Singing for Hope and Joy

Something is amiss this Christmas Season…

True. We are all trying to survive a pandemic and we are all affected by it in different ways.  However, Christians previously struggled and never failed to be joyful during the Advent and Christmas season.  So, why do I find it so difficult to ignite that spark in my heart to feel hopeful and joyful this year?

I wonder…I wonder if it could be the lack of singing as a community that puts a damper in my spirit!

Something happens when we sing.  When we feel the vibration from singing within the cells in our bodies, we are invigorated! When we sing with a community, we are encouraging one another with the meaningful lyrics that are readily understood by the other, responding to others by singing the exact same words that they offered! It’s true that we sing to praise God in our communal worship, but we also sing as one Body of Christ and get that mystery through the embodiment of our beliefs. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I understand and agree with the need to not sing together during this pandemic.  I read many good scientific reports on the possible spread of the coronavirus through respiratory droplets and aerosols. We really should not aid the transmission of this terrible virus with our vocal projections.  That said…I think there is a really a huge loss for our worship and spiritual experience when we cannot sing together at church, especially during this Advent and Christmas season.

Advent hymns are all often filled with hopeful messages, such as “Come, O long expected Jesus born to set your people free…from captivity”, “In sorrow that the ancient curse…You came, O Savior, to set free Your own in glorious liberty”, or “When hope shall sing its triumph and sadness flee away.”  These hymns were sung through generations. The words remind us of our Hope was here, is here and will be here, no matter what circumstances in which we find ourselves. Sure, we may hear a single cantor singing those words for us, but we will simply be bystanders to those words and messages. In fact, most hymns are not even sung with all the stanzas by the cantor at church these days. Without the congregation joining in singing, music is treated more like decorations to our liturgies. In the last few months, I often hear one single verse of the first hymn sung by the cantor, just long enough for the priest to reach the altar from the church entrance. The first hymn is no longer a gathering hymn. To me, there is simply nothing like feeling the vibrations of every syllable in our bones for the messages to be hammered into my soul.   

Earlier, I checked out Christmas hymns from hymnals of several Christian congregations. I realised our Catholic Book of Worship has only three stanzas for Joy to the World, compared to the printed versions of the same hymn in hymnals of other denominations.  I wonder why the third stanza of the original Joy to the World is left out from our hymnals. Perhaps, whoever compiled the hymns thought we should only focus on the joyful glories of the Lord?  The original third stanza reminds us that God’s blessings flow, regardless of sins and sorrows in our lives. For our sakes during this pandemic time, I think it is good to remember He rules the world with truth. That would include our first parents’ original sin, our pains and sorrows, and all the frustrations that come with our current pandemic.  There should be no fear of singing about that as we sing that at the end, the wonders of His love will bring us Joy to this world.

I prescribe myself one possible antidote for the lack of Hope and Joy this season: To sing my heart out, preferably with someone in my household.  We still have a few more days of Advent.  Let’s sing all the Advent hymns we know. And if no one else in your household would sing with you, there are lots of good recordings with lyrics on screen on YouTube. It’s not too late!

Wishing you a Hopeful and Joyful Christmas!

Seeking God, our Comforter!

♪ “O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him…” ♪

This aria by Handel has been ringing in my ears for over two weeks now.  It started when a musician friend needed consolation and I was lost for words.  At the time, the first piece of music that came to mind which I thought would bring him some peace was “O Rest in the Lord” from Handel’s oratorio Elijah, with the words from Psalm 37.  So, I sent him a YouTube link as a reply to his misery.  Instantly, the melody became my earworm.  After that, in the days following, I kept receiving bad news of one thing or another, crisis after crisis.  Many days, my heart was just grieving and feeling hopeless. Somehow, God showed his presence on two separate unrelated occasions within the last week, once at my voice teacher’s studio and once at a bi-monthly musicians’ get-together. “O rest in the Lord” is not a rare piece. Still, the coincidence of me hearing it sung live twice in a week is exceptional. (The last time I heard it live prior to this week must have been over 10 years ago!) Now, the music did not make the sadness or worries go away, but I do feel God’s presence and comfort in this difficult time.

I seek God in music.  How do you seek God?

 

BTW, here is a link for one rendition of the piece on YouTube. https://youtu.be/BB3oyo0VEuc

Music In My Life

Therese at the piano

Many people have said music is the language of God.  I am not sure if God needs a language, but I do know that music has a way of getting deep into one’s heart and soul.  In some sense, it is a universal language that everyone seems to understand without much explanation. It leads us into certain moods, distant memories. It heightens our different senses in unexpected ways. It carries messages deep into our psyche. It organizes our thoughts and it frees our thoughts at the same time to allow creative expressions.

In a recent article that advertises a new composition to be performed in the San Francisco area

http://www.mercurynews.com/music/ci_28304501/performance-unveils-tangos-jewish-connection ,

there was the mentioning of the  connection between Argentina’s Jewish community and tango – how Jews who fled from Russia in the 1880s arrived in Argentina, using music as a way to integrate into the new community that they had to now call “home.” Back then, many of the Jews were classically trained violinists who found their part in the society by playing in ensembles, performing tangos which are popular in the Argentine culture.

With the universality of music, it is no surprise that the Jews are able to use their ability to perform the community’s most popular music genre, to communicate and, therefore, to integrate into the society.

I once heard a story where a Chinese immigrant was looking for a job in Canada.  As his education in China was not recognized in North America, he was willing to work for just any job.  However, language seems to be a barrier for him in job hunting.  He was very frustrated one day after being turned down at an interview for a job as a waiter in an Italian restaurant.    As he was leaving the restaurant, he started singing “O sole mio.” All of a sudden, the owner stopped him at the door and asked him why did not mention that he sings!  Apparently, he had studied voice in China and had learned to sing a few Italian songs. The owner would love to have someone on staff who can “entertain” patrons on special occasions.  Anyway, this revelation landed him his first job in a new country!

I love telling this story as it is clear that this immigrant’s life is changed solely because of his ability to sing in foreign languages.

Personally, music has been important in helping me settled in many new environments.  Many years ago, I had my struggles when I first came to Canada and enrolled in high school.  While I had studied English Language and all subjects in English, except for Chinese Language and Chinese history, all throughout my school years in Hong Kong, I was very shy in communicating with other fellow students in the beginning, keenly aware that I was speaking with an accent.  So, apart from the necessary exchanges in school, I kept mostly to myself.  One morning, I arrived at school a little too early and decided to entertain myself, playing the piano in the empty classroom next door.     When I started playing, there was not another soul in the entire corridor of classrooms. Little did I know, other students and teachers started arriving while I was playing my favourite pieces.  After that, I was invited to play “O Canada” for the school assemblies (and I learned to play “O Canada” before I learned to sing it). Next thing I know, I was accompanying the school choirs, participating in the fundraisers, their outreach events for seniors (which included musical entertainment), etc.   By the end of my high school year, I think I knew everyone in my grade and they all knew me.  Playing music not only helped me feel comfortable in a new environment, it helped get me integrated into the life of the student community at my high school.

Similar events happened again when I began my university career.  The large student body at the university never provides an easy environment for an introvert.  Let’s be frank, introverts do not do well in open crowds and there are usually plenty of those in the life of students. However, volunteering to play the piano for Sunday liturgies and the occasional dinners at student residence not only let me participate in student life, it also allowed me to participate confidently as it gave me a purpose in those social situations.

As for life outside an educational institution, the most obvious environment where I encountered music was the church.  Obviously, the mass is always easy to follow in any country. Though it might proceed in different languages in different countries, the order of the mass is always the same. Many hymns also share the same hymn tunes.  Again, the lyrics may be different, in different languages. However, hearing familiar tunes, as simple as the Alleluia,

Alleluia

just make one feel right at home.  When you think about it, it is so important for the baptized to feel right at home in the house of God!

So, is music the language of God?  Who knows?  But music is probably created by God to allow communication among His children, to allow us to communicate to Him and for Him to sink his thoughts in us!