Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Praying and Singing our Faith (The Rev. Rick O'Brien, July 27, 2014)

As we approach the end of July, we are finishing our month-long series of sermons on hymns.  Over the course of the month we have sung many familiar hymns, explored their words and music, and learned about their origins and their authors.  We have come to realize that hymns are more than mere traveling music; that they are poetry and prayer, communal expressions of worship, a gift to us from God and our gift back to God.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine worship without hymns. 

 “It shall be the duty of every Minister to see that music is used as an offering for the glory of God and as a help to the people in their worship.”  Our church canons charge the clergy with incorporating music into our worship and The Episcopal hymnal is designed to be a resource that helps us to do exactly that.  Our hymnal is more than just a songbook, or a collection of tunes.  It is a rich liturgical resource specifically crafted to serve a multiplicity of uses, whether it is a two-person morning prayer in the middle of the desert to the Easter Sunday resurrection mass at the National Cathedral in Washington DC.  As it says in the preface, the hymnal is a response to the challenge of the Church’s mission to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to a changed and changing world.  That is quite a task. 

Since our very beginning as a church, we have striven to incorporate music into our worship.  As we began as a branch of the Church of England, our earliest music as you might expect was very Anglican in character.  Yet as an American church we have gradually incorporated other music that reflects our diversity and our character. 

Look at the cover of the hymnal and you will see that it is titled The Hymnal 1982.  This is the most recent edition of the hymnal, but there have been many others.  The previous edition was published in 1940, and before that there were editions in 1916 and 1892.  Each new edition builds upon the foundation of the volumes before it.  The charge for our current version is to prepare a body of texts which presents the Christian faith with clarity and integrity, to reflect the nature of today’s church by including the works of contemporary artists and works representing many cultures, and to strengthen ecumenical relationships through the inclusion of texts and tunes used by other Christian traditions.

These are common principles of our Church and reflect what I feel is one of our greatest strengths.  The recognition that we do not have a monopoly on piety; that we don’t have all the answers, and that maybe, just maybe, there are better ways to do things.  Our church is not exclusionist.  We welcome all as fellow travelers on the way, and hope that we can learn from each other how Jesus is calling us in this time and in this place.  To that end, our hymnal is specifically designed to incorporate music from other places, other cultures, and other faith traditions. It includes music from the Anglican tradition, but also recognizes the richness of Christian expression by incorporating works from the Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions.

 The 1982 hymnal includes not only hymns from the great composers of Europe, but also some from Africa, Mexico, and China.  It also includes African American spirituals, Native American music, and American folk music.  In keeping with our Episcopal tradition of the via media, the hymnal seeks to maintain our traditions while also being open to new ways of worshiping that reflect the multi-cultural nature of our church and our world.

Take out your hymnals and turn to the table of contents.  You will see that there are two major sections, Service Music and Hymns.  I would imagine that while you are likely familiar with the Hymn section, you are probably less familiar with the service music.  This section is designed to support the different services provided in the Book of Common Prayer.  Much of our worship services can be spoken or sung, and this section is designed to provide settings to support that.  It also includes musical settings for special days like the Great Vigil of Easter. (This by the way is my favorite service of the year, even if it is the least attended.  If you have not experienced the beauty of this service, plan to attend next year.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.) 

The Holy Eucharist section from S76 to S176 is likely to be the most familiar to us, even if you don’t know it.  That is because much of the music we use for the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei are taken from this section.  Most people don’t turn to the hymnal at these times, but learn the music by repetition as we often will use the same setting for an entire liturgical season.

The most familiar portion of the hymnal however is clearly the Hymn section.  Each Sunday we sing a processional hymn, a gradual hymn, an offertory and a recessional hymn, usually drawn from this section.  You may be tempted to think that there is no real rhyme or reason behind which hymn we sing on which day, but that would be incorrect.  In fact, if you look at the table of contents, you will see that the hymns are grouped to reflect the Church year and the specific character of the services.  The church does not follow the Julian calendar, but our own which means that we begin our year on the first Sunday of Advent.  The hymnal recognizes this and offers several hymns that are well suited to the Advent season.  In keeping with what we have already discussed, one of these hymns was written by Martin Luther, there are two settings of a hymn by Charles Wesley, and the familiar O Come O Come Emmanuel is an ancient setting from the 9th century.  

Following the Advent section is a rather large collection of Christmas hymns.  One of the questions I am often asked during Advent is why don’t we sing Christmas songs?  The answer is that, unlike the secular world where Christmas begins right after Halloween (or lately it seems to be creeping backward toward Labor Day), we keep the season of Advent as a separate and distinct time of waiting for the coming of the Savior.  To sing Christmas hymns in early December would be to cheapen the Advent season and rob us of this time of preparation. 

Following the Christmas hymns are those specifically set for Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension Day, and for Pentecost.  The hymnal then provides offerings for the Sacramental services of Holy Baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, burial and for ordinations.  Then we have a rather large section of general hymns.  These include hymns fitting for the Holy Trinity (Holy, Holy, Holy), the kingdom of God (Hail to the Lord’s Anointed) or the mission of the church (Lord you give the Great Commission). 

The grouping of the hymns is not cast in stone, but is intended to assist in setting the right liturgical tone.  That means that we can use hymns in a variety of ways to support our worship.  The categories are a best effort to recommend a hymn, but are not a rigid requirement.  In the 1940 version of the hymnal, there was a category titled hymns for children and it included favorites such as Once in Royal David’s City and I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.  Clearly those are used in other times and settings, and that is very appropriate.  The hymnal is meant to be a guide, a tool, a way to help us embrace Canon 24 to see that music is used as an offering to God in worship. 

I want to close by offering a few words about Bach, Handel and Purcell.  The church has set aside a day for the three of them in recognition of their contributions to the music and worship of the church.  Each had a profound impact on church music and used their talents to leave behind a rich musical legacy that glorifies God.  Handel’s Messiah is universally recognized as a masterwork.  From the Bach setting of Luther’s Might Fortress, to Purcell’s Christ is made the sure Foundation, we remember their music and celebrate the glory of God through their craft.