One of the paradoxes of assisting as a musician or singer at the liturgy is that an individual may be tempted to congratulate himself for accomplishing a task that is principally aimed at glorifying God. Musical excellence, after all, requires not only talent, but also serious effort. It is understandable that as we are more conscious of the effort we expend in preparation for the liturgy, we can at times forget about the foundational talents we have received from the Lord. Without the gift of a musical ear or a pleasant voice, no amount of effort will allow an individual to mount the heights of artistic excellence. Who can but pity the proud cantor who, descending from the ambo after intoning Psalm 115, murmurs to herself, “How well I have sung!”
There is a deeper problem at work here than mere forgetfulness of the unmerited gift of talent. When it comes to the liturgy, we are not left to our own devices, for Christ is present to the Church “especially during the liturgy . . . He is present through his word, in that he himself is speaking when scripture is read in church . . . [He] is present when the church is praying or singing hymns” (SC §7). The liturgy cannot be reduced to its human element, but is fundamentally “the act of Christ the priest and his body which is the church” (SC §7).
In the liturgy, Christ works through us as his instruments—through ordained priests in the offering of the Eucharist, and through all the baptized in the task of offering a living “sacrifice of praise” (Heb 13:15). Christ acts through us when we sing in the liturgy. In addition to giving us the talent to sing, he fructifies our song, inwardly teaching those who listen to our words to understand their true import. For after all, if Christ does not speak to the hearts of those who hear our song, their ears may be delighted, but their hearts will not be rent.
When it comes to our performance of the liturgy, then, our own efforts are important, but we must ultimately rely on God, who has given us the means with which to praise him and who sustains us in our sacrifice of praise. Accordingly, we would do well to reflect on the words of St. Augustine:
Disdain yourself when you are praised. Let him who works through you be praised in you. Don’t accomplish whatever good you do for your own praise, then, but for the praise of him from whom you have the means to do good. From yourself you have the means to do bad, from God you have the means to do good. (Homilies on the First Epistle of John, VIII, §2)