Never Stop Singing!
A Reflection on the Gospel of John 16:20-23
Public Domain Internet Image
No storm can shake my inmost calm; While to that refuge clinging; Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth; How can I keep from singing?
(American Folk Gospel Tune, youtu.be/Li2hddmy63U)
The Gospel Song, “How Can I Keep from Singing,” was first written down and published by Robert Lowery in 1868 but it is much older. Singers Pete Seeger and then Enya later popularized the tune in the mid-1990’s. The lyrics proclaim that the culture of fear and death can never suppress our joy in the Lord, “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth; How can I keep from singing?”
In Sacred Scripture, joy amidst persecution, is most often expressed by singing. In the book of Daniel, we hear that King Nebuchadnezzar throws Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into a furnace for not bowing down and worshiping a golden image. The Book of Daniel records that even standing in the red-hot furnace intended to destroy them, “they walked about in the flames, singing to God and blessing the Lord.” (Daniel 3:24 NABRE) Nothing could dampen their joy! How could they keep from singing!
In the Gospel of John, we hear our Lord’s final words to His disciples before he goes to the Garden of Gethsemane and begins the final steps of His passion and our redemption. Surprisingly, it is at this moment despite very scary times ahead (see John 15:26), that the Lord desires, above all things, to remind the disciples to be joyful. He tells them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy. … So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. (John 16:20,22 NABRE)
Despite everything that the Church will endure from a hostile world, past, current, and future, we are to have a joy that cannot be taken away. This attitude of joy infuriated those that persecuted the early Church. The whole point of the attacks on the disciples and the early Church was to scare people away from belief in Jesus as the Christ. But, for those who were persecuted for the sake of righteousness, joy can never be snuffed out.
Blessed [Happy] are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10 NABRE)
Jesus is the source of an unshakable joy. We must cast away any fear from persecution, overt or subtle, from proclaiming the Gospel. We are not to live in a state of fear but in joy. It is a joy that causes the Gospel to burst forth from our pores! The word in Greek used for “joy” is, “chara” (χαρά). It is defined as a calm delight, a serenity. Joy results from the decision to live in the serene happiness and assurance of the promise of eternal life. This joy is what Christ wants for His Church.
Despite persecution and hostility to Christ, the Early Church embraced joy! Even the choice of the crucifix as the most prominent of Christian symbols is a sign of the early Church’s joy in the face of terrible threats. The cross was meant to horrify those that witnessed a crucifixion so they would quickly fall into line with Rome’s demands. The Church takes that cross and boldly proclaims; “You can’t scare me!” Instead, the crucifix becomes the ultimate sign of God’s love and the joy which stems from our redemption.
Sts Perpetua and Felicity Internet Image from https://www.graceupland.org/podcast/saint-perpetua/
Joyful singing became the great Christian counter to terrible persecution. We hear that in the Acts of the Apostles 16:25, that St Paul and Silas, as they sat in the horrible conditions of a Roman jail, were not cowering in fear but praying and singing hymns! The account of the Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicity speaks of their being brought to the arena to face the wild beasts. The author writes,
The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheater joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear.
Perpetua, as she approached the arena immediately began singing a hymn. Then, a mad heifer attacked her.
First the heifer tossed Perpetua and she fell on her back. Then sitting up … she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair: for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph. (The Martyrdom of Sts Perpetua and Felicitas).
She could not keep from singing!
This same joy continues even in our time. Thousands of Catholics were martyred during the Spanish Civil War. At one convent, when the communist militia prepared to execute the nuns, it is recorded that they went to their deaths singing the hymns of the day, amazing the militiamen with the calm way in which these holy women met their deaths. Msgr. Iribarren wrote of seventy-four priests and religious at Lerida in 1936 who were put to death together. He writes that,
“[T]hey were not crestfallen, with eyes distorted by fear. Instead they went to their deaths singing hymns—the ‘Ave Maris Stella’ and the ‘Magnificat’—in the most solemn vespers of their lives.” (Raymond)
Despite every threat of torture and death, in the joy of Christ, they could not help but keep singing.
The world, the culture of death and fear, is still working hard to take away Christian joy and replace it with fear, hatred, and division. We cannot allow these to take hold of our hearts, instead let the love for and the joy of Christ possess it. Joy, not anger, hate, fear, or anguish must be our constant witness! Jesus tells us today, that “no one will take your joy away from you.”
St Paul reminds us,
… in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39 NABRE)
Never, ever, stop singing!
Missio Dei is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
New American Bible. Revised Edition (NABRE). Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011. Print.
Raymond, J. D. “‘they Went to Their Deaths Singing:’ The Martyrs and the Joyful Death.” “They Went to Their Deaths Singing:” The Martyrs and the Joyful Death, 8 Mar. 2022, www.gaudiummag.com/p/they-went-to-their-deaths-singing.
The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas. Translation by Herbert Musurillo. From The Acts of the Christian Martyrs. Oxford University Press, 1972. Print.
I sing bass in my church choir (Church of England (Anglican. Episcopalian in USA) and feel closest to God when singing whether it be chanting psalms, singing hymns, the magnificat and nunc dimitis, or an anthem like Ave Maria (and hundreds of others), and cannot help but feel joyful afterwards. There is something unique about singing.
Our feelings inform our intelect, and we make informed decisions. We must critique our feelings to determine what is worthy of our choice.