Several of us were brainstorming not long ago about ways to weave music into the fabric of our children and youth ministries when suddenly I burst into song: “Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve, the neighbors we have from you. Kneels at the feet of his friends, silently washing their feet, Master who acts as a slave to them…” And I didn’t stop there, I kept right on singing the verses because it is a song I learned as a child and remains very much alive in me to this day.
As I reflect on that, I realize that the song is important in several ways: my image of God is informed by the words I sing—that God is humble, giving, loving; not demanding, remote or scary—and also that the years I sang in the children’s choir, and every time I dare to sing within a group, was and is an act of participation in the Body of Christ in a tangible and powerful way. Often I think we lose sight of music’s power to inform us and to enable us to participate in communion in a powerful way.
One of my favorite memories happened my first year here at St. Simon’s when, during the sermon on the first Sunday after Christmas, I invited the community (in their PJs) to gather around the piano and gustily sing Christmas Carols. It was wonderful to see the delight transforming the faces and experience the individuals who had come to participate in worship suddenly participating in one another, experiencing profound communion that awakened within a larger unity and intimacy. I heard comments for weeks, the vast majority of which were positive, and still occasionally someone will remember how they felt in that moment of one-ness.
Music and liturgy are important; both shape us and have the power to unite us as we say or sing together prayers and responses. As I child, I knew the ‘old’ prayer book prayers by heart, and for a long time if I started the Rite One post communion prayer I would say the older version. One of the gifts of the Episcopal tradition is that we do use prayers over and over so that they sink deeper into our hearts. So why do we use different prayers in each season at St. Simon’s and why do we bring in ‘new stuff’ that isn’t familiar and doesn’t just flow off the tongue?
Because as powerful as knowing things by heart is, ours is a living tradition. Jesus implored us to draw from that which is old and that which is new, just as he himself did. As we plan the whole season and each liturgy within it, we pay close attention both to the words and to what the music evokes, seeking to balance that which is familiar and that which we hope to grow into being known by heart. Many of our beloved songs and prayers were formed in a different era and articulated an understanding of God that made sense in that time. The familiar can become an idol and lure us into a museum philosophy of church rather than an ongoing new creation. In our understanding of God and of what we are to be about as kingdom people, it is important to embrace newness interwoven in the familiar and for our liturgy and music to shape us and expand us, saturating us in God’s love.
Listen closely to the words this season and allow yourself to experiment by participating with your whole body—sing with gusto and intention, allows the words to permeate. Enter worship with an expectation that God is present and revealing Godself, and be open to communion with God and one another, that you may experience the wholeness and rebinding that is at the heart of what religion promises.
Hope to see you Sunday,