Summary: Why and What Do We Sing at our Worship?
Fourth Sunday of Easter Ordinary Form 2015
The Song of the Shepherd
I would imagine from my time in this suburban parish that there are just a few of us who have lived for any period of time on a farm or ranch with sheep and wolves and coyotes. There are three principle characteristics of sheep and goats. They are defenseless, they are pretty stupid, and they smell bad. That’s a tempting trio for a hungry predator with a good nose. Imagine yourself being a lost sheep, out in the hill country all by yourself at midnight. And you hear all around you the howl of wolves or coyotes. You’d be pretty happy if you sensed someone approaching who picked you up, put you on his shoulders, and took you back to the flock. A flock of sheep needs, more than anything except something to eat, a good shepherd, strong and vigilant, with a well-trained dog.
We’re a lot like that, aren’t we, in matters of faith and morality and spiritual welfare? At least I am. Without Jesus, we are spiritually defenseless, epically stupid, and morally smelly. Moreover, if we have been around the track of life for many years, we have probably developed some self-destructive habits: pornography–which we defend as photographic art–or gossip–which we justify as sharing what’s going on. Or maybe contraception–which we claim enhances our marriage. Or cheating on our taxes, drinking in excess, using illegal drugs, cursing, pretending that a dollar a week in the collection basket is all we owe God. These vices ruin us and our families and our community. And, as Scripture constantly tells us, these bad habits make us targets ripe for attack by our adversary, the devil.
But Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for me, for you, for this flock. And He gave Himself up to death, so that we might live, when we were His enemies, when we had turned away from Him. Moreover, through the sacraments, His self-giving love makes us children of the Father, heirs to all that God has. By the name of Jesus we are saved. There is salvation in no one else. That is why we gather here. That is why we give thanks to the Lord. He is good, and His faithful love endures forever.
Now to return to our literal flock, what is the most important sound that we would hear as the shepherd and flock interact, as the shepherd takes care of the flock? Is it the baa-ing of the sheep or goats, or the voice of the shepherd himself? No question about it: the sheep are confident of their safety because they hear the voice of the one who cares for them. That is the critical sound of the encounter.
So also we must understand that the most important sound we hear as we gather as the flock of Jesus Christ, our shepherd, is the Word of God. Jesus is the Word of God, and the words we hear from Sacred Scripture are a manifest presence of Jesus among us. There are many of these words apart from the three Lectionary readings. For one, much of the prayer we say and hear are directly from the Bible. The beautiful words in the canon, “from the rising of the sun to its setting” are taken from the psalms. The gradual after the first reading, and the responsorial psalm which usually takes its place, is a direct quotation from one of the 150 songs of David. In all of these we hear the Word of God, a word of comfort, of praise, of admonition, of direct communication between the heart of God and the mind and heart of us weak humans.
Vatican Council II was very direct in their words with respect to the Scriptures: “Sacred scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy. For it is from scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung; the prayers, collects, and liturgical songs are scriptural in their inspiration and their force, and it is from the scriptures that actions and signs derive their meaning. Thus to achieve the restoration, progress, and adaptation of the sacred liturgy, it is essential to promote that warm and living love for scripture to which the venerable tradition of both eastern and western rites gives testimony. (Art. 24, Sacrosanctum Concilium).
There are three special places in the Mass in which Scripture is sung as an accompaniment to our movement, our procession. I’d like to take a moment to explain them, and perhaps give you a better idea of what I have been doing here at the 8 o’clock Mass when I serve as cantor. So far, I have re-introduced only two of these special sung Scriptures, but I hope to offer all three in the near future.