From the weekly newsletter of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church:
This week’s column is a reproduction of an address Father Lillie preached last Sunday afternoon at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Honolulu. The officers of the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists were installed at the 5:30 pm Choral Evensong. The Diocesan Choir offered beautiful music for the occasion. The scriptural text was the Song of Christ’s Humility from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians.
+ Earlier this week in the Christian calendar we celebrated the great saint, Hildegard von Bingen (1179). She was a writer, composer, poet, philosopher, Christian mystic, abbess, and missionary. She has been declared a Doctor of the Church, and she wrote theological, botanical and medicinal texts as well as letters, liturgical songs and poems. One of her works as a musical composer is argued to be the first liturgical drama and morality play entitled The Order of the Virtues.
In this liturgical drama we have a struggle for the human soul, the Anima, between the Virtues and the Devil. The play begins with the Virtues being introduced to the saints and the prophets, and they marvel at the goodness of the virtues. The greatest virtue is humility, although there are seventeen virtues in all in the play, but humility is the Queen of the Virtues. Throughout the play there is a tug and pull between the virtues and the devil, each trying to win over the Anima or the soul. Eventually the soul sees the goodness of the virtues, and the virtues are able to capture the Devil, and then God is praised. In good medieval fashion, the whole drama ends with a splendid procession of all the characters.
Throughout the whole play, it is worth noting that the devil, played by a male voice, can only speak. (The virtues are all played by female voices, by the way.) The devil has no ability to make music within the liturgical drama. According to Hildegard, the devil is incapable of creating divine harmony – it is as if the language of God is music. Sadly, the devil cannot sing or make divine harmony, and even worse his speech is limited to yelling and grunting. He really is a poor fellow, completely unable to speak the majestic language of God, which is music.
(As a side note, all of this has serious consequences for worship without music, but I really do not want to wander too much into that particular territory today!)
But lest we get too high and mighty about our music making, we are also reminded that the chief virtue in Hildegard’s play is humility. Remember she is not only a great poet and composer – she is also an excellent theologian, as I might remind all of the musicians in the church. To do sacred music week after week is to be a theologian of sorts, and just as Hildegard was a musician and a theologian, all of us through this work are called to that chief virtue of humility.
We heard the Song of Christ’s humility tonight in the Epistle of Paul to the People of Philippi. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross. Many scholars believe that this passage of Paul’s letter was a hymn of the early and developing Christian church. Paul quotes the song to make his point. Through humility Christ wins the world for each of us – through humility and self-sacrifice we find the way to true life.
I am conscious of the work that so many musicians do for the church faithfully, and I also know that such work is often unrecognized, under-appreciated, and sadly under-compensated. You do not need to be a musician for a long time in our churches to know what humility and sacrifice are about. Yet I think all of you would join me in saying that the ministry our musicians share makes the church vibrant, and perhaps even worthwhile. The resurrection loses its luster when there is no music. It is as if Christ’s humility loses its voice when the song of Christ has no melody to share. Being a musician in the church is a call to humility, just like any other call to service in God’s House, and through the service of our musicians the kingdom of God is strengthened.
Shortly hereafter the officers of our local AGO chapter will be installed. Amidst a see of sacred music that is falling prey to consumerism, commercialism, and sensationalism, the AGO stands for the best of what sacred music might offer each of us. These musicians call us to a higher standard – to a place where humility can be proclaimed as the queen of the virtues, and to a reality that understands that without music we might as well be banished to the dungeons of hell.
Thankfully, we can rejoice that we do not need to be like the Devil, yelling and grunting to get the world’s attention. Our musicians can lead us into the song of Christ’s death and resurrection. By means of our musicians we are invited into the Song of Christ’s humility – and even though it is a journey that requires each of us to empty ourselves for God – this journey is ultimately the only song that can save us, and therefore the only music worth singing. +
– The Rev’d Father Paul Lillie
[Father Lillie is himself an organist and a former board member of the Hawaii Chapter American Guild of Organists.]