Why sing at Mass?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Friday 14, September 2012 | Category:   Liturgy
Singing

My question is: Why don’t we sing more? The importance of singing in ritual is long-established. Can we have a ball game in this country without a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner? I’m amazed that the same people who belt out a song in the shower, croon along in the car, and know all the words and moves to Thriller don’t crack the songbook in the pews. Granted, not all church music suits your taste or mine. I’m not wild about the “Happy Birthday” song either. But when it’s time to sing it, the liturgy of the moment demands that I play my part.

Saint Augustine, who said many things well, insisted: “Singing is for one who loves.” That is the same Bishop Augustine who considered banning music from his church altogether. Augustine loved music so much he found it far too fetching and distracting to enjoy at liturgies. In the end he adhered to the older proverb: “Whoever sings well prays twice over.” So pass out the song sheets.

Saint Paul was an earlier proponent of church music, back when church was held in somebody’s house. He advocated that believers sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). While Augustine got it right that singing is for lovers, happy people in general whistle while they work, and grateful people feel as if they have something to sing about. That could explain a lot of things about why folks in church are reluctant to sing. Ever look around at all those glum faces? Without a significant increase in the spirit of joy and gratitude, don’t expect an increase in responsive singers.

In the Bible a lot of joy and gratitude gets expressed in random acts of music. “Sing to the Lord a new song!” the psalmists say—in the Bible’s own songbook, the Psalms. Many of the big players have a song to sing, especially the women: Miriam at the Red Sea rescue; Hannah at the birth of her child; Deborah after her battleground victory achieved with the help of another woman, Jael; Judith after defeating Holofernes; and Mary when she visits Elizabeth and shares her annunciation. King David himself wrote music, played, and danced—which annoyed his wife, who thought it made him seem frivolous in front of the nation. To those who love and feel joy and gratitude, a little frivolity in public is in order.

Scripture
Exodus 15:1-18; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Judges 5; Judith 16:1-18; the Book of Psalms; Luke 1:46-55; Colossians 3:16

Music
Psalms from the Soul by Rawn Harbor, ValLimar & Frank Jansen, and Val Parker (OCP)
Psalms for the Church Year by David Haas and Marty Haugen (GIA Publications)

Books
The Liturgical Music Answer Book by Peggy Lovrien (Resource Publications, 1999)
Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (USCCB, 2008)

Image credit: 123RF Stock Photo

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