Sermon: Glorying in the Lord rather than Ourselves
“Let my soul glory in the LORD; the lowly will hear me and be glad.”
We are excited to celebrate today the installation of our new organ, with which our parish renews our commitment to give glory to God in the beauty of the Sacred Liturgy. It is propitious that we do so on a Sunday when the Word of God emphasizes the importance of prayer, and the importance of approaching God with the correct spirit in prayer, since Sacred Music is such an important part of our prayer as Catholics. Being formed by Holy Mother Church’s vision of right worship of God helps us to fulfill the charge given to us by the Psalmist today: “Let my soul glory in the LORD.”
What does it mean, though, for our souls to glory in the Lord? St. Augustine, the great doctor of the Church, writes that glorying in the Lord is all about approaching Him with a spirit of humility. The humble man does not glory in himself, but in the Lord. In Christ’s parable of the two men praying in the Temple, we can see an illustration of what it looks like to pray in a spirit of humility, glorying in the Lord rather than in ourselves.
Thinking about the lesson of the Pharisee’s self-righteousness in prayer, and what this parable teaches us about the right spirit of worship, I can’t help but think of the many songs I sang at Mass as a child that were more about ourselves than about God. “We are the light of the world,” “We are the body of Christ,” “We can make a difference,” etc. We were very insistent in our music that we were the body of Christ, but then when it came time to receive the really, truly, substantially present Body of Christ in the Eucharist, we seemed mostly to sing about bread and wine (or being satisfied with “finest wheat” – a beautiful metaphor, no doubt, but not one that helped impressionable eight and nine year olds understand that what we were receiving was not wheat at all).
Rather than singing about ourselves, the right spirit of worship is a spirit of humble praise of God. This spirit of humility acknowledges our need for God’s mercy. Again, those songs I grew up with emphasized the very important dignity of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God, and the even greater dignity enjoyed by the all the Baptized who have been redeemed in Christ and are now members of His Body, but they often left out an essential element of prayer – the acknowledgement of our sinfulness and our deep need of God’s mercy. If from time to time, then, the words of the hymns and antiphons we sing here at St. John’s seem to be too far in the other direction, we should remember that the spirit of prayer praised by Christ is that of the humble tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” If we too wish to go home justified, this must be our constant refrain – not just in the penitential act at the beginning of Mass, to be rushed through and then promptly forgotten as we sing the Gloria.
How, though, can we be sure that we are striking the right balance, that we acknowledge the great vocation given to us as God’s sons and daughters, and also profess our unworthiness of Him? When it comes to worship of God, human ingenuity will always be insufficient. This is why God has revealed how He desires to be worshiped. In the Old Testament, God gave painstaking instructions to the Israelites about how they were to construct the places of worship and carry out the sacred rites. While Christ’s Resurrection means that we no longer worship in the manner of the Jews, He participated in the Jewish rites in such a manner as to teach the Church the importance of sacred ritual. The earliest Christians were inspired by the scriptural focus of the synagogue and the sacrificial worship of the Temple.
Ensuring that we achieve this proper balance of the horizontal (“we are the body of Christ”) and the vertical (“have mercy on me, a sinner”) dimensions of worship, then, depends on our use of the sacred texts given to us through Revelation and the guidance of the Church. With regards to sacred song, this means primarily the use of the Book of Psalms, the true church hymnal of Christians. Basing our sacred song on the biblical psalter ensures that we are worshiping in the spirit of truth as Christ taught.
For example, in the entrance antiphon today, we sang: “Let the hearts that seeks the Lord rejoice. … Give glory to the Lord, and call upon His name.” These words from Psalm 104 set the theme for today’s Mass and help us to identify the connecting thread in the scripture readings.
The right approach to sacred music does not simply mean the words, though. Melodies have an even stronger power to form the spirit of the human heart. This is why the Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”) taught that “Gregorian chant, as proper to the Roman liturgy, should be given pride of place. … Its melodies, contained in the [approved] editions, should be used.” Since the publication of Vatican II’s document on Sacred Music in 1967, the Church has repeatedly emphasized that Gregorian chant is the measure of the appropriateness of all other music to be employed in the liturgy.
In the years following the Second Vatican Council, the permission for expanded use of the vernacular (the common language of the people, instead of Latin) seemed to be in contradiction to this. Parishes desiring more contemporary music adopted the new compositions being offered by contemporary composers, and parishes desiring more traditional music adopted the hymns sung by more traditional Protestant congregations. Neither was really what the Church had in mind. It was not until quite recently that this impasse began to be broken, and options to sing the proper texts appointed by the Church, drawn from Sacred Scripture, began to be available.
It is a real point of pride for me – and hopefully for you too – that our parish has been on the forefront of this important step forward for Catholic sacred music: singing the texts from Sacred Scripture appointed by the Church according to melodies that more closely approximate the approved melodies of Gregorian Chant. Our parish, for example, has been the first in our Diocese (and really, one of the first in the country) to make regular use of these chants. I have seen the books for doing so languishing on the bookshelves of many a music director. At St. John’s, there is a copy in every choir member’s hands. What we are doing here is the furthest thing from a step back into the past. We are on the forefront of something new and exciting.
But what about the organ? Words and melodies are not the only important component of authentically Catholic sacred music – instrumentation is also an important element. This is why the Second Vatican Council also said that “The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, since it is its traditional instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lift up men's minds to God and higher things. … [While other instruments may also be employed at the discretion of competent ecclesiastical authorities] those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and from popular devotions.”
So, while other instruments can be admitted, the pipe organ was directed by Vatican II to retain pride of place in sacred worship. There are several reasons for this preference: 1) Practically, the organ is an extremely versatile instrument that can replicate the sound of a simple instrument all the way to a full orchestra. 2) The organ has a unique capacity to lift the human mind to God. This is even more true today than it was 60 years ago now that the organ is used almost exclusively in the context of worship. 3) Most importantly, the organ works by replicating the sound of the human voice, which is the liturgical instrument par excellence.
Why this organ, though? If the pipe organ has pride of place in Catholic worship, then if a parish is not able to afford (or its church’s architecture is not able to accommodate) a pipe organ, then it is important to have an instrument that most closely approximates the experience of a real pipe organ. Our new organ does this by giving the organist a much wider variety of sound expressions to draw upon. For example, in the responsorial psalm today, when God confronted the evildoers, the organ accompaniment sounded more aggressive, but when God was close to the brokenhearted, we heard a gentler accompaniment, drawing our attention to the sacred, inspired biblical text.
Another way our new organ more closely replicates the experience of a real pipe organ is by using a wider array of speakers to project the sound around the room, enveloping the congregation in the manner of a real pipe organ, which rather than projecting from a couple of speakers, is spread out along the back wall of the church, or even spread out around the church. This might be interpreted as being louder. But there are times when our praise of God should indeed be loud – “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!” the Psalmist sings, and Sirach tells us today that our prayers ought to pierce the clouds. Our new organ gives us an incredible amount of versatility to adjust for congregation size and singing ability, as well as drawing contrasts between the liturgical seasons (very light accompaniment for Lent and Advent, moderate celebration for Ordinary Time, and great fanfare for Christmas and Easter).
But what about the expense? Why spend so much money on an organ when there are so many other important priorities for our parish? In the Communion antiphon today, we will hear of Christ making Himself a fragrant offering to God through His sacrifice. The most fundamental reason that any of us are here today is to offer a sacrifice to God. The beauty of the worship we offer to God is an essential part of that sacrifice, because the beauty and majesty of authentically Catholic worship have a unique power to form the contrite hearts that are acceptable to God the Father. Further, the Scriptures emphasize that the sacrifice desired by God is a sacrifice of obedience, and obedience to how God wants to be worshiped as taught by the Church is a sacrifice we offer to Him.
From the sacrifice we offer, everything else flows out – God is praised, men and women are instructed, and the Body of Christ is built up. The Sacred Liturgy, carried out in the splendor of holiness, has the unique ability to give glory to God and to form the human heart to desire what is right and just precisely because it is the pleasing sacrifice that He desires.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXIX Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXII