Singing a New Song – Pastor’s Reflection (November 1, 2015)
These days find one of their principal Scriptural warrants in the Book of Revelation which offers a vision of life with God that dazzles all the senses. Consider the passage from Chapter 7 chosen for the first reading at the Mass of All Saints. St. John writes, “…I had a vision of great multitude, which no one could count, from over nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb. ‘”
It staggers the imagination to imagine the holy men and women of every time and place standing in serene worship before God. The image captures the joy and freedom God’s beloved will know at journey’s end. Not only have these men and women overcome sin’s damaging effects, but they have transcended the barriers human society erects between people in every age.
We could dismiss this imagery as so much wishful thinking if the reality of it was not under our noses. As far away as the saints in glory might seem to us, we can spy them becoming themselves in the next pew, even in our own pew. Is that luminous throng standing before the Throne so entirely different from our crowd at Sunday Mass? The terrestrial church we see on Sundays is also gathered from all kinds of tribes, and pocketbooks, addresses, and agendas. We also stand before God and sing His praises, even though we lack the understanding we hope for in the Day of the Lord. In fact, the worship we offer now does prepare for that which will be eternal.
We can make the connection most easily when we are singing, and singing for its own sake.
Oftentimes we sing to accompany an action, and that may give the impression that somehow we are filling an otherwise awkward silence. I remember the invitation from my childhood, “Let us stand and greet our celebrant, singing hymn #206.” This was an erroneous way to think of the entrance song, but it gave the impression of utility, even if it made the celebrant feel like a head of state. Sometimes our singing in such moments gives important definition and interpretation to what is taking place, whether that be the ministers approaching the altar, or the faithful walking to Holy Communion. This correlation of word and action could fill its own bulletin letter.
But there are other times when we sing for the direct praise of God and His works. The pre-eminent place in the Mass for this ministry of ours is the Gloria. At this point in the Mass we stand still and sing this ancient hymn, or in the Solemn Mass, the choir may sing it for us. The Liturgy here tasks us with concentrating on a text. As we sing it, the text, passing inside us week after week, forms our perception of the dynamic and unfailing love connecting the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the love that shapes us now and will welcome us eternally.
The Mass offers another instance of such common singing, and this is the Hymn of Thanksgiving we sing together at both churches, upon the completion of Holy Communion. Here again, the Congregation, having tasted and seen that the Lord is good gives voice to a common text that interprets the shared experience of Communion on that day, whether it be in Lent, or Easter, or a Feast like All Saints. Obviously, we also need to give room for the individual experience of Holy Communion proper to each one of us. Silence will be the irreplaceable setting for that, but silent prayer itself gives rise to the hymn which follows.
Since we are not distracted at this point by a procession, we have the opportunity to follow the significant texts of the hymns as they develop from verse to verse. The hymns often present beautifully articulated imagery for the mystery of the Eucharist and for the seasons of the Church year. In so many ways Scriptural texts have pride of place in the Liturgy in their capacity to shape us morally and spiritually. But in the hymns we also give scope to the non-biblical perspectives on our intimacy with Christ.
Liturgically, and otherwise, may these days leave us grateful for having been pulled by the Spirit into the crowd of Christ’s Body and to find in its singing a wonderful solidarity with the crowd on high, and the crowd on the way.