When I was a first year student in high school, one of my courses was in music appreciation. We began by studying Gregorian chant. That led to Palestrina, Victoria and Bach. With each class I was being drawn into the enchantment of music and feeling pulled ever closer to God.
And then, one day, we came to Handel and his great Messiah. Somewhere as we heard “The Glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all Flesh shall see it together…” I had this overwhelming experience of God in my life. I knew at that moment that God existed; convinced not by logic but by the music. When we came to the Halleluiah Chorus, I imagined that Handel himself had gone to heaven to bring us such a gift. Nothing outside of some kind of divine revelation could account for it. From that day onwards Handel became my constant companion-comforting me and consoling me, lifting me up when I felt down and strengthening me when I felt weak.
There is power in music, isn’t there? St. Augustine preached, “He who sings prays twice.” An old Jewish proverb says, “When the Messiah comes there will be singing.” Read the Book of Revelation and the angels and saints in heaven always seem to be singing and praising God. In the Hebrew Scriptures the Book of Psalms is Israel’s hymnal- expressing praise, thanksgiving, lament, sorrow, anger and confession… all the host of human emotions are present in that one book.
Music has a way of strengthening us, sustaining us and getting us through the tough times of life. Sometimes, when life feels too burdensome to carry on, the only thing we can do is sing, because the heart will not settle for anything less.
Two week ago, we Anglicans had our annual synod at the London Convention Center. It was three long days, with lots of talks, presentations and sermons, and frankly, by Tuesday afternoon everyone was ready to go home. Bishop Terry Dance was the last speaker and gave the best address of the entire synod. When he finished, we all stood and sang the hymn, “How Great Thou Art!” accompanied by a country music star on the screen. Those few minutes, singing that glorious hymn, did more to bolster our spirits than all the talks and presentations, no matter how good they were. It was a moment that stirred us into action and sent us home with hope. That’s the power of music.
Music has the power to give us hope when we need it most, to give us the courage to face the future with faith, to give us the assurance that despite all the awful things that can happen in this world, God is with us, always with us, to lead us through the darkness into the light.
I’ll never forget former New York Mayor Ed Koch saying that his favorite song is the Catholic hymn, “Be Not Afraid.” Now Ed Koch is Jewish, but as mayor he attended many a Catholic funeral for a police officer gunned down in the line of duty or a firefighter who lost his life trying to save others. In many of those funerals that he attended, the hymn “Be Not Afraid” was sung. Mayor Koch said that if he had his way, the words of that hymn would be on his gravestone, because they had helped him get through the tough times of life.
You shall cross the barren desert
but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety
though you do not know the way.
You shall speak your words in foreign lands
and all will understand.
You shall see the face of God and live.
Be not afraid,
I go before you always.
Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.
After the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States, Americans were numbed, panicked and frightened. I was rector of a church in San Diego at the time, and I remember having to call all the staff together-it was a large multi-staff parish-and try to calm everyone down to focus on ministering to our members. People were in tears. On Tuesday afternoon, we changed the entire worship service to deal with the new reality of the nation being attacked and thousands dead. New lessons, new sermon, new hymns, new anthem-all designed to comfort those who mourn and strengthen the fainthearted and lift up those in despair. Because my parish had a number of active and retired military among its members, especially in the Navy, on Sunday we sang, “Eternal Father, strong to save.” I can tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye at any of the services as we sang that hymn.
O Trinity of love and power,
thy children shield in danger’s hour;
from rock and tempest, fire and foe,
protect them wheresoe’er they go;
thus ever more shall rise to thee
glad hymns of praise from land and sea.
Yes, sometimes the only thing you can do is sing. Music allows us to express our deepest heartfelt emotions when there are no words adequate to utter.
There’s another thing music does for us: it draws us together in ways where otherwise we would remain separate. To give another story, when I served in the diocese of San Diego, Heather, Allison and I were always invited to the diocesan Cursillio Christmas party, which was held at a parishioner’s home. After everyone enjoyed the eggnog and holiday treats, the group of about 80 people would gather around the piano and begin singing Christmas carols. And then, something almost magical would happen. As we sang together, there grew this feeling of being an extended family, even though people in the room had deep theological differences with each other that were splitting apart the Episcopal Church. For that one night there was no “them” and “us,” no liberal or conservative, no progressive or traditionalist. We were all united in song praising our great God as we sang together, “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant…O come, let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.”
Yes, when we sing, we sing as the family of God. I have often wondered why God created us with voices that are so different. The soprano can hit such high notes; the bass can get so low. But then we blend our voices into one glorious sound. To me, it easily qualifies as proof of God’s existence. Why would blind evolution give us such a gift? It makes no sense. Music calls us together into one beautiful family. At Christmas we sing “Joy to the World” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and I believe the angels sing with us. At Easter we sing, “Jesus Christ is risen today” and “The strife is o’er, the battle done” – and I know that Jesus lives, and one day we shall live with him.
Singing allows us to express our deepest feelings. Singing draws us closer together. And most importantly of all, music speaks to us of God. The great Swiss reformed theologian Karl Barth once said that it was impossible to hear Mozart and still not believe in God. Many people have said the same thing about Bach.
Several years ago there was a story of a church in Jackson, Tenn. that used volunteer piano teachers to give music lessons to under-privileged kids. The idea worked. Self-esteem and academic performance among these kids were enhanced. The program even caught the attention of the Rockefeller Foundation for Fine Arts in New York, which sent world-renowned pianist Lorin Hollander to go to Jackson and take a look.
When Hollander spoke to an audience of church and school officials, he shared his own experience of being a battered child. He said that there are a lot of children out there who are mortally wounded in the soul. These are children who are battered spiritually and creatively. And then Hollander said this. He said that music can bring the spirit of love into the lives of these children who have become lost. By allowing them to discover creativity in music, they can begin to express the divine love of God. Finally, Lorin Hollander had this to say: “When I was a little child and first heard Bach, I told my sister we didn’t have to be afraid of the dark anymore; someone is watching over us. I heard it in the music.”
Music speaks to us of God. That’s why music has always been part of the church. That’s why today people who say they are “spiritual but not religious” will listen to Gregorian chant or appreciate Anglican Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer or download a popular artist who sings “On Angels’ Wings.” What logic or persuasion or argument cannot do, music does-it draws us to an encounter with God.
So keep up the good work, dear organists. Play your music knowing that you are mediators between God and human beings. Help us to sing as God’s people with a unified voice. And pray that in your music we will sense the Holy Spirit at work in our lives drawing us closer to one another and to our great God.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont. He gave this talk to the Royal Canadian College of Organists on May 30.