Song


When preachers and musicians argue about whether the homily or the music is the most important part of the liturgy, the musicians always have the last word. Usually they say, "No one ever left church on Sunday humming the homily."

And they are right. What we sing here on Sundays has a way of getting into our souls. Once we recognize that the Sunday Mass is not something that we watch but something that we do, all of us, then we ask: How? How can we say that forty or four hundred or fourteen hundred persons in a room around a book and a table can all be the ones who make this liturgy? Song is one of the answers to that. Perhaps it is the first answer. We come here and we assemble and then we have a choice of how we understand every song that comes from us. Some would observe what goes on here and say: Well, yes, the ritual takes place, and now and then we stop and sing a song or maybe we sing as background while something else is taking place. That's one way to explain our singing here.
The other way to understand what happens here is this: The people assembled here, all of us, sing our liturgy. The liturgy isn't something that stops so we can insert a song; it isn't something we can add singing to as background music. Rather, the liturgy is something people sing. Singing is one way we can say that this liturgy is done by everyone here. It isn't something extra, something to make things longer or more solemn. Our singing is us doing the liturgy. It is the church doing what the church needs to do.

We Catholics who are old enough remember the days of high Mass and low Mass. High Mass had singing, though not often by all the people. Sometimes one person played the organ and sang all the parts. Sometimes a choir learned elaborate settings of the words. And then there was low Mass with no singing. When the bishops of the world at Vatican Council II began the renewal of the liturgy, they did away with this distinction. Singing was to be restored to the people at every Sunday Mass. The past forty years have witnessed many efforts to give song to the people, but it has clearly been difficult. Lots of people went off in lots of directions. Many well﷓intentioned but sometimes silly things have been written and sung. But much has been learned also, and there is need now to get on with the challenge.

Why is it challenging for us? Why don't we want to get in here and raise the roof with our songs? I can think of two reasons for starters.
First, we Americans don't sing; we hire people to do our singing for us. Thanks to the amplifier, the iPod, and Muzak, we have music in our ears more than any people ever. But we don't have it in our throats. We listen. We're the audience. Just walking through these church doors doesn't change that. Song has been woven thoroughly into the ordinary lives of ordinary people through most of human history. We have had work songs, holiday songs, lullabies, love songs, campfire songs, political songs, children's nursery-rhyme songs and jump rope songs, protest songs, patriotic songs. These have been songs for the people, for us. But there isn't much of any of that any more. So we come here cold. We come here expecting someone else to do the singing. And that is a terrible clash. No one else can sing the Mass for us. If we won't do it, all of us together, it won't be done.

A second reason then that makes singing here such a challenge: We believe, deep down, that it really doesn't matter if "I" sing or not. How could it matter what I do? I'm just the person on the end of the nineteenth pew. I may be one who slips in and out without a word to anyone, or I may really look forward to gathering here with people I know.

Both challenges affect all of us. We're not used to being singers; we like to listen. We're not used to thinking of ourselves as the ones responsible for the liturgy; we just come to pray. No amount of urging, demanding, begging, is going to change that for a lot of us.

Maybe all that can change it is good experience. To be even once in the midst of an assembly of people who sing with delight and from their hearts can open the eyes-and the mouth. Suddenly I know what song is meant to be, a way that diverse human beings can have solidarity with one another. Suddenly I know that this gathering isn't about my praying-that can go on all week-it is about the church praying, and the prayer of this church is louder and softer than any speaking voice; it needs to hold onto sounds longer or let sounds go more quickly than any speaking voice.

When we have the experience each Sunday of a liturgy sung by all, we know without anything being said that this song of the church takes many sounds and that we need all of them. We need the short songs like the Alleluia and the "Holy, holy," and the Great Amen. Songs like these are how a crowd of people can make the church's prayer; we don't all have to say everything, but we all sing our agreement and our praise.

We, the church, need songs in which our part is just to repeat the same thing over and over, litanies in which we sing "Lord, have mercy," or "Have mercy on us," or "Hear our prayer." These shape us into the church, the people on this earth who were marked by baptism to watch out for all the troubles and sorrows and demand God's mercy.

We, the church, need those songs like the one we sing each Sunday after the first reading, the psalms from the Bible. These are our first songs and our last songs. They are the songs that teach us everything about how we sing. They are so old and from a culture that was hardly anything like ours, but that is just where they are great: They are what binds us to our ancestors and to one another. They are hard for us to take, but take them we must.

And we, the church, need all those other songs that are the poetry of the church through the centuries and today, the hymns and spirituals and carols, the poetry set to music in so many styles of singing. From old hymns from the Latin like "O come, O come, Emmanuel" or Pange lingua to distinctly American songs like "Precious Lord, take my hand" or "What wondrous love" to modern compositions that may or may not stand the test of time. This is our music for going in and going out on Sundays, music that often teaches more than theology books do about what being a Christian means.

In the end, Catholics are human beings and human beings have known for a long time that they leave the ordinary speaking voice at the door when they come to do the things that matter most in life. What we know that makes singing even more vital for us is this: When we come through these doors, what we do we do as the church. Singing-when the voice of the individual is taken up in the voice of the assembly-is how the church does what it must do and delights to do: the repentance, the praise, the thanks, the intercession that is the singing voice of Christ in this world.

Copyright © 1992, Gabe Huck. Used by permission