Rejoice and Sing!

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C.

Whenever I feel afraid
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect I’m afraid.


 Today, as we continue to build up our Christmas crib, we have some unusual objects to place in it: panpipes, a drum and a didgeridoo. Music is part of the story of the first Christmas: angels appeared in the heights, singing Glory to God in the highest! And although the Bible doesn’t say so, we can make a good guess that when shepherds were watching their flocks by night, they sang and played pipes to pass the time.

When we come together for Sunday Mass, we sing. But perhaps we don’t find that easy. Today I’d like to talk about three things that get in the way of singing, and how we can overcome them.

  • It doesn’t seem right.

Is singing hymns at Mass a Catholic thing to do? It’s certainly a Jewish thing – we read in the Bible that Jesus and his disciples sang psalms at the Last Supper. There are plenty of songs in the New Testament too – most famously Our Lady’s Magnificat but also words in St Paul’s letters which the scholars think were hymns sung by the first Christians.

Things changed 500 years ago when the Protestant Reformers said that worship only made sense if the congregation could fully understand and join in with what was going on. Our Catholic leaders wanted to make a point of saying that even if the priest said prayers in Latin and the people didn’t join in, we were still doing “what Jesus asked us to do”. For the next five centuries, Catholic music at Mass was mostly Latin chants by skilled choirs – and in places like Britain and Ireland where Mass had to be celebrated in hiding, there was good reason not to sing at all. But under Blessed Paul VI, after the Second Vatican Council, we were once again asked to sing together at Mass.

  • We don’t feel like singing.

To be sure, there are days when we don’t feel like rejoicing. The last few weeks have contained many moments of darkness. Terrorists violated Paris with gunfire. Here in Cardiff, Peter O’Brien was killed in an industrial explosion, and our SlimmingWorld organizer, Anna-Louise Bates, lost her husband and young son in a road accident. One of the stranded Filipino sailors whom we supported last summer sadly died on Friday after a long illness. Any loss of life is tragic, and such loss in the weeks before Christmas doubly so.

Now, with this sad news ringing in our ears, we gather to celebrate Eucharist. Every Sunday is meant to be a joyful celebration of Jesus defeating death. This Sunday in particular is called Gaudete Sunday – rejoicing Sunday. Our first reading began with a command: “Shout for joy, daughter of Sion. Rejoice, exult with all your heart!” And lest you be in any doubt, we are the daughter of Sion – members of the Church, the new Israel of God. Rejoicing, exulting, shouting aloud are not optional extras for us – they are divine commands!

There’s a prayer within Mass, where I say to God, as priest of this community, “Look not on our sins but on the faith of your church.” O God, don’t dwell on our failures, but on our trust in you. In the same way, I must say as priest to this community: “Let us not be downcast or dwell on our sorrows. When we gather for Mass, we’re here to celebrate life.” When our thoughts are racing with questions, saying “Why doesn’t God do something about these outrages?” it’s my job to remind us that God has done something about it. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life. As Zephaniah put it, “The Lord has repealed your sentence.” Jesus walked among us not to rule this earth with an iron rod, but to fling open the gates of heaven.

I started with a song from the musical, The King and I, where the English governess, Anna, is teaching one of her children to keep his spirits up. “If you feel afraid, whistle a happy tune.” But then she realises what effect the tune is having on herself:

The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell
For when I fool the people
I fear I fool myself as well.

Sometimes, we sing because we’re happy. Sometimes we sing – or whistle – or smile – because we want to make ourselves feel happy. And what’s true for earthly happiness is even more appropriate for divinely ordained rejoicing. We gather every Sunday to sing Alleluia, Holy Holy, Hosanna, because we know the message is true. Whether we come to worship in the best of moods or bearing the greatest of burdens, we are called to choose to rejoice. Singing for joy is always an appropriate response to God’s love for us, whatever is happening in the world around us.

  • I don’t know the songs!

We have a very real and practical problem here. We come from many different countries and cultures, and for some of us, English isn’t our first language. Together with our parish music leaders, I am looking at different ways we can reflect the different traditions present in our community – that’s why we had some Malayalam songs in October. But even in today’s Mass, we’re trying a few things to make it as easy as possible.

We started Mass with The King of Glory. It’s short and energetic, meant to get us in the mood for rejoicing. It has a simple tune, which repeats five times. If you didn’t know it when it began, you had a chance to listen once or twice, join in gently on the next verse and get the hang of it by verse 5. I’d like to encourage you, do try to join in even if it’s unfamiliar – if you don’t try, you’ll never get comfortable with it. We’re going to finish Mass with another energetic hymn, Long Ago, Prophets Knew – but we’re only singing three verses so we don’t get to Bethlehem before Christmas. Just listen to the first verse if you need to, but please join in as strongly as possible for verse 2.

After communion, we’re going to sing number 90, When the King Shall Come Again. Now that’s a song we might only sing once a year, and the given tune might not be familiar. I’ve asked our musicians to use the tune of Good King Wenceslaus – that’s an old trick called one song to the tune of anotherSo when you open the hymnbook, there’s no need to think “Oh no, I don’t know that one!” – just say to yourself, “This is easy, I know the tune already!”

Our next hymn, 82, is Come Lord, to a world of longing. This is a newer song, and not so familiar to us, but we sang it last week and we are doing again to let it bed in. The music notes are printed in the book, and even if you can’t sight-read, they will give you a sense of when the music goes up or down. The best way to learn is by repetition, so when we come to the end of the song we’re going to start at the beginning again, and keep going until I have incensed the altar.

A final request – if there is just one thing we could do to make it easier to join in with the singing, please tell me or one of our musicians what that one thing would be for you. We all share the responsibility of making this gathering for Mass the most joyful occasion possible. And even in these dark days, let’s choose to worship with all our hearts. If we can choose to sing when we’re sad, lonely or afraid, if we can whistle “Don’t worry – be happy”, if we can even play an uplifting song in the car to lift our spirits, then we can certainly choose to pour out our hearts in song when we gather each Sunday at the Lord’s table. And get this – Zephaniah tells us that God is dancing right now because we’re here to worship Him. The King and I is a musical about an English governess and the King of Siam. Our Catholic Mass is an epic production about an ordinary soul and the Lord of the Universe. But in our case it’s the Lord who leads with a question: Shall we dance?

For further reflection, check out these words of St Augustine!