by Sarah Brock
Readings for the Feast Day of John Mason Neale:
2 Chronicles 20:20-21; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; Matthew 13:44-52
The first chords of the opening hymn flood into the brief silence after the prelude. The music reverberating through the space as the organ breathes its prayer. It’s sound flowing through our bodies, connecting us as we stand and join our voices together in a familiar melody.
Ever since I was a child, music has been one of my key entrance points into the liturgy. Growing up in a highly liturgical ELCA congregation, hymnody quickly became a cornerstone of my prayer life and a point of connection to faith and to God. I love the way singing grounds us in our own bodies, links us together as we breathe together, and binds us to the tradition and the communion of saints.
Given the popularity of hymn-sing services, lessons & carols, and the like, I suspect I’m not alone in my affinity to musical worship. But, I’m often surprised at how easy it is to skim over the lyrics and miss the depth of theology that is present in most of our hymns. What is it we are singing about anyway? Why were these particular hymns chosen for this service?
John Mason Neale was not the sort to let the theology and poetry of a hymn escape notice. Best known for his contributions as a hymnologist, Neale labored over translating Roman and Eastern Christian hymns for the Anglican Church. He put great effort into preserving the poetic quality and, a bit controversially, retaining only the theological content appropriate for Anglicanism. In many cases, his were the first English translations of the Greek and Latin texts. In addition to translating the hymns of the medieval Christian church Neale made some original contributions of his own, a few of which have stuck around.
In considering the care and attention John Mason Neale put into his writing and translation, I hear a challenge to pay more attention to the music of my own worship and prayer. What am I singing about? What do my favorite hymns proclaim about who God is and do I agree with them? What do my favorite hymns tell me about my own experience of God?
Perhaps you will join me in paying attention to the music of communal worship and personal prayer this week.
Sarah Brock is a Postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Massachusetts and lives in Boston.
Image Credit: My own.