All music is a means of searching out the sacred. ~ James MacMillan, composer

There is a trend gaining momentum that voices the links between art and faith. On matters of religious faith, silence has been the practice in mainstream discourse about the arts. In the world of visual art for example, a dividing wall was built restricting any significant religious presence in conversations about visual art. The folly and falsehood of this division is currently being unmasked. Many authors and critics are opening the way to fresh recognition of the close connection between religious and artistic sensibility as well as the role of religious belief and experience that influences both artists and their art.

For some time now I have been dabbling in a book titled Sacred Music in a Secular Society by Jonathan Arnold, that has provided much food for thought.  How is it that in a “post-Christian” secular society where church attendance in on the wain and religious belief is marginalized, that sacred music remains consistently popular? The book focuses on music out of the Western Christian classical tradition. Of all the arts music has the most obvious affinity with spirituality. Some have contended that music has a “sacramental” quality about it meaning its a finite temporal reality through which the divine is disclosed and communicated.

This does not require that the music has either a religious theme or religious intent. Music in human civilization has served to foster community whether through the practice of playing instruments, singing together or as part of our rituals of celebration. These embodied activities keep us in touch with one another and with the world around us. And I think its not an exaggeration to say that music of every culture has been engaged as a means to encounter the supernatural.

Johannes Brahms

It is not easy to give an account of what is meant by “sacred music”. Arnold suggests three possibilities. First the intention of the composer which can include music written for devotional practice or to be employed in a liturgical context. However some sacred music such as Brahms Requiem has neither devotional nor liturgical intent. Second the context in which the music is performed such as a church service to accompany community worship. In this case both text and context make clear it’s sacred music.

The third option gets to the heart of the matter. Music that was so consistently connected with religious belief in times past found new settings in the concert halls where the the religious function was left behind. Since that shift we must now consider sacred music in terms of its nature. That is, music that has the capacity to turn our attention toward mystery, transcendence, forgiveness, love or hope and is able to reach deeply into the human heart to express our longings. (A good example of this is Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams). It has been noted that Western culture owes an enormous amount to the Judeo-Christian tradition and its shaping influence on our music. Sacred music in particular carries something of the spirituality of the times in which it was composed and more specifically the spiritual sensibilities of the composer. In our secular society the strains of sacred music from past (Palestrina, Byrd, Bach) or present (Part, Tavener, MacMillan) nurture the human spirit and bring consolation and hope.

Sacred music is deeply human in what it expresses and so can be meaningful whether faith is present or absent. Many of those who champion sacred music are not themselves people of faith but they discern the value and importance of great music in the genre of the sacred. What sacred music is able to do is to connect with spiritual longings that have been neglected, or covered up because of the values and practices of our secular society. It is as though sacred music provides nurture for a hunger we didn’t know we had. It discloses a spiritual quality to life easily missed in our fast-paced technological world.

At this season of Advent and Christmas sacred music looms large in well-known carols and performances of choral music including Handel’s Messiah. The lyrics are explicit: “joy to the world the Lord has come, let earth receive her King,” “veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity”, “I know that my Redeemer liveth …” “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ” all of which can be overlooked as we engage the power of the music or the pleasures of the season. It could said that however much one ignores the lyrics the music itself carries something of the spirit and meaning of those words and that’s part of its appeal. Music as an art form does not “denote” but is able to “connote”. It is not specific but suggestive. In our secular society it seems we value what sacred music suggests but don’t wish to engage with what the lyrics so clearly declare.

If we pay attention, Advent is able to lift us out of our day to day routines and place us in an alternate time, a time of waiting of expectation and of hope. The sacred music of the season has the capacity to deepen our experience of Advent themes. Whether listening or singing together we foster a sense of community and of belonging as we remember the story we are called to live in and note afresh its transforming power.