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Matthew 11:16-19 - The Music of the Spirit

Jesus said to the crowds: “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, 'We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, 'He is possessed by a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, 'Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' But wisdom is vindicated by her works."

Both joyful excitement and sober reservedness are attitudes which constitute the multifaceted Christian existence. The Gospel insinuates that there are adequate moments for both attitudes and condemns, as a lack of wisdom, the incapacity to be joyful when it corresponds.

In fact, joy and optimism are an extremely powerful element for spiritual life and for persevering in a committed Christian life. At the same time, we can experience that, when superficiality seeps into our lives, it can be devastating. A forced or naive effervescence is as much to be avoided as an obsessive alarmism or melancholy. What, then, is the best way to discern the opportunities of joy and seriousness?

The musical comparison which Jesus employs to express His concern regarding a “generation” which evidently misjudged the proper attitude quite frequently is amazing. The character of a certain tune should provoke a corresponding reaction in the audience: some melodies stir emotions, some rhythms compel us to dance, some pieces inspire imagination, some instruments give color to our life.

The Greeks called this underlying effect which music can create in the atmosphere of the audience “ethos,” a mysterious power which stirs up the inner side of the soul and moves us to feel, act, or be in a certain way. Our cultural jargon has actually adapted the term ethos quite well when applying it to the ethical character of an individual or a group which shapes their worldview and morality. For our worldview is such an underlying power too, it moves us to feel, act, and be in a certain way. Just like music.

Jesus teaches as that, in a similar way, there is a Music of the Spirit. This music plays in the individual through the motions and graces which the Holy Spirit “sings” in his soul, and also in the community which shares spiritual experiences of prayer, service, charitable work, and apostolate. The Spirit sets the tone for different spiritual attitudes in different moments of our life. This common spiritual experience is wonderfully enriched and expressed by the chants of the Liturgy or of other shared spiritual experiences: Here, the Music of the Spirit becomes actual music.

To be able to hear these tunes and allow them to direct our feelings and attitudes; to interpret the musician in our Soul and allow the right ethos to expand in us; to be docile to the humming inspirations of the Holy Spirit: This is an important part of growing in Discipleship. We can clearly perceive Jesus’ frustration in the present gospel passage. It is the frustration of a musician whose fellow musicians do not manage to chime in harmoniously, or whose audience will simply not get the right “ethos,” and thus fails to produce the adequate effect in their souls. Disharmony leads to frustration. You cannot expect to live in harmony with Jesus if you won't pay attention to His rhythm, key, and ethos.

Jesus permeates your soul and your world on so many levels, like music filling the rooms of your home. Learn to look out - to hark - for His signals and inspirations during this time of Advent. Try to identify the harmonious melodies of His Spirit in your daily life: in Scripture, the Liturgy and the Sacraments, but also in your conscience, your personal prayer and the signs of His providence around you. Let His ethos build up in your heart, let it take hold of your soul,“dance” to the flute, and “mourn” to the dirge. For His inspirations and His will are the guidelines for your most wholesome happiness.

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