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Singing Praise in the Darkness

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Christ’s peace must reign in your hearts,
since as members of the one body
you have been called to that peace.
Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness.
Let the word of Christ, rich as it is, dwell in you.
In wisdom made perfect,
instruct and admonish one another.
Sing gratefully to God from your hearts
in psalms, hymns, and inspired songs.
Whatever you do, whether in speech or in action,
do it in the name of Jesus.
Give thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:15–17)

I’m sure many of you are at least familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which tells the story of the quest to unmake the ring of power, a device that has the potential to destroy the world. In this story there is a character named Sam, the gardener and faithful companion of Frodo, the hobbit tasked with destroying the ring. As they near the end of their quest, Sam finds himself in a rather hopeless situation. He has just battled with an ancient, terrible monster in the form of a giant spider, and the one person entrusted to his care is near-dead and has just been captured by the enemy. Tolkien describes the scene of Sam’s final attempt to rescue Frodo this way:

At last, weary and feeling finally defeated, he sat on a step below the level of the passage-floor and bowed his head into his hands. It was quiet, horribly quiet. The torch, that was already burning low when he arrived, sputtered and went out; and he felt the darkness cover him like a tide. And then softly, to his own surprise, there at the vain end of his long journey and his grief, moved by what thought in his heart he could not tell, Sam began to sing.

His voice sounded thin and quavering in the cold dark tower: the voice of a forlorn and weary hobbit. . . . He murmured old childish tunes out of the Shire, and snatches of Mr. Bilbo’s rhymes that came into his mind like fleeting glimpses of the country of his home. And then suddenly new strength rose in him, and his voice rang out, while words of his own came unbidden to fit the simple tune.

Sam’s hopelessness is not altogether unfamiliar to us. We know his grief. We are always searching for ways out of the darkness. How are we to respond when we hear of a toddler being torn unexpectedly from his parents and killed by an alligator, or of a man walking into a nightclub and killing 49 people? What action could possibly counteract the violence of the world that so often seems to surround us?

The answer, St. Paul tells us, quite simply, is praise. It’s a liturgical action that St. Paul describes in our reading: “Sing gratefully to God from your hearts in psalms, hymns, and inspired songs. Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness. Let the word of Christ dwell in you. Give thanks to God the Father through him.”

This dedication to thankfulness, to praise, is the Christian’s response to the darkness, which is why Paul writes elsewhere to “sing and make melody to the Lord with all your heart,” and to “always and for everything give thanks” (Eph 5:20).

Now this is not something new. Moses sang of God’s triumph over the Israelites in Exodus 15, and before his death in Deuteronomy 32. The Old Testament relays the canticles of Deborah (Jgs 5), of Hannah, the mother of Samuel (1 Sam 2:1–20), of Judith (Jdt 16:1–7), of Isaiah (Is 12), of Ezekiel (Ez 36:24–28), and of Habakkuk (Hb 3:1–19), not to mention the Song of Songs of Solomon and the psalms of David. And the book of Daniel tells us of the three young men who refused to worship the image of Nebuchadnezzar, and that after being cast into a furnace they “walked about in the midst of the flames, singing hymns to God and blessing the Lord” (Dn 3:26–56).

In the New Testament we find the Canticles of Zachariah (Lk 1:68–79), of Simeon (Lk 2:29–32), and of Mary (Lk 1:46–55). Even our Lord, after instituting the Eucharist and before going out into the garden, sang a hymn with his disciples (cf. Mt 26:30 and Mk 14:26).

The violence of the world is cured by the song of the Church: the liturgy. So let us sing. Let us “dedicate ourselves to thankfulness.” And let the “hymns of Zion,” as Blessed Basil Moreau once wrote, “inspire a profound aversion to the dissolute hymns of Babylon.”[1]

Editors’ Note: This text was delivered as a homily at Vespers during the Center for Liturgy Symposium, Liturgy and the New Evangelization. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.

Featured Photo: 1st Lt. Nicole Rossman, Staff Sgt. Ian Shay, and Sgt. John L. Carkeet IV, 143d ESC; CC BY2.0.

[1] Christian Education, in Essential Writings (Gawrych and Grove, eds.), 371.

Anthony J. Oleck

Anthony Oleck holds a Master of Theological Studies ('16) from the University of Notre Dame and is the full-time Assistant Rector of Dunne Hall.