The King and I

Homily at St Paul’s 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.

In the musical, The King and I, 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 it works!

This Sunday in the church’s calendar 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 – the members of the Church, the new Israel of God. Rejoicing, exulting, shouting aloud are not optional extras for us – they are divine commands!

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, a well-known Catholic father was killed in an industrial explosion, and a prominent Anglican lady lost her husband and young son in a road accident. 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 and we hear God’s Word commanding us to rejoice. How dare God do that? Why doesn’t God do something about these outrages?

And yet… this is what we are here to celebrate, on the opening Sunday of the Year of Mercy. 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 As Zephaniah puts it, “The Lord has repealed your sentence.”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.

Some of us, with longer memories, might worry about whether singing hymns at Mass is really a Catholic thing to do? Or is it one of those “innovations” which snuck in after the Second Vatican Council?

Singing when we worship is certainly a Jewish thing – we read in the Bible’s accounts of the Last Supper that Jesus and his disciples sang psalms that night. We find plenty of songs in the New Testament too – most famously Our Lady’s Magnificat but also several texts in St Paul’s letters which the scholars think were hymns sung by the first Christians.

Things changed 500 years ago when the printing press had been invented and Pope St Pius V issued a standard text for the “Tridentine” Mass for use throughout the Catholic world. The Protestant Reformers at that time 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, the priest was 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, restoring an ancient practice.

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 look not on our sins but on the faith of the Church. Just as Anna chose to sing herself happy rather than give in to fear, so we are called to choose to rejoice. Singing for joy is an appropriate response to God’s love for us, whatever is happening in the world around us.

Matt Redman, a contemporary Christian songwriter, dared to pen these words:

Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name.

So 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 in 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 are 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!