Dignus est Agnus qui occisus est - Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and divinity and wisdom and strength and glory (Apoc 5:12).
So we sang in the Introit to today’s Mass. So we make our own the cry of the numberless Angels gathered around the Throne in Heaven, as seen and reported by St. John in the Apocalypse. And with this cry, this Chant, we bring our liturgical year to its close: celebrating our faith in Christ on a final note of triumph and jubilation, of glory, and majesty, and power.
Today, as it happens, the Feast of Christ the King falls on 22nd of November, the feast of St. Cecilia. Of course any commemoration of St. Cecilia is entirely displaced in the liturgy of today. It occurred to me, though, that St. Cecilia could perhaps teach us something about Christ the King: how we should worthily celebrate him; how we should proclaim him to our world; what we should do to bring about his reign in our own hearts and lives.
A virgin martyr perhaps of the late 2nd century, St. Cecilia’s name is mentioned in the Roman Canon. In honour of Christ the King, I should like to hold up today three aspects of her story: virginity, and martyrdom, and music.
Virginity first of all. According to the legend, on her wedding night Cecilia informed her pagan bridegroom that she had vowed her virginity to the Lord. The scholars tell us that no firm credence can be given any such details of Cecilia’s life. Nevertheless, the fact of St. Cecilia’s great popularity in the early Church cannot be disputed. The ideal of virginity was then very highly valued, and Christians well understood the importance of holy purity for any authentic following of Christ.
In these days of confusion and contrary propaganda, that message is rarely understood, or even heard. Inspired especially by St. Cecilia, let us then reassert today what we already know: that if we wish to honour Christ our King; if we mean what we say when we ask for his Kingdom to come, then we need to be serious about holy purity. Unchastity of act and even of thought is incompatible with Christ’s free reign in our lives. How can we truly call him “Lord”; how can his Kingdom be established in us, if we willingly allow all kinds of lust and unclean desire to have secret possession of our innermost thoughts? So today with the Psalmist we cry: Create a clean heart in me O God! (Ps 50/51:10). Come Lord Jesus, and live in me as in a consecrated Church, where impurity has no place, because it is driven out by your presence and power and love! And insofar I ever fail in holy purity, have mercy upon me, a sinner, and help me to become truly a Saint.
According to the story, St. Cecilia’s husband Valerian accepted both her request, and her faith. He was baptised with his brother Tiburtius, and together they suffered martyrdom. Cecilia was comforted by a vision of the pair of them in glory before her own cruel torture and martyrdom.
The martyrdom of St. Cecilia reminds us that Christ’s Kingship in this world is always paradoxical. Until he comes in glory, he reigns as if from the Cross. Often it seems he asks those who are his closest friends to share his sufferings most fully. And this is because he loves them; because this will help draw them into closer union with himself, and exercise them in all the virtues. Today then, on the Feast of Christ the King, we commit ourselves in principle to be ready for contradictions, failures, disappointments, humiliations, griefs, pains and losses of every sort. We know that if these things come our way, they are not at all a sign that the Lord has abandoned us. On the contrary. If we endure them with him, and accept them as if from him, they can become actual blessings for us. So with St. Cecilia we ask today especially for the gift and virtue of detachment. May we be truly detached from - able to let go of - all that is not God. May our longing for God, our desire for him ever increase, until all other desires become overwhelmed by this central one; for God alone is supremely to be desired, and this desire is supremely for our good.
St. Cecilia is said to have sung to the Lord in her heart as she awaited her death. From that rather vague association, she has become the Patron Saint of Music. Is music essential for the Kingdom, in the way that chastity and detachment from the goods of this world are essential? No, of course. Music is sheer gratuitous gift: but surely among the most wonderful of all God’s gifts! Let me boldly affirm now that music is not merely incidental to our Christian worship, or to our Christian lives, or to the establishment of Christ’s Kingship in our world. There can of course be bad music, which has little or no value, and there can be music which stirs up dishonourable passions. But good music, and great music, even without any explicitly Christian or even religious reference, has the power somehow to touch us in our deepest and best self; to put us in direct contact with what is sublime, and noble, and beautiful, and good, and enduring; to lift us up already to some slight participation in the song of the angels in heaven.
If in such music we discern already some divine spark, some foretaste or echo of the Kingdom of Christ, what is to be said of the Church’s own music, the Gregorian Chant? Even artistically we must say that the Chant is as great as the greatest music ever composed anywhere in any age by any composer. But more: through this music, which explicitly adorns the inspired Word of God, Christ prays, Christ sings; his Bride the Church prays and sings; and Christ’s Spirit breathes through the notes of her song.
The Chant is essentially simple in its structures and principles, plain in its single line of cantilation, yet also full of life, and energy, and variety. Arising from and returning to the silence of contemplation, the Chant is the music of prayer, both for the assembly and for the individual singer or listener. Through our Chant then, as well as through our pursuit of purity and detachment, may we give fitting praise to Christ our King, to whom be glory and honour and power, now and forever, Amen.