Why We Sing at Mass

Is worship participation influenced by economic status? In my years of experience, the poor sing and participate more than the affluent. There is no statistics that would prove this, but having said masses in congregations raging from the rural and urban destitute to the high-brow, a priest cannot help but wonder. It is easier to encourage the poor to sing than to coax the rich to open their glossy lips to praise the high heavens.

We don’t do something unless we know why. This is the bane of the educated: we must know the rationale behind everything that we do. And probably this is also the reason why we don’t sing particularly at mass. Many people spontaneously hum a melody when they are inspired. They sing anywhere, from the privacy of their personal potholes to the public park. Except at church.

The church is a place of the divine. It is sacred. And when a specific area is marked as holy, our behavior changes. We clip our wings when we enter the sacred door, but when we are out of it, we become exuberant. Our psychological tapes of our parents’ voices plays in our mind, telling us to ‘behave’ in church. To behave means to be quiet at mass, endure the boredom, and offer the suffering to the Lord. In other words, to be inactive, as if we are to imitate the sacred statues of saints on the sanctuary.

In addition, we were brought up attending masses that were priest-centered than congregation-focused. In the past, the priest faced the altar, unmindful of the pews and those who sat there. Participation was not in the liturgical vocabulary of our parents who were influenced by the old school before 1965, the advent of Vatican II.

But the Church now is the same, but different in many ways. The mass is not the “show” of the priest, but the event of the whole congregation gathered, including the presider. The priest is not anymore called the ‘celebrant’ because the mass is everyone’s celebration. The priest is now called the presider, because he prays on behalf of the congregation from whom he has been chosen. Today, the priest faces the congregation to acknowledge their importance in the celebration. When a priest is ordained, the bishop asks the congregation if he is worthy of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The congregation gives their assent by applauding; the same way when a couple is accepted to the community of believers in marriage. Thus, the mass is very much a community affair.

Unfortunately, the new emphasis on the presence of God in the congregation has not rubbed off to many massgoers. Today, one of the utmost concerns of the Church is to enable “full, conscious and active participation” (Sacrosanctum concilium, Vatican II). In terms of music in the liturgy, it means: sing, sing, sing!

Why do we sing? The document, Sing To the Lord: Music in Divine Worship names four elements. I added the fifth. First, music is a universal capability and means of communication. Everyone loves music. Even the plants. They bloom when the flower grower sings to them. And therefore, music helps us bear fruit. It makes us happy; it articulates our sadness. It makes us pine for our loved one; or let go of them when necessary. It is a natural and universal gift. It is God’s gift to His people. It takes its source from every person. And since God dwells in each of us, then every time we sing, we manifest God’s presence in the world. We can imagine God singing with us; giving voice and melody to our aspirations.

Second, music moves us to a higher realm. Songs of the heart deepen our love. Songs about a brighter future intensify our hope. Spiritual songs inspire us to pray. St. Augustine once said that “singing is for the one who loves.” He explains that the continuance of our longing is the continuance of our prayer. We long for peace and prosperity. And so soldiers sing about their motherland during battle; it gives them courage to fight for the people they love and the peace they desire. We want people to remember the People’s EDSA Revolution, so we sing “Magkaisa” and “Bayan Ko.” Our Philippine National Anthem arouses patriotism; it solidifies our identity as Filipinos. When in foreign lands, how many of us are moved when we hear our anthem? Or we cry when Manny Pacquiao wins a fight. We cry not because of Pacman, we cry because we feel the passion and pride we have for our country.

Third, music connects us with our ancestors who reveled in this gift. In the Bible, when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they sang praises to the Lord. Deborah and Barak sang to the Lord in victory. David and the Israelites “made merry before the Lord with all their strength, with singing and with citharas, harps, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.” (1 Sam 6: 5) Jesus sang with his disciples when they went to the Mount of Olives. Paul sang with Silas when they were imprisoned. James encouraged his community to sing when happy.

Fourth, music strengthens our faith and moves us to pray. Inversely, uninspiring music weakens it and distracts us from praying. The liturgical prayers at mass becomes more alive and fervent when we sing, and our prayer therefore makes us worship more intensely, powerfully and effectively.

In the early years of formation, seminarians are trained to sing. At least they are able to pick up a tune. In the Jesuit formation program, it is called, the chant class. The singing class is supposed to help the seminarian sing the parts of the mass when they become priests. Sung parts make the liturgy more solemn. However, it is also said that those priests who cannot sing in tune, should rather recite the prayers. Or else, they become the source of ridicule and distraction: the tone-deaf priest will make people sin than sing.

Finally, congregational singing is a symbol in itself. When we sing together, we also show unity. A song becomes a manifestation of a diverse people but one in heart, mind and soul. When we sing the “Our Father” together, our being children united in God becomes felt and real.

Moreover, the dynamics of a song harmonizes with the dynamics of faith and life. The rise and fall of the melody is like the ebbs and tides of life. To create a melody, a note dies to give way to another note. Inversely, if every note is sustained throughout, it produces not a melody but noise and dissonance. It is like the seed that dies in order for it to bear fruit. When our lives are given away for someone who matter to us, and many others follow suit, eventually humanity’s history becomes a song.

We use words, gestures, signs, symbols and music to proclaim Christ’s presence in our lives! We tell them. We raise our hands. We do the sign of the cross. We use tables, images and liturgical decoration. We sing to complete the package. We do everything possible so that everybody can palpably feel the real presence of Christ. We use any thing that would help people pray and participate fully, actively and consciously. This is the reason why St. Augustine said “to sing is to pray twice.” When we sing we exponentially intensify our prayer.

When we strip our worship of many of these elements, our faith weakens. And when it weakens, it dies. All it takes is a repetitive action: don’t sing and you’ll find your heart not in church, but somewhere else.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s