Blogger Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.
It’s pet peeve time. Let’s talk about the word solemn. Especially in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other traditions with similar liturgical tendencies, the word solemn is used quite a bit. You hear about celebrating a “solemnity,” keeping this “solemn fast,” and a “Solemn Mass.” So the word is given a very important place in our vocabulary, and both ordained and laity use the term quite often. I think we have fallen prey to the complexity (some might say ambiguity) of the English language.
I think that when the majority of people hear and use the word solemn in reference to anything involving worship, they are referencing two of the three main definitions of the world solemn. They are often either implying that worship should be “marked by grave sedateness and earnest sobriety” or “Somber, Gloomy” (Merriam-Webster Definitions 3b, 3c). I think this has either reinforced certain historical trends or introduced an understanding of worship and liturgy as something that should not include smiling, happiness, or any outward expressions of joy. If people think that their roles are to make sure that Mass is solemn as in gloomy or sedate…many parishes and communities across the U.S. are doing a fantastic job. But, like I said before, I think that we have fallen prey to the English language.
Let’s talk about where the use of the word solemn comes from. The original Latin word sollemnis was primarily used to indicate something was ceremonial, sacred, in accordance with religious law, and/or traditional/customary. In fact, the second main definition of solemn in Merriam-Webster is “marked by the observance of established form or ceremony; specifically: celebrated with full liturgical ceremony.” The use of solemn in reference to worship/liturgy does not and should not include connotations of somberness, sedateness, or gloominess in any other sense.
FEAR, GUILT, and SADNESS
The reason this topic bothers me so much is that I watch faithful people week in and week out come to worship a God that seems to inspire fear, guilt, and sadness more than joy. They are almost afraid of using their bodies to express outward signs of joy. They seem to have internalized their roles in worship so as to parrot their lines and otherwise sit in silence. When confronted with leaders who ask them to do otherwise or find themselves in a space where there is bodily movement and joy, I often hear claims that this type of worship is inappropriate. In their defense of that position, I often specifically hear the use of the word solemn in their rhetoric.
JOY and DANCING
So let’s either get rid of that word from our vocabulary or start to use it correctly. I worship the God of resurrection, joy, and life. My solemn worship involves alleluias, hands raised or clapping, hips moving, and knees bending. Lord, you can turn all mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11). May it be so for us today.