Tagged with Singing Our Faith

Ancient Christian Songs and Canticles

The music listed in this sermon (and more!) can be found in this Spotify Playlist.

John 1:1-5

This year we’re taking one Sunday each month to explore the music we sing together.  The music we share in worship is such a central part of our life together; this is a chance to learn about its history, and consider what we wish to sing today. We started, last month, with the Hebrew psalms, a scriptural book of songs. Today we’ll move to ancient songs, canticles, and hymns from the early era of the church.

Much of the most ancient Christian music we have is part of the liturgy of the mass, music for worship services including communion.  During special music Sundays, we often get to hear a whole mass setting; we will hear another in December. In our worship here, you are more likely to hear a small piece of a mass, such as a gloria, an alleluia, or the sanctus (holy, holy, holy). Like so many ancient songs, we do not know the tunes that were originally used with these pieces of the mass, but settings abound. One familiar hymn that finds its source in a mass is Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (NCH 345). The words, originally in Greek, are ascribed to St. James the Less, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and were used while bread and cup were brought to the table.

Other ancient Christian music finds it source in other worship services: the liturgy of the hours, short prayer services held throughout the day.  This is where we find the canticles: songs of praise that take their text directly from the Bible, but not from the psalms.  A few of you may remember some of these canticles from the summer series on Songs of the Bible a year and a half ago, such as the victory song of Moses and Miriam in the book of Exodus. The most famous of the canticles, however, are from the birth narrative in the beginning of the gospel of Luke: Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which we sang as our opening hymn; the song of Zechariah, known as the Benedictus; and the Song of Simeon, known as the Nunc Dimittis, which we’ll sing as our closing hymn.

One canticle you may never have heard of is the Canticle of the Three Holy Children, also known by its Latin name: Benedicte omnia opera.  This canticle comes from the book of Daniel, although the passage is not included in most Protestant bibles. It’s a song of praise lifted up by Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego, after they are freed from the fiery furnace. Like all the ancient canticles, you can find many different versions of this to listen to.  I thought it might be interesting to sing it together as it might be traditionally sung in a liturgy of the hours. So, I invite you to imagine that you have just been freed from a fiery furnace and are full of gratitude to God; or that you’re sitting in a monastery, at vespers…

Our scripture reading today was from the beginning of the gospel of John. These are the words of a Greek song of praise to Jesus that precedes the recording of the scriptures. Unfortunately, we don’t know how it was originally sung, but translations and musical settings of this text abound. One of the most famous is a Latin text written by Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, a Spanish monastic, in the 5th century. Most of us know it (if we know it at all) by the title, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” When I saw that the translation in our New Century Hymnal was “Of the Parent’s Heart Begotten,” I assumed this was an attempt of the hymnal editors to be more inclusive in their imagery for God.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the original Latin is Corde natus ex parentis, born from the heart of the parent. Somehow, in the 19th century this was translated from Latin to English variously as “Of the Father sole begotten,” “Born of the Father’s bosom” “Of the Father’s will begotten” “Son eternal of the Father,” and “Yea! From the Almighty mind He sprung.” It’s a fascinating example of patriarchal bias being perhaps stronger in modern times than it was in the early church.  At any rate, our hymnal’s editors chose to commission an entirely new translation from the Latin. Let’s sing it together, Black Hymnal # 118, first and last verses.

Before we leave early Christian music, after an entirely too brief visit, I have to tell you one of the more fascinating stories I learned in my research.  As you may recall, almost all early Christian music is designed for choirs to sing, not congregations. One early exception is O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright, a Latin hymn from the 4th Century.

The story of this hymn begins with Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan.  Ambrose was particularly passionate in defending the church against what eventually became known as the heresy of Arianism. Arianism is the idea that Jesus, while coming from God, is not as great as God, or made of the same stuff as God. If you are inclined to Arianism yourself (I know you’re out there), or if you can’t see what difference it makes either way, trust me: this was a major dispute within the church for centuries. Things got so hot in Milan between the Arians and the non-Arians that the churches led by Ambrose came under siege.  In one telling, Ambrose and his followers locked themselves inside a church for safety, and kept cheerful by writing hymns proclaiming the divinity of Christ.  Ambrose carefully crafted his songs with rhyme and meter so as to be easy for anyone to sing: a great strategy for spreading trinitarianism.

So let’s sing one of the very first congregational hymns of the church, one of the very first protest songs of the church.

I encourage you to take some time exploring Masses and Canticles and early hymns there and beyond.  Let’s give thanks, for those early Jesus-followers who knew that words were not enough, but used music to enrich our worship life together, and to inform our theology. Let’s give thanks, to the God who inspired it all. Amen.

Singing Our Faith, Part 1

This year I have planned one sermon each month to talk about the music we sing in church. You may be wondering — why?

Pastors are not trained in music in most traditions. All of the musical training I have is completely separate from my pastoral formation. Still, in many congregations, including this one, a pastor is given the honor and responsibility of choosing the hymns the congregation will sing together.  This is a dangerous endeavor, and not only because of our lack of training.

Just consider: folks in our congregation grew up in different denominations, congregations, camps, and families, all of which had their own particular set of beloved holy songs. This means if someone comes to ask me why we’re not singing the traditional songs they know and love, I have to ask: which ones are traditional for you?

To complicate things even further, some folks here grew up in other faith traditions, or without a family faith tradition, or simply without falling in love with any form of Christian hymody. These folks often long for something that feels fresher, whether in language or in musical style.  For these folks, coming to church on a Sunday morning may feel as if you’ve taken a trip back in time, perhaps 50, 100, or even 500 years.

There are all kinds of things that go through my head as I choose the hymns for each Sunday, and recently I began to wonder: why am I not sharing that process with all of you?  Hymns shape our worship experience, they teach us about God, they form our faith. For many of us, music, and singing, reach a place in the heart that mere sermons cannot hope to touch. Shouldn’t everyone get to participate in the discussion about what we sing together?

So we begin, today, at the beginning: with what may be the most ancient songs of our tradition, the Hebrew psalms that we share in common with our Jewish siblings.  There are 150 psalms in our scriptures, and in many times and places, they have been the primary, if not the only, text for Christian music.  If this feels limiting to you, consider how many different ways people have translated and sung them.  You can find the psalms in almost every language in many translations; and in just about every musical style, from Gregorian chant to millennial worship band.  All these many versions of the psalms explore and expand on an already very rich source.  The words of the Psalms contain just about every human emotion towards God, including anger, awe, longing, desperation, gratitude, and dedication.

Our worship is always full of psalms.  Today, there are even more, and I’ve marked them in the bulletin for easy recognition.  But we’ve taken as our particular text for the day, Psalm 121.  This psalm is marked as a psalm of ascent: a song for those on holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem; a song for anyone on a journey. Because all of us are on some sort of a journey, it’s a lovely psalm to keep close to us: a reminder of who is our help and our keeper, as we move through the difficulties and dangers of life.

I want to give you just a tiny taste of the great variety of ways this beautiful text has been set to music. So, we’ll listen to three short selections.

  • First, part of a setting from Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval abbess, mystic, scientist, musician, and all-around genius, from the Rhineland. This version is a chant, sung in Latin. (from the album “Kiss of Peace: Songs from the Dendermonde Manuscript).
  • Moving forward about a thousand years, we’ll hear next a piece of a setting from Sir Walter Davies, an English composer, organist, conductor, to give us a taste of what psalms sound like in the English choral tradition.
  • And last but not least, moving forward a few decades and across the Atlantic, we’ll hear from a setting called “Total Praise,” by Richard Smallwood, a contemporary African-American gospel music composer, music director, and pianist.

Now, I know it is cruel to leave you hanging on any of these. They deserve to be heard in full. And there are lots more I can’t even play at all, from Vivaldi, Dvorak, Bernstein, John Rutter, the band All Sons & Daughters, and many more. This is a teaser, to encourage you to explore settings of the psalms on your own; to learn what they have to teach us not simply from their words, but from the musical expression of so many faithful people who have set them to music.

(You can listen to the three pieces above, and many more songs based on or inspired by Psalm 121, on this playlist. Did I miss some of your favorites? Let me know!)

You may have noticed that none of the songs I just played are for congregational singing; they’re for soloists and choirs. For much of Christian history, most of our music has been for music specialists. But we’ll talk more as the year goes on about how Christians made the shift toward songs made for congregations to sing together. Our final version of Psalm 121 is from the Scottish Psalter of 1909, set to the familiar tune of Amazing Grace; the words are in your bulletin.  Let’s use our own voices to lift up our thanks to God, our help and our keeper.