Silence and Music in Worship

Silence and Music in Worship

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Mitchellville, March 7, 2004

revcooper.ca

We frequently begin services of worship with the words, The Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him. (HAB. 2:20) These words are usually followed by a very brief moment of silence before the minister and the congregation go on with prayers, music, responsive readings, and so forth. Upon reflection, we find that there is almost no silence anywhere in our services: even the interlude between the lessons and the sermon is filled with music. Perhaps some have wondered what is meant by the call for silence that is apparently never answered.

“Noise” stands for all the activity in our mind, all our thoughts and concerns about things of this world. Our plans, our hopes, our mental lists of things to do – our things. Whenever we sit quietly for a moment, all these ideas begin to flow into our mind, fighting for our attention. They make a kind of noise, they cause us to be distracted from thinking about elevated things. Our attention is totally directed towards ourselves, and we become self-conscious. Is the chair comfortable? Is the room too hot or too cold? Is it time for lunch yet?

Sometimes we feel self-conscious when reading aloud during the service, such as during the prayers and the psalter. We may worry about how we sound to others, whether or not we are doing it right, whether or not we are saying all the words correctly. Others of us are distracted by the songs – we may either sing an old favorite with too much enthusiasm, or worry about hitting all the notes in an unfamiliar hymn. There are a lot of different ways that we can become self-conscious during the responsives and the singing in the office.

Then, when we are sitting and listening to the lessons or sermon, we begin to make use of the quiet moments to get a little thinking done. We begin to work on the problems we are having at home or school or at work, or perhaps to plan the new patio, or redecorate the living room. And before we know it, the service is over, and we cannot remember a thing that happened or was said during the whole thing. We couldn’t hear it over the noise of our own thoughts. This is the noise that needs to be silenced.

We should not be embarrassed by this, for it happens to everyone of us any time we relax our attention. If this never happened, the Lord wouldn’t have mentioned it in the Word! Our invitation to worship tells us that we must do everything we can to enter into the true sphere of worship of the Lord by stilling the noise in our heads, by turning our attention away from the cares and concerns of the natural world and turning our attention towards the Lord and His Word.

In the Jewish Church, and to some extent in the early Christian Church, the function of the congregation was only to witness acts of worship performed by the priesthood. In the ancient Jewish Church, the average person’s contribution to worship was to bring the item to be sacrificed, and then watch while it happened. The priests and the Levites conducted the worship, the people stood outside the gates and watched. This carried over to a certain extent into the Catholic Church. The classic illustration is that of a monastery where each monk performs the mass by himself in his room rather than all joining together in a common service of worship; and is further illustrated by the practice (ended in the US in the 1950’s) of delivering the service in Latin no matter what language the congregation understood. Since they were only witnesses to something that the priests were doing, they didn’t need to understand. The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to provide services in Greek, proudly holding to ancient traditions and rejecting modern innovations.

In the New Church, the function of the priest is to lead the congregation in their own personal worship of the Lord, to help provide such forms as are suitable for genuine worship. The priest does not stand between the people and the Lord, but during the course of the service alternately represents the people to the Lord (as when he approaches and opens the Word), and the Lord to the people (as when reading the lessons). There is a whole body of doctrine on the subject of “Liturgics” that provides the basis for deciding how the priest will move on chancel, which direction he faces, the kinds of chancel furniture, and where the furniture goes, but the essential point is that in the New Church it is the whole congregation that is worshiping the Lord, and the priest worships as a part of that congregation.

The appearance is that worship is a passive thing. After all, the congregation spends most of the time during a service quietly sitting and listening either to lessons from the Word, to a children’s talk, or to a sermon, or waiting for the next thing to happen. But such listening is passive because no response is expected. Ask yourselves this question: would you listen differently if you were going to be tested on the material presented in the sermon? If you were going to be tested in some way, would you not wish to have pencil and paper handy to take notes to study from? Would you not wish to have a text book to follow along in? Would not our whole approach to listening become active instead of passive?

Everyone of us has spent a lot of time in school, and each one of us learned along the way that we enjoyed best and learned the most from those courses we took where we conscientiously did the work assigned by the teacher. Simply stated, we found that the more we put into our study, the more we got back out!

If such a thing is true in other areas of life, is it not also true in worship? Will not our own personal worship of the Lord Jesus Christ be as valuable and meaningful to us as the amount of effort we ourselves put into it? Does this not tell us how important regular study of the Word is? Does it not also mean that if we simply bring our bodies into church and expect worship to happen to us, it will not be a meaningful and valuable experience?

We need to learn to take part in the worship service by actively listening, that is, by listening to what the priest is saying with a sense of affirmative skepticism. –Think about what is being said. – Does it sound true? – If you lived according to it, would you being living a good life? – Would you feel right making decisions that way? – Does what the priest says agree with your understanding of the Word? – If not, why not?

Such questioning is essential to the development of the rational mind. Even in heaven the angels must be skeptical of what they hear, for we are told that they are never taught something without the opposite idea being presented at the same time, so that they will have to think about it, compare it to what they already know to be true, and come to a decision about it based upon their own understanding (See EU 77). Even in heaven, we will not be able to accept what is taught with blind faith. We must prepare ourselves for heaven by practicing active listening and affirmative doubt in this life first.

Actively listening, challenging, questioning and testing your understanding against that of the priest during his sermons or messages is also important, for by so doing you are actively taking part in the worship of the Lord, you are using your gift of intelligence in the way that God intended.

But, active listening, being fully involved intellectually is only half the story. Everyone knows that if we want to communicate ideas we use language. Words, either written or spoken, are the means by which ideas move from one mind to another. The Writings tell us that there is also a communication of affection from one will to another, and music is the means of that communication. In other words, music is to our loves as words are to our thoughts!

This concept is well known as shown in common speech. When we share an affectional bond with someone, we say that we are “in tune” with them. When things are going well with the people around us, we say that things are “harmonious.” We see further evidence of this when we remember that happy people hum, whistle, and even burst forth into song – any song – any fragment of a song! We say that people who are happy have a “song” in their heart! There are no doubt many other examples that we could use.

Not only is music a sign of a happy heart, but we also find that music is a good way to change a heart. Studies have shown that music is very effective in changing your mood. If someone is feeling low, you cannot just play happy, cheerful music and expect them to change. It’s far more likely that they will angrily turn the music off. However, it has been found that if you first play music that approximates the person’s mood, and you gradually change the selections from moody to cheerful to bright, the mood will follow.

We can see that, used properly, music can be used to bring a person’s state from depression to cheerfulness, from hell to heaven. If we agree to that view, then can we also assume that the opposite is true, that music is capable of taking someone from a heavenly state to a hellish one? Are there kinds of music that express anger and frustration and hatred and by means of presenting these affections in a powerful way actually bring people into a state of hellish affections? While we should be very careful before postulating a direct cause and effect relationship between heaven or hell and certain kinds of music, we must look carefully at the kinds of affections that any piece of music inspires in our hearts.

In heaven, the harmony is actual, not symbolic. Time after time Swedenborg reported hearing heavenly choirs. He explained that each heavenly society has its own distinctive affection or love, and this distinctive love is expressed in the songs of that society. These teachings were in the minds of the priests of the New Church as they set about the task of forming a distinctive new ritual for the New Church. These teachings about music, affection, and harmony are the reason why each service begins with music followed by congregational singing, so that the whole of the congregation can be brought into a common sphere of worship. In the same way, the service ends with congregational singing, followed by a period of quiet music, so that the people can quietly and gently leave the sphere of worship behind.

Music is a powerful tool for creating a response in worship. Just as words are carefully selected by the priest to bring an idea into form in the sermon, so, ideally, the music should be selected to bring the affections of the congregation into a focus that supports and develops the ideas presented in the sermon. The choice is also limited to those songs that a congregation is capable of singing with some confidence and pleasure.

Congregational singing is supposed to bring the diverse collection of people present for worship into a harmony of affection, a harmony that is more perfect according to the variety within it. In order for us to feel the harmony with the others in the congregation, it will be necessary for us to deliberately, consciously put aside our fears about singing in church We must try not to think about how we sound to the others nearby. We must instead try to think about the sound of many people singing together, and how each voice blends in and contributes to the beauty and the quality of the whole.

To do this, we must first find silence. We must leave our thoughts and cares about the world outside the church door as we enter. We must put away the thoughts about the cares of the natural world so that there will be room for the Lord to enter through His Word. Then, as we hear His Word read and preached, we must focus our attention on it, compare what we hear to what we already know, to what we believe, to what we have learned from experience. Finally, we must un-self-consciously take part in the affectional side of worship through song and prayer. Prayers are offered to the Lord by the priest for the congregation, and by the priest and the congregation together. This speech with the Lord is an important part of every worship service, for it turns the mind away from self and towards the Lord. It can be an effective means of silencing our self-consciousness.

When the noise of the world is put off, we will find our worship to be satisfying to us in many different ways. The more effort we put into the worship experience, the greater the spiritual benefit we shall receive.

“Oh, sing to the Lord a new song!

Sing to the Lord, all the earth.

Sing to the Lord, bless His name;

Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day.” (Psalm 96:1,2)

AMEN.


First Lesson: HAB 2 (port.)

{2} Then the LORD answered me and said: “Write the vision And make it plain on tablets, That he may run who reads it. {3} For the vision is yet for an appointed time; But at the end it will speak, and it will not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it; Because it will surely come, It will not tarry. … {18} “What profit is the image, that its maker should carve it, The molded image, a teacher of lies, That the maker of its mold should trust in it, To make mute idols? {19} Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Awake!’ To silent stone, ‘Arise! It shall teach!’ Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, Yet in it there is no breath at all. {20} But the LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.”

Second Lesson: MAT 19:16-22

Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” {17} So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” {18} He said to Him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, ” ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ {19} ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” {20} The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” {21} Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” {22} But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Third Lesson: AC 2594,5

Gentiles living on earth today however are not so wise, but for the most part are simple in heart. Nevertheless those of them who have led charitable lives one with another acquire wisdom in the next life. Let these be spoken of in what follows next.

I was once listening to a certain [choir] which sounded tuneful yet harsher than [choirs] normally do. From their sound I recognized straightaway that they came from the gentiles. Angels told me that they were gentiles who had been raised from the dead three or four days previously. I listened to this … choir for many hours and perceived that throughout the short period I was listening to them they were being perfected more and more. Wondering at this I was told that these people can be inaugurated into choirs, and so into harmonious groups, within a single night, whereas with the majority of Christians the same is scarcely possible within thirty years. …Choirs exist when many speak simultaneously, all as one, and each as all.


Copyright © 1982 – 2005 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009

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