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Singing The Gospel of Jesus
At a home for the elderly, 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 on cue. Alzheimer’s researchers report that patients unable to speak can sing childhood melodies. Why?
Since Acts 2:46 tell us, “Song is the singing of the heart’s joy,” should not the Gospel of Jesus be sung at Mass? The gospels themselves are replete with songs. Luke contains the “Song of Mary,” the “Magnificat”’ the Song of Zechariah, the “Benedictus”; the angels sing, “Glory to God in the Highest”; later, we find the Song of Simeon, the “Nunc Dimmitis.” John’s Gospel begins with a hymn-like prologue recounting the Incarnation.
Although in the Western Rite the Gospel is customarily sung at Solemn celebrations of the Eucharist, in most parishes, the gospel is rarely sung. Anglican clergy sometimes formulate their liturgical practices to please people like the disgruntled middle-aged, low-church male parishioner who changed from one church to another after complaining about a chanted gospel, “I didn’t get anything out of it.” That statement reflects the self-orientation consumption mentality permeating modern life, raising the question: Do we go to Mass to “get something out of it,” or do we go there to offer something?
We middle-agers, of which I am one, experienced the ascendancy of entertainment as America’s chief past time: movies, television, recorded music, spectator sports, and similar experiences. We live vicariously through actors and professional athletes in lieu of participation savoring the intrinsic benefits of our favorite arts and sports. Technology further facilitates our consumption of passive entertainment through that ultimate symbol of consumer choice, the remote control: if we don’t like what’s playing we simply change the channel,just like the middle-aged man who changed churches.
That consumerism lives in church is therefore, not surprising. We Anglo-Catholic Ritualists are guilty: some churches stage a show for the supposed spiritual edification of the faithful in lieu of actively involving the assembly. Protestants stage Christian Rock music mimicking secular musical styles with sound indistinguishable from cacophony excreted from rock music studios. In both the sacred or secular realm, performing professionals evoke emotions from a passive audience expecting to “get something out of it. “ The public depends on professionals to anger, awe, titillate, tickle and comfort us, rather than actively achieve the same feelings from endeavors in which they participate.
Liturgy, however, is, different. Where the 1979 Prayer Book Catechism discusses the Eucharist, it uses no terms reflecting the view that we go to Mass to “get something out of it.” Among other terms, the Catechism describes it as “The Great Offering”. The Eucharistic Prayer in Rite One speaks of offering our souls and bodies as a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. That defines my ministry as a chorister. For me, singing in church is not as a performance for the benefit of an audience, but as all that is within me praising God’s holy name.
When I sing I offer. At Mass I offer all that is within me. I do not think of what I get out of Mass, only what I give to it. St. Augustine tells us in his Dissertation on the Psalms, “to sing is to pray twice” as he correctly noted that the psalms are replete with references to song in worship: “It is a good thing to give thanks to the LORD, and to sing praises to your Name, O Most High” (92:1) “Come, let us sing to the LORD” (95:1); “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the whole earth Sing to the LORD and bless his Name” (96:1-2); “Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things” (98:1) “Be joyful in the LORD, all you lands; serve the LORD with gladness and come before his presence with a song” (100:1) “I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being“(104:34).
Among protestants, none other than Martin Luther recognized music in the liturgy. Although he attacked what he saw as “impurities” of the Roman Church, he continued his high regard for its musical traditions. And yes, Luther did specify the chanting of the Gospel in a unique way based on the Gregorian model for chanting the Passion Story: for the Evangelist, the note A; for Christ, the note F; and for everyone else, the note C. Why would Luther want the Gospel sung? The Collect for Proper 28 in Ordinary Time exhorts us to, “read mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the scriptures. The words we sing in church are not meant to enter one ear and leave the other.
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. Children hear music or sing while watching television, riding in the car, at school, … Music is a socially engaging way to learn, and especially appropriate for the developmental levels of young children. Many young children learn to recite the alphabet by singing the ABCs, and educational television programs for young children use a lot of music in their programming. Many adults still remember lessons connected to music from their childhood.”
The Matthean gospel tell us, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “ (Matt.18:3-4). To truly internalize the Gospel of Jesus, we must allow scripture to touch our souls. We must listen to the singing of the gospel with the innocence and openness of children learning the alphabet and remembering it. Surely the Gospel is as important as the alphabet?
When the Gospel is sung, 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 “What do I get out of it.” Neither Mary nor Zechariah nor the heavenly host nor Simeon were focused on “What do I get out of it,” but on God. Why can’t we do that, too?