Unmercenary Sacred Music
Choir Practice Resources
October 26, 2003
Choir practice was not actually held; in its place the first of three presentations was presented. The first was liturgical stewardship, which is presented here in part.
Before I speak about what it means to offer our talents for service of liturgy, I want to speak generally about stewardship.
What is a steward, what is stewardship?
To be a steward is to be in charge of somebody else's property. A steward has all of the authority of the master who owns the goods. But he or she also is accountable to the master for all that is done, good and bad. Stewardship then is taking the best possible care of the owner's possessions so that the owner can benefit from your management of the owner's goods. Christian stewardship is the same; it is the realization that God is the master of all the goods that we have. It is God Who gives us all that we have in order that we might show a profit for His Kingdom; and when He returns, we will be held accountable for what we did or did not do with what we were given.
But is everything we have God's? Is there something that is just ours? Our car, our job, our house, our VCR, our Browning 12-gauge shotgun, these are all our things, right? We have earned these things, worked hard for them, and they are ours. God has no claim on these, does He? Well, in reality we only have one thing that is totally ours and God cannot be called the source of it even in the most indirect way. Our sin. We are totally responsible for our sin, and we earn all by ourselves the wages of that labor, that is, condemnation and death. Everything else is God's. This means talents, possessions, potential, time, money, jobs, education, and even pain and suffering. God even gives us our maladies so that we might serve Him with these. We shall be accountable for all of it.
The natural question that almost any human is going to ask then is, "how much of my time, money, and talent do I need give to God." Some might say a tenth. The tithe, or tenth of the first fruits, is an ancient and certainly biblical measurement of offering.
But in the ancient law of the old covenant there was not just one tithe, but often it was more than one. In Deuteronomy, worship was often concerned with giving offerings to God:
You shall resort to the place which the Lord , your God, chooses out of all your tribes and designates as his dwelling and there you shall bring your holocausts and sacrifices, your tithes and personal contributions, your votive and freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks.1
So there was more than just a tenth given. However, the Mosiac law does not figure greatly in Christian life. The law was fulfilled in the coming of Christ. So the new law is not what Moses said, but what Christ did. So if we want to know what to give, we look to the law of Christ. How much did Christ give to God? St. Paul tell us that…
…Christ Jesus…emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.2
He offered everything. There is not a percentage. Imagine, St. John saying, "God so loved the world that He gave 30% of His only-begotten Son." The Gospel according to St. Luke, then, would have to end some around the end of Chapter Two, when Jesus was found in the temple, assuming that he had lived about a third of his life at that point, and He could go into early retirement. The measurement then of our offering is that we give 100% of what we have.
If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.3
"How much" then has nothing to do with quantities or percentages. Rather, "how much" has to do with our attitude and orientation. We must realize that the whole of our life must be seen as an offering. What we do for employment, all that we say, our talents, and time then must be orientated towards the greater goal of offering all that we have to the Glory of God and proclamation of the Gospel.
So what do we offer or what is the quality or spirit of our offering? ? Imagine what the infancy narrative of Jesus would sound like in the Gospel Matthew was based on a minimalist giving mentality:
And behold, the star that [the three magi] had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of [plastic commemorative coins, a package of Chrismas-tree shaped car air fresheners, and an off-brand can of Cisco-like shortening.]4
After prostrating themselves and doing homage, what do you expect these travelers to give the divine child? The best, right? And that is what they did; they offered "gold, frankincense, and myrrh."5 It was the finest metal, the richest incense, and the most excellent aromatic oil. They did not offer leftovers, second-bests, or generics.
What each of us offers is different. But what is the same is that what we offer should be the best. This means that what we offer should come from the whole of us. Partial or half-hearted offerings are a reflection of an internal half-heartedness, which is not befitting of the baptismal grace and calling that we have received. Moreover, if we intend to offer the best, it might mean limiting ourselves. Too often in parishes, it is the same ten people doing everything. The choir director is the parish council president, the second deacon, trains the alter servers, heads the fellowship committee, and teaches church school; and often, in the end, none of it is done well.
What I am going to say specifically about serving God through liturgical singing is true for offering any other talent. It must be an offering of love, it must be the best we have, it must be done with contrition of heart, purity and humility of spirit, and it must be sacrificial.
A sacrifice, by definition, is something given to a deity. Its root is the Latin term sacer, from which we get words like sacred and sacerdotal. Sacrifice deals with offerings, having a priesthood, making things sacred, handing things over to God. Moreover, we also have a particular connotation implied in English. Webster's defines the verb sacrifice as "to suffer loss of, give up, renounce, injure, or destroy especially for an ideal, belief, or end."6 Sacrifice implies giving up more than we are naturally inclined in our selfishness to give.
Our liturgy instructs us about what a fitting liturgical offering is. Now, I have to sidetrack for a moment to explain an historical and linguistic point. In the anaphora, we sing, "a mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise." One of our oldest texts of the liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great has a slightly different spelling in one word. That one-letter change makes it read, "mercy, peace, sacrifice of praise." In Greek, ’´Ελεον, ει’ρήνην, θυσίαν αι’νέσεως. What is also not revealed in English is that this is a set of direct objects. This means it is an object of some other sentence. To understand these words, you have to figure out what precedes this list of objects. Well, the priest says right before this: "Let us stand aright! Let us stand with fear! Let us attend, that we may offer the holy oblation in peace." Our answer is "mercy, peace, sacrifice of praise." The implication is that we are saying what our offering of peace consists: "Let us offer mercy and peace, a sacrifice of praise." These three things are essentials:
Scripture speaks of this in many places explaining how this is the most fitting sacrifice a mortal can give. The epistle to the Hebrews says,
For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come. Through him (then) let us continually offer God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have; God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind.9
We encounter it most frequently in the Psalms; after hearing all that God has done for Israel, the Psalmist says:
Let them confess to the Lord for His steadfast love, and His wonderful works to the sons of men! And let them offer to Him the sacrifice of praise, and tell of His deeds with exultation!10
We cannot feed God; He does not need our money; He needs NO-thing from us. So we give what is most fitting: praise and thanksgiving.
If any one of us is called to serve the Lord in a liturgical ministry, we again can look to our liturgy for guidelines of how to do this in the best possible way. In the Divine Liturgy, there are two high points: both concern the Word of God. The first is the proclamation of the gospel message, which includes the epistle, psalm and the gospel account. The second is communion. We first hear the Word of God, and then we eat the Word made flesh. The two together are part of a greater cycle of preparation and fulfillment. Yet if these are the most important elements, hearing and consuming the Word of God, why is there all that other stuff?
Everything that precedes both the liturgy of the Word and the reception of communion is preparatory. Taking a closer look at our services, we see that all liturgy is preparation for this. Before we take communion, we declare the creed, we offer up Christ in order to receive Him back in the anaphora, praise the saints and Theotokos, pray the Lord's prayer, and praise His bodily presence in our midst with Psalm 148. And before this we prepare by hearing the Word of God found in the Scriptures. We prepare for this by singing three psalms, an entrance antiphon, troparia, and the trisagion. And before this even starts, the priest prepares the gifts used in the liturgy in the proskomedia . But this is not done before the clergy pray introductory prayers upon entering the sanctuary and prayers for vesting. And even before all this, the offices of vespers and matins have been sung in vigil the night before. In addition to this, we assume that the ministers of these mysteries, the priests and deacons, have prepared themselves with theological education, writing well-prepared homilies, fasting, giving alms, and personal prayer. All of this is done in order that we might be made ready to hear the Lord's Words and eat His flesh and drink His blood.
I suggest that preparation for singing liturgical texts requires the same thing. It requires that we practice the music, we exercise our voices, we pray for God's help in fulfilling our role, we fast, we give to the poor and needy, and we attend preparatory services. This means we must reject the idea that singing liturgical services is simply showing up at 9:29 am in front of a stand on the left side of the church. If the priest showed at 9:29 am having done no preparation, no proskomedia, our liturgical experience would include chunks of ripped of bread, spilled wine, a bad homily, and an utterly sloppy offering. We would or should be scandalized by such behavior from our clergy. We should likewise be scandalized if this is what we do.
So serving in a choir, as a choir director, or a cantor, requires preparation, education and practice. Time is precious to all of us. But if we desire to have the best worship, it requires, as scripture teaches us, a sacrifice. So liturgical singing is more than just singing some songs. It is a commitment of time, learning, practicing, and praying. It is work, hard work, potentially enjoyable, but still work. The sacrifice of praise that a singer gives often means that the pure joy of worship is sacrificed due to frantic page turning, attention to diction, breathing, and other mechanics in order that someone else can enter fully into the praise and worship of God.
If anyone feels that this is his or her calling, then it means discerning whether the level of commitment is there. Are we prepared to pray together in preparation, hone the necessary skills, read educational material, and seek direction? If we are not, we have to evaluate our motives. Is it self-fulfillment we seek, or is it a response of love for God? We do not join choirs, serve on parish councils, or become altar servers in order to enjoy ourselves; we do it as a response in thanksgiving to a God, Who has given us everything including that which we offer back to Him.
Now that I have scared any possible recruits to such a ministry or any other ministry in this parish since you all fear being naked on judgment day, I want to say that I just gave you the norm, the vision of the ideal. What actually will happen is that forgiveness, economia, and accommodation will be practiced; Like, yesterday, I chose reading one more chapter of Lord of the Rings, which I have ready at least fifteen times in last ten years, instead of practicing the pankhida music, whose quality suffered a bit last night because of my lack of preparation. But even when we know that we will be forgiven for missing vespers, or cutting short our prayers, not going to a bible study, or whatever, we need to ever challenge our tempation to fall into a lower state of spiritual entropy by looking to the perfect measure of stewardship, Jesus on the Cross.
Now I will tell you a little bit about the sacrifices and resultant joy I experience in this music ministry. I was trained musically as a trumpet player. I was terrified of singing. I used to get occasional gigs to play trumpet at big Roman Catholic services, weddings, and such. I even played guitar at a few services. This is where I started in singing. After college I was a member of the Franciscans. We sang everyday. I began composing and arranging. I learned Gregorian chant, and I introduced Byzantine-Rite music into Roman rite services here and there. Doing those years, I sang and cantored in Carpatho-Rusyn and Ukrainian Catholic parishes, which use the same liturgical services that the Orthodox churches use. So on the weekends, I did that and on the weekdays had to endure Roman rite services. When I volunteered to cantor at St. Josaphat's Ukrainian Catholic Church in Munster, Indiana, they had two divine liturgies on Sunday. The Ukrainian language liturgy was sung by a large choir; the English liturgy was sung only once a month by a visiting cantor from Chicago. The rest of the time, it was recited. Not exactly uplifting liturgy. Now I had been telling the pastor that we could sing more, but he resisted.
So what happened after that pastor left unexpectedly? The dean of the Chicago Deanary came down. So when he showed up to fill-in until we got a new pastor, he asked the cantor (me), "What are we doing here for liturgy, do they sing"? Now, did I say, "Oh no, Father, only once a month." Nope, I decided that Jesus was taking to me when He told His disciples, "Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves."11 I said, "Otche, we sing the liturgy." The dean said, "Duzhe dobrij, I can use incense then." And from that point on English liturgies were always sung at St. Josaphat's.
And for me, it is always a joy to make liturgy better. And this meant there was sacrifice in that joy. It meant more work; we did not have much music in English. We had a lot in Ukrainian. Sometimes, I had to sing in Ukrainian, sometimes I had to stay up late on Saturday night writing out troparia in some Galician tone, and get up early on Sunday morning to print it. But it was always worth it. It paid poorly, liturgy was at eight o'clock, I lived in Edgewater up by Loyola, I had to drive 40 miles, and only 10-20 people showed up, I had to practice music constantly, the Ukrainian cantors hated me, and my choir consisted of three Ukrainian kids, five polish kids, and eventually a Roman Catholic student from Loyola who new nothing about Byzantine liturgy (but she could sing). But the liturgy was always beautiful and uplifting. I learned a lot about liturgy. I think I got much more than I ever sacrificed. And as a bonus, that Loyola student convinced me to jump ship a year later and join the OCA with her, and then she married me.
1 Deuteronomy 12:5-6.
2 Philippians 2:5-7.
3 Luke 9:23-24.
4 Cf. Matthew 2:9-11.
5 Matthew 2:11.
6 Webster-Miriam Dictionary.
7 Matthew 9:13.
8 Matthew 5:23-24.
9 Hebrews 13:14-16.
10 Psalm 106:21-22. All Psalm references are Septuagint numbering and translations.
11 Matthew 10:16.
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