How the Choir Converted the World: Through Hymns, with Hymns, and in Hymns

How the Choir Converted the World:
Through Hymns, with Hymns, and in Hymns

by Mike Aquilina
(Emmaus Road Publishing, 2016)

Back in the 80s, when people were talking about back-masking and I was listening to a lot of “charismatic” music, I never bothered to learn about the Church’s experience with or teaching about music. It is only so many years later that this book has come my way now and finally, the real meaning of “Christian music” is beginning to come together in my mind.

The “choir converted the world” because music was a weapon that strengthened the faithful, protected and disseminated the faith and fended off the faithless.

As with many other elements of our Church, it all began with the way the Jews used music.

The Musical Tradition of the Israelites
Music was very much a part of Jewish life and worship and the Israelites’ musical tradition was known and appreciated even by their neighbours and captors, as we can see from the example of the Babylonians demanding that the Israelites sing for them (Psalm 137:1-4).

Some interesting points about the Jewish musical tradition:

Connection between music and prophecy
The Hebrew word for “make music” also means “prophecy”, and this music involved using musical instruments such as the tambourine and dancing, as in the examples of Miriam (Ex 15:20-21)and Deborah (Judges 5:12).

Commemoration of important events with music
Music and song were significant in major life events, such as in Hannah’s prayer (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and some of David’s psalms.

Role of David, king composer
David’s psalms ranged from personal prayers to songs for public worship. With him, all musical instruments were suitable for praising God and his psalms became the foundational model for songs of worship.

Musical instruments
The first record of liturgy starts with the sounding of the trumpet in the exodus. In the Old Testament, the trumpet signifies God’s presence and is also used in war and sacrifice. Other instruments recorded include the harp, tambourine, flute and lyre, all of which are connected with prophesying.

The Israelites’ Apprehension about Music as Used by the Pagans
Although music was so entrenched in Jewish life and worship, the Israelites were well aware that it was also an important part of worship in the pagan temples. Isaiah, for example, warned about being trapped in this potent mix of music, wine and food (Is 5:11-12).

Early Christians’ Apprehension about Music as Used by the Pagans
This suspicion about music carried over into the early Church as music was also a significant element of pagan worship of the time. The Greek and Roman empires had rich traditions of music, which, like their other forms of art, were rooted in religion, and music was strongly associated with worship practices such as those relating to their gods or to evil spirits, and their wild revelry, orgies and rites of human sacrifice.

Thus, early Christians kept their distance from music. It just had too many heinous associations and they also saw that it had a direct effect on a person’s “moral behaviour”. Commenting on this point, Aquilina adds a reminder that modern popular music does also link to the “worst behaviour”.

Music in the Early Church
Nevertheless, music was used in the early Church, one of the obvious ways being in the musical traditions inherited from Jewish practice. Songs were commonly used in private and public worship. As the early generations of Christians continued to worship in the Temple and synagogues, they would have sung the psalms that Jesus and His disciples, and generations of Israelites before them, would have sung. The New Testament records the use of music in the early Church, such as in St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (3:16-17). Bible scholars recognise hymns within some epistles, such as Ephesians 5:14, 1 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Timothy 2:11-13. Revelation records a number of singing scenes.

Early Christian Music
The earliest evidence of Christian music was a hymn written with its notation on a piece of papyrus, just before year 300. By then, Christians were using psalms as well as some music based on Greek and Roman music styles although, on the whole, they tended to exclude dancing and musical instruments due to their pagan associations. There were Christians who argued that since people enjoyed music, it could be used to attract them to God. However, many early Christians felt that converts were not searching for what they used to have as pagans and so there was no need to adopt pagan styles of music. Eventually, early Christians developed “simple and vocal singing”, and here, we see the role of specific musical saints.

For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch introduced “antiphonal” singing, in which the congregation sang responses in “one voice”. This style of music was an expression of being in union with the whole congregation as well as with the whole of creation, in praise of God.

Music in the Battle against Heresy
Some leaps in the development of early Christian music arose out of staving off heretics. Some heretics gained a lot of success partly with “catchy tunes” to attract converts, resulting in some Christians distancing themselves even more from music. Others, on the other hand, took on the heretics at the music arena and turned it into a Christian victory of sorts.

By then, “private psalms” were written and sung, and Arius used this genre to promote his brand of beliefs, together with his set of “catchy melodies”. Other heretics such as Marcion, Valentius, Bardaisan and his son Harmonious wrote their own psalms. Some heretical psalms are also found in the “acts” of several Apostles; these were mostly the work of heretical sects.

In response, the Church specified that only psalms from Scripture could be used. St. Ephrem of Syria adapted Harmonious’ method of hymn-writing (Harmonious had developed a form of poetry by modifying Greek rules of metre and music for the Syriac language), established and trained female choirs (Bardaisan method) and wrote hymns that were theologically and spiritually sound and yet easy for people to comprehend and memorise. Some of his hymns specifically targeted the false teachings of Arius and Bardaisan.

Another saint who played his musical part was St. Ambrose, a prominent figure in the battle against Arius. He developed the Ambrosian Rite, a form of the chant with antiphonal singing of short lines and catchy rhythms. Many of his hymns end with a verse of doxology in praise of the Trinity. With his grounding in classical poetry, his musical work also engaged the “intellectual elite”. Most Church music composed in Latin during the Middle Ages continued to use his 8-syllable verse metre.

Elsewhere, much work went into preserving the faith, such as in a long poem composed to disprove the Marcionite heresy and in the new western style of hymns developed by musicians such as St. Hilary of Poitiers.

Thus, in some way, it was Christian music that beat the heretics at their game.

Theology of Christian music
The next stage was the development of a sound understanding of the role of Christian music. St. Augustine was among those who were cautious about indulging in the pleasure of music. Importantly, his conversion began with his hearing a child sing. Eventually, he developed the explanation that if music is used correctly, it should lead us to the “higher things on which we should be focused”. Thus, the Christian musician is responsible for ensuring that the music leads the faithful “upward”. With music understood in this light, it became legitimately part of Christian liturgy.

In time, the role of music in the liturgy developed and “cantor” became an office of the Church. Years down the road, the Gregorian chant was developed and more years further down, after Guido of Arezzo’s invention of the musical staff, Church music grew to include more singers, voices, choruses and orchestras, blossoming with the many inspired Mass settings and religious music that came from the pens of various composers.

Te Deum: Our “Catholic Fight Song”
In the tradition of drowning out the attractions of pagan and heretical music and ideas, the Te Deum is a typical Catholic hymn filled with spirituality and theology, such that some see it as “the Creed set to music”. It has inspired many composers to write the music for its words and Holy God, We Praise Thy Name is the English form by which many of us know it.

Looking at these centuries of musical history, we can see that music was a gift from God that man in return could use to glorify Him. At the same time, it was a source of strength and, when used correctly with the correct spiritual substance, it gave Christians the power to preserve the right teachings, and right worship of the right God. Hence, it can be said that it was Christian music that helped defend Christianity against all sorts of attacks.

May our songs and music continue to defend our faith and to convert the world.

♫ Definitely time to sing Holy God, We Praise Thy Name




Cross of the Son of God

Near the cross
They watched and waited.
Some laughed, some cried,
One’s eyes were opened and he saw
The Son of God.

Beside the cross
They hung and laboured,
One’s last minutes bitter, the other’s hopeful,
Calling out to be saved, by
The Son of God.

At the cross
They kept vigil and received,
Her sorrow profound, his sadness sincere,
The gift of a son, the gift of a mother, from
The Son of God.

On the cross
He bled and suffered,
Heart pierced, soul pained,
Pouring out love, offering forgiveness,
The Son of God.

In the cross
We hope and live.
For its pain, He won glory,
For its death, life, as He triumphed,
The Son of God.

written for Spotlight (September 2013)

Light When It Comes

Light When It Comes
Chris Anderson
(William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016)

I had started on this book when I received Fr. Henry Siew’s booklet Encountering the Lord in Daily Life, in which he recommends the Consciousness Examen as one of three “simple forms of prayer”, and which I decided was something I should finally take seriously. I am still struggling with it. It may be simple but it takes a lot of discipline and I have yet to develop the mindfulness to do it properly.

Light When It Comes is serendipitously the practical application of the Examen and so it is a great help for me. What Anderson is showing is that one needs to be attuned to the Lord – that is how to recognise Him in everything. It is such an enjoyable lyrical [just look at the pretty cover!] collection of snippets from the ups and downs, questions and answers, and doubts and hopes of daily life. In both light and darkness, God is always present; it is just that we miss the point sometimes.

I found the sections on “darkness” particularly helpful. They reminded me of reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son and coming to the awful and somewhat discouraging realisation that the morose, brooding older brother was me. Everything the father had was his but he wasn’t aware of it – we can only imagine the joy and love that would have been in his heart had he known this, but he was stuck on the darker side of things, where he saw patches of light without catching its full brilliance. The older brother and I have some trouble recognising the light when it comes.

There were parts of the book that struck me like they were written just for me, and I include some of them here, with their chapter titles. I see them as glimpses of light that I need.

Seeing the Light

And the first words that Adam speaks? … the first recorded words of the first man—are poetry.

This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.

Dying to Ourselves

To pray the examen doesn’t just mean to revel in the light. It means to face the darkness, too: the darkness of suffering, the darkness of our own limitations.

The cross is a lens… It’s our formula for interpreting every situation. What should we do? Whatever conforms us the most closely to the cross. Whatever turns the situation upside down…

What should we do? Whatever empties us. Whatever silences us… Whatever gives us the chance to die.

Holding On

I thirst for praise, but praise doesn’t satisfy. I thirst for order, but order doesn’t satisfy. I thirst for certainty: never to be troubled, never to be confused, never to have to wrestle with things in my mind. But certainty doesn’t quench the thirst, and it’s not possible anyway. None of this water is clean and pure. None of this water is the living water.

But we’re being healed of leprosy all the time, and we’re always failing to realize it.

Going Wild

Sometimes where we find ourselves is in the desert. More and more, I think, life is about letting things go, or trying to. It’s about giving things up. It’s about holding things in memory and believing in them still.

Completing Creation

What value is it to the people in our lives if we spend the morning writing a poem, or walking in the woods, or weeding the front flowerbed?

What worth is our joy?

A worth beyond price.

I have said these things to you,” Jesus tells his disciples, “so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

But this is the night before the Crucifixion, this is the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John, and sadness fills the room. Fear.

How can joy be possible?

Jesus saith to her: Did not I say to thee that if thou believe, thou shalt see the glory of God? (John 11:40)

May we see the Lord of joy and light in all we do!

Excerpts of the book can be found here.

♫ Makes me think of In My Heart

Exploring Our Faith

Exploring Our Faith
by Rev. Anthony Hutjes (2015)

Fr. Anthony explains a range of familiar topics such as the Bible, the Trinity, prayer, sacraments and Mother Mary as well as topics specific to his ministry, with the intention of making “certain aspects of the Catholic faith somewhat more accessible for a broader public” rather than to “say anything new or original about my religion or to create a handbook which tries to cover all details’. Indeed, he clearly explains the teachings, theology and application of some foundational aspects of our faith.

What I will say about the familiar topics is that it is always instructive to revise and revisit what we should know. At the very least, every presentation of these topics encourages a little re-think of how we understand them.

Here, I will focus on the chapters that are particularly significant to his order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (SS.CC), and the chapter on laypersons.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus
Devotion to the Sacred Heart draws us into the very heart of Jesus – His “innermost life” and the depths of His being that were the source of everything He did and said. This devotion encourages the “patient meditation” by which we know Jesus better and this is important “because how can you love what you do not know?” We also come close to Jesus through adoration and Communion, and bring Him to others through our imitation of His life.

The Spirituality of St. Damien of Molokai

Now this was something I never knew – that Mahatma Gandhi knew about Fr. Damien. Gandhi said this about him: “There have been few lives in history or legend who lived on the completely spiritual level of Father Damien.” What was it that gave him the capacity to serve God’s people so selflessly and tirelessly? The “source of the heroism of Father Damien” (Gandhi’s words again), Fr. Anthony explains, was the combination of his family background, the Christ-centred spirituality of the SS.CC and his orientation on the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the love of His heart.

The SS.CC Mission in Asia

Evangelisation is a “fundamental duty of the people of God” and this non-negotiable inevitably means tackling these elements of modern life – “consumerism, individualism, secularism, relativism, hedonism, materialism”. It needs to be done sensitively, with openness to “dialogue”, and understanding and respect for specific societies and cultures. The SS.CC can do this in their mission in Asia by building upon their charism – celebrating the Eucharist, adoration and contemplation of Christ’s Sacred Heart, with “utter, personal conviction”; by “walking the talk”; “in a life of loving communion”; “with preferential love for the poor”; “in a spirit of dialogue and persuasive adaptation” and “proclaiming an everlasting life”.

The Mission of a Layperson
Fr. Anthony explains what is ultimately and practically important for laypersons, all of whom are called to mission. We build our sense of mission and the strength to carry it out in these ways:

In prayer
prayer is “the breath of faith” and we must search for God “with all your mind, with all your heart, with all your might and all your strength”

In self-sacrificial love towards others
through forgiveness and service

In marriage and family life
by being a sign of Jesus’ love – every marriage in Christ “has to reflect… every single line, every disposition, every moral value of the gospel”

In our love for the poor and those in need
this is a must, and we must love those who are poor materially as well as those poor in other aspects of life, such as the lonely and the rejected

In evangelisation
it is Jesus’ command to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 17:18) – it is not just priests but all of us who are called to be “alter Christus” to others, hence “our deepest wish should be that we may become truly Eucharistic people, like Jesus Christ Himself – we may become people, more and more willing to be eaten up by our loving and self-sacrificial concern for God and neighbour.”

In an interview included at the end of the book, Fr. Anthony discusses some challenges of being Christian in our world today. He cautions that one can get “flabby” and “weakened too much by an over-indulgent, egocentric and pampered way of life”. Thus, we must be disciplined and must focus on God and His Kingdom. In addition, “there is no point in people who merely flip through the Bible back and forth” – we need true “conversion” and “much more missionary zeal”.

God, our source of life, has to be our focus.

♫ Makes me think of Seed, scattered and sown


God Is Near Us

God Is Near Us
The Eucharist, the Heart of Life
by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, translated by Henry Taylor
(Ignatius Press, 2003)

This collection of Ratzinger’s sermons enlightens us about the Eucharist and explains how the Eucharist essentially means that God is not just near us but also with us – Emmanuel.

God comes to us and dwells with us
“… the immeasurable Word, the entire fullness of Holy Scripture, has contracted itself…”

God came “from eternity into time”, to dwell as man among men. How much nearer could He be? Thus, when we receive Holy Communion, we receive our God who “puts himself into our hands”, and so the result of this awesome direct contact should be a reverent and submissive spirit, and a heart open to His coming.

God’s Presence is real and abiding
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you… My flesh is food indeed.” (John 6:53, 55)

At the moment of Incarnation, Mother Mary gave Jesus His first earthly dwelling place. The overshadowing Holy Spirit created the new “place of meeting” between God and man, the Annunciation scene echoing the holy cloud resting over the Tent of Meeting, and our God who “cannot be contained within the world” came to “dwell in his entirety in one person”, as a real person. Jesus, as man, became the Paschal Lamb Who fulfilled what the Temple of Jerusalem stood for and henceforth dwells among man.

Thus, whenever and wherever we celebrate the Eucharist, we come together to worship God in the “holy tent”, with the Holy Spirit overshadowing us, and Jesus is truly and wholly there.

He Himself said in no uncertain terms that He is the Bread that we eat. When He explained that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood, He did not attempt to appease the agitated listeners by saying that His flesh merely “signifies” food. Instead, He said that His body is “food indeed”.

Adoration, then, becomes a natural and essential response to the Eucharist because “it is the majesty of the living God that comes to us with him”. The fourth century records of Cyril of Jerusalem tell us that candidates for baptism were taught to make a “throne” with their hands to receive Communion. The monks of Cluny (around 1000 AD) took off their shoes when they received Communion – because they were coming face to face with the “burning bush”, “the mystery before which Moses, in the desert, sank to his knees”.

Jesus gives Himself
“Jesus died praying, and in the abyss of death he upheld the First Commandment and held on to the presence of God. Out of such a death springs this sacrament, the Eucharist.”

The Eucharist arose out of Jesus’ giving of Himself in His actions from the Last Supper to the Resurrection – His sacrifice, death and saving work.

In washing His disciples’ feet, Jesus performed the work of the slave who washed the master’s or guests’ feet so that they would be ready to sit down for a meal together. At their shared meal after the washing of feet, He continued to give of Himself, not just in the words that after that come to us as the words of consecration but the entire sequence which we now celebrate as the Triduum, culminating in the Resurrection, is what the Eucharist means.

Thus, the Eucharist is “the act of self-sharing love” and “the presentation of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross”. By this, Jesus becomes “both the giver and the gift”, giving Himself to us “that we may give in turn”. Learning from His sacrificial attitude, we understand that “the sacrifice pleasing to God is a man pleasing to God.”

The Eucharist and the other sacraments
“… all sacramental acts have their origin in the Paschal Mystery of the Lord’s Cross and Resurrection.”

Jesus’ words at the Last Supper move us towards His death, and it is His word + death + Resurrection, the “mystery of Easter”, that completes the institution of the Eucharist, and also becomes the root of the sacrament of Baptism and gives birth to the Church.

The Eucharist is also closely related to the sacrament of reconciliation, which it “presupposes”. The early Church was keenly sensitive of the need for a person to to repent and confess before receiving Communion. In the 2nd century celebration of the Eucharist, the priest would say before Holy Communion, “Whoever is holy, let him approach – whoever is not, let him do penance.”

From Passover to Eucharistic celebration
“He gave himself to enter into the “fruit of the earth and the work of human hands”… It is the royal privilege of the Christian to share in paschal fellowship with the Lord, in the Paschal Mystery.”

The Mass grew out of the “heart” of Jewish worship, the Passover meal that intimately remembered, in the family setting, God’s saving action. Jesus transformed the Passover as the “true Paschal Lamb”. The Eucharistic celebration took shape from His final earthly Passover, following His command and centred on His redeeming sacrifice. Thus, His words are the “heart” of the Eucharist and the Mass is His gift to the whole Church for all time.

The Eucharist in the context of Church
“The celebration of the Eucharist is not just a meeting of heaven and earth; rather it is also a meeting of the Church then and now, a meeting of the Church here and there.”

The priest celebrates Mass not from a personal perspective but “represents the whole Church.” Thus, the Mass is not a private celebration for a priest or a particular group or congregation but at every Mass, it is the whole Church that celebrates and prays together. This is underlined by the specific naming of the bishop and Pope in the Eucharistic Prayer, showing that we celebrate the “one Eucharist of Jesus Christ, which we can receive only in the one Church”.

The entire Church lives because of the Eucharist, and this life must carry on outside of the Mass. Being in communion with the Lord requires us to be in communion with each other as well.

The Eucharist and our mission as Christians
“The Lord gives himself to us in bodily form. That is why we must likewise respond to him bodily. That means above all that the Eucharist must reach out beyond the limits of the church itself in the manifold forms of service to men and to the world.”

Receiving Christ, we have to carry Him in our daily lives and service to others. Holy Communion is a personal and spiritual communion with the Lord, and the words of the Liturgy change from “we” to “I” accordingly, yet we receive Him Who by His life and Resurrection leads us out into the world to “transform” it with our lives and actions. In Him we have the food that gives us strength to live our lives for others.

Daily, we move towards heaven, and we will get there if we remain with Him and walk “with Him Who came among us as bread and Word”.

♫ Makes me think of  O Bread of Heaven

The Other Yes

The Other Yes

When you are troubled and perturbed,
your plans are falling apart,
would you follow His promptings
when you can’t imagine where you could even start?

His answer was “yes”.

When you are worried and weary,
everyone is turning you away,
would you trust that He will sustain
and see you through, come what may?

His answer was “yes”.

When you are frightened and anxious,
pursued, and running from your foes,
would you let Him lead you His way,
and follow where He goes?

His answer was “yes”.


Years on, they asked –
Is not this the carpenter’s son?

The answer was “yes”.


Abraham – Father of Faith and Works

Abraham – Father of Faith and Works
From the Footprints of God series

The Footprints of God DVD series takes us through the landscape of our faith, with each title focusing on a Biblical personality. The passionate presenter Stephen Ray combines the familiar stories of these personalities with explanations and links from the Bible as well as the teachings of saints, the Church Fathers and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. All of this is shot on—beautiful—location in the Holy Land and other important sites.

The first title in the series, Abraham – Father of Faith and Works, explains how God sets His plan of salvation in motion with the calling of Abraham. It emphasises how Abraham is saved not just because of his faith but also his obedience to God and his good works. At each significant step in his life, he is faced with a challenging call, for example, to leave his family’s home and go to the unfamiliar Canaan, or to sacrifice his son Isaac, but he obeys. While Abraham is thus our father of faith whom God made His covenant with, the overarching assurance is that God has a plan, it will prevail and He will keep His promises.

This title also highlights the instances of typology found in the story of Abraham. For example, the offering of bread and wine by the priest Melchizedek prefigures the Eucharist, and the wedding of Isaac and Rebekah prefigures the marriage of the Lamb (Christ) and His bride, the Church. There is also God’s visit to Abraham in the form of the three men, who are seen as representing the Holy Trinity. Here, Ray asks us to reflect on how we receive the Lord. Are we sons and daughters of Abraham in welcoming the Lord or are we like the chief priests and scribes who rejected Jesus?

Places featured in this title include the Temple of Ziggurat (main temple in Ur, where Abraham came from), Bethel (where he built an altar to God), Hebron (where he settled) and Mamre (where God visited him), and Mount Moriah (where Isaac was supposed to have been sacrificed).

written for Spotlight (May 2016)

♫ Makes me think of Yahweh, You Are Near

Other titles in the Footprints of God series include:  Jesus – the Word Became Flesh, Mary – the Mother of God, Moses – Signs, Sacraments, Salvation, Paul – Contending for the Faith, and Apostolic Fathers – Handing on the Faith.