The Feast of St. Cecilia is an ancient celebration of a Roman Martyr. Little is known about the woman, so her life has become a canvas upon which various eras could paint their own imaginations of holiness. That there really was a holy Roman woman who was martyred for the faith is solidly attested since the early 3rd Century, that she was relatively wealthy seems to be historically grounded, and that she gave her rather large house to the Church for a place of worship would indicate both her wealth and her authority in the family. While she is called a virgin there is little evidence for that other than a kind of romantic “Acts of St. Cecilia” written sometime late in the Fourth Century and based on no historical data other than that there was such a person who died a martyr and gave her house to be a place of worship. Other more solid evidence indicates that she was married and the matron of a wealthy senatorial house. Her remains were buried in the same place as the early Bishops of Rome, so she may have been a relative, patroness, or even wife of one of them. The addition of music to the canvas of her life story continued to elevate her popularity. The medieval Church named her patroness of Church music and she is frequently portrayed at an organ or with other musical instruments, none of which would likely have been in existence, much less use in the early Church. So today what might we draw on this largely blank canvas of her real life? More recent historical study into the House Church phenomenon of the Roman Empire before the Edict of Toleration might incline us to suppose that Cecilia hosted a “house Church” in the Second Century, and she may even have been the presider over such a community, which would have made her a likely target for martyrdom in a time when there was no empire-wide persecution but when Christian leaders were sporadically persecuted and put to death as seemed to be the case in the mid Second Century.
Studies in Biblical numerology point to the fact that the number twelve is a “mystical” number which alludes to the twelve tribes of Israel. Even the identification of twelve apostles seems to be related to this number rather than any real number of specific persons listed. In the book of Revelation, filled with symbolic numbers, colors, and animals among other things, the number 144 would probably refer to 12x12 – or all of Israel times all of the followers of Jesus (led by The Twelve) times an infinite number – since 1000 was frequently used for an unaccountably great number. Thus a choir of 144,000 would actually be the number of millions of humans saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – who are singing the praises of God. As a Church musician for many years who longed to hear the 200, or 700, or more people populating the pews at Sunday Eucharist singing out their gratitude for “being ransomed as the first fruits for God and the Lamb” this image is indeed a heavenly promise. It does speak to the importance of every one of us joining in the hymns of praise that God’s goodness might be known here on earth so that others will be inclined to join the choir of those who know they are saved. When Christians are better known for their noisy complaining against the ideas or foibles of other Christians than for their harmonious hymns of praise for God’s love few will be interested in hearing, and thus following, the Lamb.
Finally, today’s Gospel points to yet another “note” in the song of the Christian life. Generous giving out of our plenty is important and necessary as it is the practice of justice. But the real imitation of Christ is the generous donation out of our poverty. The woman who gives her “mite” is greater in her love than the mighty. When we give to others out of the resources that we really need for ourselves – when we give the substance of our life rather than the “extra” – then we really understand and practice Charity, the Divine gift that is so evident in Christ’s outpouring of his life for our sakes. So we come full circle in these ruminations and realize that Cecilia – whatever the details of her human life might have been – is most notably a singer of the eternal choir because she gave her very life in witness (the meaning of the word martyr) in order that God might be known, loved and sought by us.
Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face. (psalm 24 – response for the liturgy of St. Cecilia)
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