by Mary Vasile
I have a confession to make. I have been singing in the Liturgy Arts Group for close to three years, but when I first encountered LAG at the 9pm Mass in Trinity Chapel, I was not a fan of the song selection. In my defense (I can hear a chorus of outraged voices rippling out before me), I had grown up going every Sunday to a country stone church, with an organ, and a lot of songs set to traditional Irish airs, or strong power hymns like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Here, instead, were all these songs that sounded a lot like “Songs 4 Worship.” From time to time, for reasons unbeknownst to me, a song required a clapping congregation and a swaying choir. I am a very awkward clapper and swayer. Even three years has not helped that.
Yet for some reason, in the March of my freshman year, I found myself, with trembling hands, walking up to the director Jojo David and almost apologizing to him for wanting to join LAG. With a reassuring smile, he told me, “Better late than never!”
I knew going in that the songs coming up on the docket weren’t going to be the songs of my childhood. I got used to it. Eventually I loosened up and enjoyed it! The songs were youthful and energetic and fun to sing. Sometimes, though, I must admit, I missed those old familiar hymns like “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” or “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus.”
And then one day we sang “In Christ Alone.”
Have you ever heard “In Christ Alone?” Okay, just in case you haven’t, let me describe it to you. Imagine the most peaceful moment you have ever experienced, one in which a soothing blue curtain came down and shielded you from all the bright, loud, jarring colors of the world. Now imagine that in that most peaceful moment you are surrounded by people who love you. And the whole time, you are being lifted gently over undulating waves of rhythm and melody.
A little melodramatic to describe it this way? Perhaps, but bear with me.
I experienced such a moment, standing among the altos during communion, enveloped in resonating voices all singing as one. A swelling sound with no soprano or alto or tenor or bass. Just the melody, rising and cascading. Usually, I am one for harmonies and big boisterous melodies, but not in this case. The simplicity of singing in unison soothed all the aches and cares I had accrued that week. Even the lyrics were eloquent in their simplicity. Here, for instance, is the opening line.
“In Christ alone, my hope is found. He is my light, my strength, my song.”
I love the parallel structure here: My light. My strength. My song. It is clear and confident, and it elicits all the abstract and personal connotations with which each individual understands his relationship with God. Yet the phrase is so simple.
And that, I realize, is the beauty of “In Christ Alone.” The power of its simplicity.
To elaborate on this simple beauty and why it’s important anyway, I will, if I may, make a non-musical allusion and bring in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (which I do whenever even remotely possible). In the movie, when presented with all the gorgeously ornate possible Holy Grails that are made of silver and gold, and encrusted with jewels and pearls, Indy points to one and says, “That’s the cup of a carpenter.” He chooses the simplest, most unimposing cup that is hidden away behind all the others. This is the cup that heals.
And for me, that Grail is this song. Simplicity is not something our generation usually embraces. We carry all the trappings of this world with us, and, more often than not, they weigh us down. We cherish all the glistening gems and distractions the world offers, and we clutch them tightly to us. We are so afraid of what might happen if we loosen our grip on them for a moment, put down the phone, or stop thinking about the next paper that’s due. We hold on to them for so long that eventually the gemstones have dug into our palms, and we have huge, ornate chains about our necks.
This song is the unadorned hand that lifts that chain from my neck. A hand with no fancy cufflinks, rings, bracelets, or gems. A reminder that glittering jewels are something, but they’re not everything.
I have found no recording of “In Christ Alone” that I really adore, which troubled me until a few days ago. While writing this article, I asked my roommate, “How do you talk about music?” Her response was so perfect and simple: “You sing.” And I realized—that’s where I am going to encounter Christ. In simplicity. When I sing. He is my light, my strength, my song.