One of the eight principles of the Word on Fire movement is “leading with beauty.” This principle is on glorious display in the newly produced Word on Fire Bible, where beautiful art illustrates the Word of God in visible form and is an extension to our senses of the written Word placed beside it.
This edition of the Gospels got me thinking of the multiple ways the Word of God can be communicated through means other than the written Word. I think here of sacred art, mosaics, iconography, frescoes, architecture, and, of course, music. Over the centuries, it was through the medium of music that the Psalms were prayed, the Scriptures were proclaimed, and God was praised in the liturgy. Music was, and continues to be, a wonderful gift from God through which he can speak to us and uplift us in worship and praise.
From the Old Testament, we know that musical instruments like lyres and harps were used in temple worship by the Jews. The communal exercise of singing was central to the praise of God’s people gathered in prayer: “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart. . . . I sing your praise” (Ps. 138:1); “O come, let us sing to the Lord. . . . Let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise” (Ps. 95:1-2). For the believer, to “sing a new song” was to praise God for his salvation experienced by his people in new ways and in the present time (Ps. 33:3; Ps. 96:1; Isa. 42:10). Therefore, in the liturgical tradition of Israel whose purpose was to draw believers into right praise and align hearts and minds to the divine life, music was an essential component. But how did this work?
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It was through the medium of music that the Spirit of God acted and touched the lives of those who heard it. Two examples to illustrate. In his meeting with the kings of Israel and Judah, Elisha is asked by them for a prophetic word. Before he agreed, Elisha requested: “‘Get me a musician.’ And then, while the musician was playing, the power of the Lord came on him” (2 Kings 3:15). A second example is of David, whom we think of as a soldier and king, but perhaps less often as a musician. In the first book of Samuel, we are told that “whenever the spirit from God came over Saul, David would take a harp and play; Saul would then be soothed; it would do him good, and the evil spirit would leave him” (1 Sam. 16:23). We see with both these examples how the Spirit of God moves and acts through music.
This great musical tradition was carried forward into the early Church’s life of prayer and worship. Liturgical music had a quality and a power to attune people to the divine and touch them in ways that transcended words and reason.
St. Augustine (354-430) famously wrote of the transforming effect of music on him: “How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart” (Confessions, 9.6.14).
In the Middle Ages, St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) understood the entire creation as a symphony of the Holy Spirit who is in himself joy and jubilation. She prayed: “To the Trinity be praise! God is music, God is life that nurtures every creature in its kind” (Symphonia, 26). She then extended the analogy of music, describing the communion among all the saints as a “symphony of the blessed” (Scivias, Vision 13).
As we seek ways to evangelize today, these examples from Scripture and the saints provide inspiration. They take us back to the power of the Word of God, carried by music, to reach people and move them towards faith in him. Music is a great common denominator. Whether we are already committed believers or hardened skeptics, beautiful music has the power to deepen our communion with God or at least open us up to a greater religious and spiritual sensibility. Music pulls heart strings.
Leading people along the way of beautiful music towards the faith is also more winsome for it presents the Gospel in the language of attunement and harmony. In the same way we might invite someone to “Look!” at a painting and admire its beauty, so we could give a gift of beautiful liturgical music and say “Listen!” as a way of drawing them closer to the beauty of the divine. We could describe this as “evangelization by stealth”—where the message and music combine, allowing the Spirit to touch the listener’s soul.
We might describe the work of Jesus as attuning our lives with his. Because of sin, each of us are out of tune to a greater or lesser extent with God. The work of the Holy Spirit is to move us back into tune and onto God’s wavelength. We could say that this is what Jesus was trying to do by teaching parables such as the prodigal son. He invites his audience across the ages to tune into a new frequency, a new understanding, and a new logic of love. When St. Paul urges the Philippian Christians to have “the same mind” as Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:5), he is urging them to attune themselves to Christ’s mindset and away from their own.
For us in the family of the Church, the analogy of music also speaks effectively of promoting unity and harmony. That is why the Second Vatican Council spoke of music as “promoting unity of minds” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112), based on the words of St. Paul who asks the Church to “be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts” (Eph. 5:18-19).
While each life produces a unique note, each of those notes unite in the Church to produce a beautiful hymn. If the Church is a type of choir, then the participation of each of us is crucial. As each of us is called to holiness, so each of us is called to attune our lives anew to the life of God, lest we be out of tune with the rest of the choir and so diminish the beauty of the song we sing. Indeed, our role in the whole theo-drama could be described as attuning ourselves to God’s purposes for us. That is why, in The Lord of the Rings, Sam said of his adventure with Frodo: “I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.” This musical theme was employed by Tolkien in his work Silmarillion and by C.S. Lewis’ creation story in The Magician’s Nephew, where God sings the world into being.
Beethoven once said that music can change the world. If this is true, then it begins with a change in me, caused by God’s grace that draws me continually towards greater harmony with the movements of love, truth, and mercy within the Holy Trinity. May our lives sing a new song of praise each day as we meet in the Church and may the hymn produced by the harmony of our voices and lives attract many along the way of beauty, moving us toward attunement with the God of beauty and the enchantment that leads to faith.
This piece was originally published on October 14, 2020 on WordonFire.org.