Feast of Saint Cecilia
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
21 January 2024
Today, we celebrate the Feast of Saint Cecilia, one of the patron saints of our church. We have a relic of Saint Cecilia – a bone fragment – on our altar, together with a relic of Saint Therese of Lisieux. After the service, at the end of the Postlude, you are invited, if you would like, to come to the altar rail to venerate the relic of Saint Cecilia. It is custom to touch, kiss and/or simply gaze upon the relic.
Fr. Charles Everson, our former Rector, acquired the relics a few years ago. His selection of Cecilia should come as no surprise to us. She is the patron saint of singers, organ builders, musicians, and poets. Cecilia is a perfect fit for St. Mary’s! We have the best choral music of any church in the city, and our church is a premier venue for musical concerts and performances. Music lies at the heart of our identity.
We have very few facts about Cecilia. According to the few ancient sources available to us, she was a young aristocratic Roman woman, who with her husband Valerian, his brother Tibertius, and a Roman soldier, Maximus, suffered martyrdom around the year 230 during the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Alexander Severus. The reason why she is associated with music is the story that as she lay dying with multiples blows of the sword to her neck, she sang to God. So, she ended her life singing, and, if I might extend the story a bit, she woke up in heaven singing in the arms of her Lord Jesus Christ.
What an extraordinary story! And we can see why she was one of the most popular saints of the early church. But it is not just the dramatic story of her martyrdom that made her such a prominent figure. Her association with singing and music resonated deeply with the early Christians. Singing hymns was integral to worship back then as well as it is now. We have accounts from pagan writers at the time observing the strange practice of Christians singing at their funerals.
So, why was Cecilia singing as she approached death? Why do Christians sing at funerals? To the outsider, it may seem odd, even crazy. But, for us believers, it expresses the joy of our belief that Jesus has conquered death and promises eternal life with him. We sing in defiance of the power of death.
And we sing in defiance of death as well as anything that may challenge or threaten us. In the words of today’s Collect: “Gracious God, whose servant Cecilia served you in song: Grant us to join her hymn of praise to you in the face of all adversity…” Join her hymn of praise to you in the face of all adversity. We have nothing to fear because Christ has conquered death and all the forces of evil and sin. And in our pilgrimage through this life, as we struggle with the various personal problems and trials that confront us, he is with us every step of the way, giving us strength, courage, and guidance. Thus, the Apostle Paul calls on us to rejoice whatever situation in which we find ourselves:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Philippians 4:4-6).
We can rejoice always because Christ is with us. Even in the darkest moments, the joy of our Christian faith is never extinguished.
One of my favorite songs is the Gospel Hymn, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” made famous by the singer and actress Ethel Waters. I remember seeing her on TV, singing it at the Billy Graham Crusades in the 1970s. In spite of Ethel Waters’s fame, she struggled with adversity all her life – poverty, racism, sexism. And yet in her later years, as she looked back on her life, she used her signature song, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” as the title of her autobiography. She defined her life with the faith in the God who looks after the sparrow. I read the book when I was in high school, and it was a source of great inspiration for me. It’s time for me to read it again. I would like to share with you a few lines from the song:
Why should I feel discouraged
Why should the shadows come
Why should my heart feel lonely
And long for heaven and home
Jesus is my portion
A constant friend is he
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches over me
I sing, because I'm happy
I sing, because I'm free
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches over me
Next Sunday, at 1:30 p.m., we will be holding a funeral for Ron Wiseley. Please keep his husband, Todd Chenault Wiseley, and the family in your prayers as they grieve. But in the midst of the grief, we will sing next Sunday as we say farewell to Ron. We will sing the joy of redemption and resurrection.
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, what are the adversities that you are dealing with at the present – sickness, the death of a loved one, financial worries, broken relationships? There is no neat and tidy solution to any of our problems. But, as people of faith, we have one sure source of strength and guidance that will never fail us, the presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ. So, on this Feast Day of St. Cecilia, in the midst of whatever adversities we may be facing in our lives, we join together, with our Patron, in lifting up our hymns of praise to God.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!
To the Glory of God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.