I am having a campaign at the moment to persuade people to take a more active part in the Mass! Some people here (in my parish) have found me looking straight at them and smiling during the singing of a Hymn. This is because a few weeks ago I suggested to those who do not appear to sing that they really should try, not least because singing helps us to pray, and to pray more joyfully. St Augustine said this first a long long time ago : “For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyfully; he who sings praise, not only sings, but also loves Him whom he is singing about”
Those of you who have watched Gareth Malone on the TV getting groups of people to sing together, most recently the Military Wives, will know that he believes that most people CAN sing, and will feel all the better for doing it. There are, of course, some people who feel they can sing in the bath or the shower or the pub, but not in church. That seems a great pity to me, as if church singing was something different and more formal, better left to choirs! Yes, there is a place at Mass for us to be sung to, for then we pray by listening, but at most churches the choir usually sings in order to help us sing, and is sad when we don’t.
Of course, there are some who, for one reason or another, just feel they cannot sing at all anywhere. For those of you who are like this, I suggested a few weeks ago that you should follow the words in the Book using the words as a prayer, allowing them to sink into your soul as others sing them around you. Indeed those of you who come to me for Confession will know that as a Penance I often give people a Hymn to pray – or at this season a Christmas Carol – for most Hymns and Carols are also great prayers, and if they’re not we shouldn’t really be singing them, should we!
Now what has all this got to do with our readings today? The 1st Reading (Zephaniah 3:14-18) is remarkable. It tells us that God will “exult with joy over (us)”. He will even “dance with shouts of joy for (us)”, and in doing so he will “renew (us) by his love”. This is an early hint of something we hear again right at the end of the Bible in the Book of Revelation (5:9. 14:3.15:3) where heaven is often described as a place of song. And also, of course, the birth of Jesus is surrounded with song as the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest”; which is precisely why we sing or say it at the beginning of Mass, to remind us that Mass is the way, in and through Jesus, in which heaven and earth are made one.
In our 2nd reading (Phil 4:4-7) Paul wants us to be not just happy, but “happy in the Lord”. Here in Eynsham we read the better translation of this passage which reads “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice”. This is because in English the word “happy” is too shallow a word, a frothy surface jollity, whereas “joy” is something much much deeper. We may have “joy” even when we are quite sad, a deep joy, for example, that God is caring for a loved one who has died, even though we are sad they have left us.
My campaign to get more people singing is thus not really about singing at all. It is really about trying to make us all understand that we do not come to Mass to be entertained, to achieve some kind of surface happiness. No, we come to Mass to offer ourselves joyfully to God, to respond to his joy for us, which is shown in all the glories of the Universe – from the immensity of the stars to the mystery of a tiny newborn baby – from the majesty of a beautiful sunset to the glory of some tiny flower – from great moments of ecstasy and happiness (yes happiness) to the support others give us in times of tragedy or crisis. All of this, and more, comes from God, and is an expression of his joy, his dance for us, in every part of his creation.
There will be many people who will come to Mass this Christmas who rarely come to church, and most, sadly, will come to be entertained. They will be looking for their religious Christmas fix! It is important that we who are at Mass regularly should never play into their desire for this shallow entertainment. What we should aim to do is to share with them something of the joy of being a Christian and worshipping Almighty God. And we will do this principally not by talking to or at them, not by putting on a religious show, but simply by praising God at Mass with every fibre of our being.
Remember, we should never some to Mass just for ourselves. Always, we should come to Mass in order to share our joy in God (however weak we may think it is) with others, just as God does with us. Then, as John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel (Luke 3:10-18) we must live that out in our daily lives. True joy and praise always creates love, for it links us to God.