can be, even if all you do here is chant a reading on one note of your choosing. And we will never, ever tolerate gender discrimination in any part of the program. In contrast to many secular music organizations and even some churches, men with high voices and women with low voices are equally welcome here singing whatever part is comfortable. A church choir can and must be an oasis of love in the desert of a hard-nosed world. We will be exactly that.
The commandment of Jesus, to love one’s neighbor as oneself and to love one another as Jesus loved us applies with special force in church music. Church musicians who don’t behave as Christians stand the very concept of church music on its head.Church musicians are ministers of music. As such, they must walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
As the famous hymn based on Psalm 23 tells us, “The King of Love my shepherd is. His goodness faileth never. I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.” Jesus is the King of Love, and well deserves our praise in song.
Music, with its tools of melody, rhythm, harmony, and timbre, 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 that can be expressed in words alone. Our hearts and souls are what interact with God.
Hence, when the liturgy is sung rather than spoken, we not only hear it with our ears, but feel it within us, and it becomes part of us. Unlike spoken words, music connects with us on a subconscious level. To imbibe music into our consciousness requires us to let go of our conscious selves and interact with God’s word beyond the level of our brains, deeply into our souls. Whether we sing or we listen, we connect with God in a strong and deep way like nothing else, as we experience a purposeful penetration into our conscience that leads to a warm and close relationship with a God who surrounds and loves us.
Let us pray.
O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever-present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth, and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord.