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Why do we sing?

Posted on April 19th, 2012

This evening I went to the first rehearsal for the Salisbury Diocesan Choral Festival.  I’ve never taken part before, but I’m excited about joining together with (potentially) 300 people to sing in Salisbury Cathedral, Sherborne Abbey and All Saints in Westbury!

I love singing and always have, and I am well aware that the majority of people I meet would agree that they at least like it.  But WHY?  What is it about singing which makes us enjoy it?  There is enough biblical evidence to say that it’s a good way to praise God and I could do on for hours about why it’s used in worship, but it doesn’t answer the question.

To help with this musing here is a quote from Josie Long about music in the Orthodox Church (which is usually chanting and quite dissimilar from other church music):

In his work, Byzantine Sacred Music, Constantine Cavarnos states: “The aim of this music is not to display the fine voices of the chanters, or to entertain the congregation, or to evoke aesthetic experience…The aim of Byzantine sacred music is spiritual. This music is, in the first place, a means of worship and veneration; and in the second place, a means of self-perfection, of eliciting and cultivating man’s higher thoughts and feelings of opposing and eliminating his lower, undesirable ones.

“Its use as a means of worship consists in employing it to glorify God, and to express feelings of supplication, hope, and gratitude, and love to Him. Its use as a means of veneration consists in employing it to honour the Holy Virgin and the rest of the Saints. Its use as a means of cultivating higher thoughts and feelings and opposing the lower ones is inseparable from these. There is not one kind of music employed as a means of worshipping God and honoring the saints, and another kind employed for transforming our inner life, but the same music, while having as its direct aim the former, incidentally leads also to the fulfillment of the latter.”

I like the focus on God here, and I wonder if that’s what we enjoy about music?  Not only does it make a beautiful sound that is pleasing to the ear, but it also allows us to really BE with something that is beyond our worries and concerns, our distractions and our thoughts.  We can engage with singing (or with music in general) in such a way as we just exist for a little while.  We become what we are – human beings – rather than what we often seem to be – human doings!  Here is another beautiful quote which really struck me on this, this time from the Catholic Church:

“To sing with the universe means, then, to follow the track of the Logos and to come close to Him. All true human art is an assimilation to the artist, to Christ, to the mind of the Creator.” – Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

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Meditations on Palm Sunday

Posted on April 1st, 2012

Alleluia, how the people cheer
And palm leaves rustle as the king draws near.
~ John Beavis

Entering Holy Week is an experience which is different for each person.  I can remember being at a Taizé service during Lent some 8 or 9 years ago and asking a visiting monk if he enjoyed the service.  His response was that he could not enjoy anything during Lent, which at the time I thought was really peculiar – surely the salvation that comes from Easter is something to rejoice?  I now understand much better where he is coming from, having spent time meditating on the different meanings to be found in the events leading up the resurrection.  But if there is one day which really is about rejoicing, then that day must be today!

Picture this: a man arrives in a city riding a donkey.  He is surrounded by his closest friends and followers, and there are crowds packing the streets to welcome him.  He has achieved celebrity status and everyone is keen to get a look at him – those wanting healing, those to worship, those who want a revolution and those who are just curious.  They lay both their cloaks and palm leaves on the ground to welcome the King just as they are commanded:

And you shall take to you on the first day the fruits of the fairest tree, and branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook: And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God. – Leviticus 23:40

 And the streets echo with praise for the One they are all waiting for, whom they receive with joy and love.

There are different traditions surrounding the marking of Palm Sunday as with all Christian festivals and holy days.  One, from the Orthodox Church, focuses on welcoming Christ into our lives on Palm Sunday, reminding its followers of the nearness of God.  I really like this idea!  Bringing the meaning of Palm Sunday into our own lives is simple in many ways:

When Christ entered into Jerusalem the people spread garments in the way: when He enters into our hearts, we pull off our own righteousness, and not only lay it under Christ’s feet but even trample upon it ourselves. – Augustus Toplady

Throughout the year we have opportunities to reflect on aspects of the Gospel, giving us the chance to try again and again to commit ourselves to God.  Perhaps Palm Sunday is a chance for us to welcome Christ again; perhaps it is a chance to reaffirm our faith; perhaps it is a calling to think about the strength of our commitment to God; perhaps it is a time to celebrate before the pain of the crucifixion.  However we use it, may it be a day of blessing for all!

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The Feast of the Annunciation

Posted on March 25th, 2012

Today is the day in the calendars of most denominations of Christianity that the Annunciation of the Lord is celebrated.  If you’ve not come across this feast day before, this  Troparion (or hymn) from the Orthodox tradition will explain its significance:

Today is the beginning of our salvation,
And the revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
“Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!”

The messages and lessons held within this event are extensive.  With this one event, found in both Matthew and Luke, we are taught that God has a plan for each of us, that God’s angels are His messengers on Earth, that God is willing to take birth and incarnate for the salvation of all, that Mary submitted to the will of God regardless of the cost to herself and that all things are possible to God.

The Angel Gabriel, speaking to Mary about God’s plans for her, and her acceptance of those plans is an incredible thing.  Thinking about this reminded me of Mother Teresa.  It is impossible to deny that Mother Teresa aimed to put the Gospel into practice throughout her life, and she is internationally revered for this.  But she wrote to a friend of hers, Rev. Michael van der Peet, in 1979 about the absence of God in her life.  In an article on this, Time Magazine said, ‘That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta, and — except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated. Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain.’

(Read the article here: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1655720,00.html#ixzz1q9SiAYqx)

There seems to be something familiar in this: Mary accepted the role of mother to God incarnate and thereafter was left almost entirely alone (on the surface, anyway!), and Mother Teresa took up her calling to help the poor of Calcutta and was then left bereft of the presence of God we might assume she felt.

The article linked above gives an incredible insight into the suffering Mother Teresa underwent during her lifetime.  Is that the same suffering that Mary underwent, particularly during her pregnancy?  And most importantly, is it that suffering which we all feel sometimes, regardless of our faith or background?  Is the role of Mary and the Annunciation to encourage us to believe even when we feel like we’ve lost all faith?  As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars’.  Can we learn to rejoice in our doubt as we rejoice in our faith?  Surely the despair of a believer who’s lost their faith is testament to unshakable certainty that God is there, holding them in His arms and keeping them safe.

If Mary had not taken the leap of faith to carry the Son of God, we may not have known Him.  If Mother Teresa had not kept on working to help and heal the poor, we would have lost an icon for Christian goodness and kindness.  If we shy away from what we feel God is calling us to do, what will be lose?

This is the message that the Annunciation is bringing me this year – that God is there for us whether we recognise it or not.  And if we can just learn to become His instrument, we can be everything that He made us to be.

This beautiful song is my offering to you on this blessed day.  May you meet with God today and feel His arms around you.

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