Singing in the liturgy is as old as Christianity itself. The gospels tell us that after Jesus and his disciples shared the last supper together in the upper room, they sang hymns together before proceeding to the garden of Gethsemane. Indeed, much of the evidence we have of singing in the early church is connected to meal times: a product of our Judeo-Christian heritage.
Noting that music has a long history in the Catholic Church, the important question is WHY should we sing? Could not our liturgies be devoid of music and singing and still be perfectly valid? The liturgical constitution of the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concillium (SC) points us in the right direction here:
The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy. (SC 112)
It goes on to say that
… sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. (SC 112)
The texts we sing are catechetical, in that they teach us, and help us to remember our faith. How many of us can remember songs we were taught as a child? Texts set to music tend to be memorable – I’m sure many of us can recall 10 hymn texts that we could sing the first verse without evening opening the hymn book! Singing with others helps to bond a group more closely together. It’s actually a great deal easier for a group to sing together than to mumble through a prayer at different speeds, different pauses for breath etc. As the church teaches, when we come together to worship God, we do so as the Body of Christ: what better to show our unity that to sing with one voice!
We have seen that singing helps to bind us together as one body, is catechetical and makes liturgical texts more holy, and closely wedded with the liturgical action. However, are these reasons for singing for our benefit or for God’s? Put simply, to whose glory do we sing? The answer to this question stems out of the meaning of the word liturgy (from the Greek leitourgia meaning ‘work of the people.’) SC does not have one definition for why we ‘do’ liturgy, rather it offers several different interpretations each of which are equally valid. Liturgy and singing allows us to express the mystery of God, to give praise directly to him, to rejoice is his works and his gift to us. Liturgy and singing also allows us to become more closely associated with Christ by unifying as his body, clothing our offerings in glory.
Whilst singing and music offer our praise to God, there is also a human side to liturgy and singing. We come together to worship as a group for spiritual refreshment, so that we may share in the joy of the resurrection with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Singing allows us to for example, to express our thoughts, helps us to focus on different liturgical seasons and remember particular events. Liturgy and singing are at once both God centred and human centred: we offer our praise to God, and he shares with us the wonders of his creation.