Yesterday, I preached the first in a series of sermons on liturgical music. Here's a snippet of the sermon.
We’ve all been swept away by music. Maybe it was a live performance by a favorite band or of a favorite symphony. Perhaps it happens while you’re fixing dinner and Alexa plays a tune from your teen years that you haven’t heard in years. Maybe it was the shock of a new discovery. You went to a concert to hear one band or song, and discovered another one that changed your life. At these moments, it feels as if you merge with the music.
Two of my most memorable musical moments were shocks of discovery. Years ago, Noel and I went to King’s College to hear the Tallis Scholars perform Tallis’s 40-part motet, Spem in Alium. Allegri’s Miserere (Psalm 51) was on the program too. After the Tallis, I watched the choir disperse to various places around the chapel, but I didn’t know what was happening until I heard the soprano, from behind me, soar to the fan vault and then break through to the night sky.
Then, a few years ago, Ken Myers played a recording of James MacMillan’s Miserere during a Theopolis course. There was a moment late in the piece that took my breath away, and still does, every time I listen to it, even though I know it’s coming.
Music elevates everything. It fills and glorifies the space it’s in. Depending on the music, it can elevate or depress your mood. It elevates and glorifies words, even words that don’t deserve to be elevated.
You’ve probably heard someone – a speaker at youth group or summer camp – intone the inane lyrics of some pop song in a sarcastic monotone. You know the schtick: "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. / She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. / She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. / She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah . . . yeah."
Good for a laugh. And you have to admit, pop songs thrive on awful poetry, ranging from the trite to the outright nonsensical. After summer camp, you vow never to like the song again.
But then you hear the same lyrics set to music, and you melt. You forget the ponderous talk at summer camp. You sing to the windshield, dance around the room, or bury your face in your pillow and cry yourself to sleep.
Music takes us by storm. It strikes us to the heart, cuts to the soul. “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts could hail souls out of men’s bodies?” Strange indeed. Music seems to move. But why should music move us?
It moves us because it moves God. It moves us because God is musical, and music takes us to the edges of creation and gives glimpses of what's behind the veil.
The Father sings His eternal Word in the music of His Spirit. The Triune song didn’t start when the Father sang out the first “Let there be light.” The Triune God has been singing from eternity, and will sing to eternity. We might even take a step further: The life of God is musical life. And, since God is His life, God is music.
We always have to imagine God by reference to created things. That’s perfectly fine. Created things exist to manifest the glory of God. We use cosmomorphic language for God just because creation is theomorphic.
But we run into problems when we try to find visual or spatial metaphors for the Trinity. Is Father, Son and Spirit like water, ice, and steam? No, Patrick; that’s modalism. Three people dancing? No; that’s tritheism. A three-leaf clover? Modalism again, Patrick.
What happens when we try musical metaphors instead of visual ones? Think about a chord. Do the notes blob together into one tone? No; they remain distinct. Does one note call attention to itself, sucking the verve from the other notes? No; each sound sounds through the other sounds; each enhances each; each is what it is, each is more than it is, because it's joined by and to the others. Do the notes fight for space? No; they harmonize, peacefully. Music is a dance of sound, a dance where you can’t know the dancer from the dance.
All three sounds occupy exactly the same space. All three notes take up the whole space. Unlike solid objects, they occupy the same space without displacing each other. Think of three people saying different things at the same time. That’s called chaos. Then think of three people singing different things at the same time. That’s called opera.
From the other direction: Is God’s beauty like the beauty of a landscape? Like the beauty of a night sky full of stars? Like the beauty of a sunrise? Like the beauty of a majestic painting?
All those capture the beauty of God, but they don’t capture the dynamism and movement and liveliness of God’s beauty. God’s beauty is more like musical beauty.
The more you think about the qualities of music, the more mysterious they seem. The more you consider music, the more divine it seems, but divine in a peculiar, Trinitarian, way. God is an eternal communion of Father, Son, and Spirit. God is one eternal choir in three voices. God’s life is a perfect harmony of Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity sings, is song.
Lovely speculations, perhaps. But is it practical? Does this have anything to do with the music we make? Much in every way.
Jesus sang while on earth. He still sings in heaven. He sings through us. When Christ dwells richly in us, we’re filled with musical Wisdom to teach and admonish in song (Colossians 3:16). The Chief Singer sounds through each singer, making the choir’s voice an enrichment of the Choirmaster’s, the polyphony of the totus Christus.
That’s what the writer to Hebrews says (Hebrews 2:9-18). He quotes from Psalm 22, the Psalm of the Passion. The Psalm ends in victory and gladness, as David hopes for the time when He will “declare thy name among my brethren, in the midst of the conversation, will I sing thy praise.”
Jesus sang the beginning of Psalm 22 alone from the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” In His ascension, His “I” becomes a "we." Instead of a lament, He sings a hymn of praise.
Jesus doesn’t disdain to call us brothers. He doesn’t try to steal the show. He’s no prima donna; he doesn’t insist on singing solo. He declares the Father’s name among His brothers and sings in the midst of the congregation. He sings among Gentiles (Psalm 18:49), so the songs of Zion ascend to God in every one of Pentecost’s tongues.
Our singing at church isn’t just for our enjoyment. It’s not even that we stand on earth to sing to God in heaven. Rather: “A congregation singing a hymn of praise to the Father is doubling the Son’s praise, and the surge of rhythm and melody is the surge of the Spirit’s glorification of the Father and the Son” (Robert Jenson).
That’s what happened here, today. It’s what will happen in a few moments as we sing again. It’s what happens every time we sing: We're caught up by the Spirit into the Son’s praise, caught up into the eternal music of the Triune choir, the everlasting chord, the eternal three-voiced Fugue.
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