Sunday March 24, 2019
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Rev. Sean Mullen
Prayer as Harmony
In the opening scene of Sing Joyfully, the Choir School documentary from the 1970s, the boys of the Choir School are heard singing, as you might expect. But you might not have predicted the particular music they are singing, in a clear and confident unison. For in that opening scene, the song that the boys are singing is “Kumbaya.” I can well remember singing that song myself around the fire beside Bushy Hill Lake. I don’t ever recall a sense that our campfire songs were incongruous with our experience of singing, say, the next piece of music that you’ll hear in the film, Palestrina’s gorgeous setting of verses from the 81st Psalm, Exultate Deo. We also loved to sing “Puff the Magic Dragon,” back in the day.
A curious feature of that short film is that not a single woman appears on screen until nearly the very end of it. The final scenes of the movie show the choir singing Fauré’s Requiem in concert, there on the Chancel steps (and strangely lead viewers to believe that the piece concludes with the Sanctus). But anyway, at that point, the film makes a concession, showing that there were some women in the audience, and allowing for the possibility that at least some of the boys in the choir have mothers, who seem to be waiting for their sons at the bottom of the Living Room stairs. But that’s it for women in Sing Joyfully.
Tomorrow, when I am back in my own parish in Philadelphia we will luxuriate a little in a celebration of the church’s mother, Mary, since tomorrow sees one of the great Marian feasts of the church year, the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I know the feast will be acknowledged here on Fifth Avenue, but at the risk of sounding boastful, may I say that on Locust Street we will give Our Lady somewhat more of the attention she deserves with a Choral High Mass. But I digress. And from any perspective, this afternoon marks the Eve of the Annunciation.
It has long been the conviction of the church that Mary sang. In his account of her visitation to see her cousin Elizabeth, St. Luke tells us that, on hearing the news the angel Gabriel brought to her, Mary “said, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord...’”. But every one of us here knows somewhere in our hearts that St. Luke is incorrect, and that Mary never said such a thing. We all know that Mary sang those marvelous words, which we have delighted to sing week after week and day after day, ever since.
Yes, Mary sang. And if Mary sang when she visited her cousin, then I am sure that she sang when she laid her newborn child in a manger. Mary sang while she rocked him to sleep at night. Mary sang when the shepherds came to see what the angels were singing about. Mary sang as she comforted her baby on the frightening flight to Egypt. Mary sang when that baby boy cried as he was circumcised and was given the name the angel had instructed he should be given: the name of Jesus. Mary sang when she and Joseph brought the child to Jerusalem to present him in the Temple. And there, when Simeon and Anna sang in praise of her infant son, Mary sang, too, and added a third part to their harmony. Mary sang when they settled down at last in Nazareth. Mary sang to her son as the child “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” Mary sang! And it is not the slightest bit far fetched to suspect that she taught her son to sing, too.
I remember the day, years ago, that I heard the suggestion from this very pulpit that Mary also taught her son to pray. It struck me as so lovely, and so simple, and so very likely to be true, that when Jesus taught his disciples to pray by saying, “Our Father...” he may well have been passing on a lesson in prayer that he had learned from his mother. If it’s a fanciful suggestion, that doesn’t actually make it any less likely to be true. And if Mary taught Jesus both how to pray and how to sing (as I am certain she did), then I imagine that the two of them could be heard singing and praying together as they went about their days in Nazareth: his treble descents soaring above her gentle alto. And on Shabbat, at the table, their two voices joined by Joseph’s tenor.
My instructions for this afternoon’s sermon were simply that it should be entitled, “Prayer as Harmony.” But knowing what I know about this place, and about those boys, I strongly suspect that the title should be the other way around. For, “Prayer as Harmony” sounds like the title for a dissertation that would be more than a little boring to read.
But “Harmony as Prayer” sounds to me like a sermon most of us already know, a song most of us could already sing - and certainly any of us who have ever stood in those choir stalls. And I don’t think it’s necessary to provide any more formal definition of harmony, than to say that it’s what you get when a mother teaches her child to sing, as Mary taught her son Jesus to sing, and to pray. More to the point, it’s what you get when we join in with the long echo of Mary’s singing: harmony as prayer. Even if the particular music in question is the sound of the strong unison singing of “Kumbaya” around a campfire, it amounts to harmony as prayer, if it follows in that long tradition of singing and prayer that began ages before Mary taught Jesus how to sing and how to pray, but which reached new heights when she did.
Kumbaya, my Lord. Kumbaya!
It is standard operating procedure at this point in a sermon or homily or address, when someone like me comes back to someplace like this, to celebrate a hundred years of harmony as prayer emanating from the Choir School, that I should point out to the boys that they don’t realize the breadth, or the value, or the meaning of the gift they have been given here. But actually, my recollection is that we boys had more than an inkling of the dimensions of the gifts we had been given at the Choir School and in this church. I think we could appreciate what we were given here, not only because we were taught that lesson by our teachers and our parents, but because we could see and hear how much richer our lives were, marked, as they were, by this harmony and this prayer. And it didn’t hurt that we knew you couldn’t find better harmony anywhere else. But we could also see how impoverished was the world without it... without the harmony and the prayer. We saw that too, on the streets of New York in the ‘70s, I can tell you.
Out there on those streets, on Fifth Avenue, and on Locust Street outside the doors of my church in Philadelphia, there is a tremendous effort to drown out the sound of the harmony of God, and of the prayer of God’s children, for the simple reason that neither the harmony nor the prayer will convince you to buy anything that someone wants to sell you.
Harmony as prayer contributes only the slightest bit (if at all) to this city’s economy, but it is one of the essential commodities of trade in the economy of God’s love. And that economy - the economy of God’s love - is the only one that will ever really matter. Which is why it’s so important that those of us who can, those of us who will, those of us who have taught our children, and those who have been taught, keep singing!
Sing around the campfire. Sing in in the choir stalls. Sing at the table. Sing on the East Side and on the West Side, and all around the town! Sing from one end of this island to the other. Sing in the City of brotherly love. Sing when you’re young, and sing when you’re old. Sing!
Sing joyfully! Sing, just as Mary sang. Sing with Mary, and sing with her son Jesus, in the harmony that is prayer, for another hundred years, or more. Sing joyfully unto the God of our strength in the harmony that is prayer! Sing joyfully! Sing joyfully!