I wrote this piece last Spring. The thought of God singing is among my favorite meditations. Yesterday was the feast of the Holy Angels on the Orthodox Calendar – who themselves sing with unceasing praise. Today I celebrate a birthday (not one of the “big ones”) and my treat for myself is to reprint these thoughts on the song of heaven.
Why would God sing? The question may sound strange and yet it is said in Zephaniah (3:17), “He will rejoice over thee with singing.” I first noticed this verse when I was a very young Christian and have puzzled about it for nearly forty years. Equally puzzling to our modern way of thought is the question, “Why does anybody sing?” I have been to plenty of operas and have to admit that even the ones in English need subtitles – singing does not necessarily make something more easily understood. And yet we sing.
God sings. Angels sing. Man sings.
Other than some adaptations that have been made in a few places in the modern period, any Orthodox service of worship is sung (or chanted) from beginning to end (with the exception of the sermon). Like opera, this musical approach to the liturgy does not mean that it will be better understood. And yet, the Christian Tradition, until the Reformation, was largely universal in its use of singing as the mode of worship. In the Western Church there was a development of the “Low Mass” in which little chanting was used – though this never found a place in the East.
This is not solely a Christian phenomenon. As a teenager I had a close friend who was Jewish. As a young teenager he began training to become a Cantor (the main singer in a congregation – second only in importance to the Rabbi himself). I was curious about Hebrew so he began to instruct me privately. Hebrew is a great language – particularly as published in Hebrew Scriptures.
I mastered the alphabet and began to understand that most vowels were not letters at all, just dots and lines, strategically placed to indicate their sound. I felt somewhat proud the first time I read a line aloud without prompting. I recall that when I finished I pointed at yet another set of markings that my friend had yet to mention.
“What are these?” I asked.
“They’re for the Cantor,” he explained. He also had to explain what a Cantor was and, fortunately, was able to demonstrate when I asked him how the musical markings worked. The sound would have compared easily to Byzantine chant – perhaps with lines of kinship. This past autumn I became acutely aware of another singing religion: Islam. My wife and I made pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September . The first morning (it was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan) a canon went off at sunrise (that will wake you up in Jerusalem!) and suddenly a plaintive chant blared across the city as the Muezzin chanted the morning call to prayer.
Indeed, if you made a study of world religions, you’d be hard pressed to find any people who prayed or worshipped without singing (almost exclusively) other than forms of Christianity that have been influenced by the Protestant Reformation. In light of that fact it might be more appropriate to ask, “If God sings, and the angels sing, the Jews sing, the Muslims sing: why don’t Protestants chant their services?” What is it about modern man that changed his religious tune?
I’ll come back to that question in just a few moments. However, I would first like to take a tour through some experiences I’ve had with music and pastoral care. Wherever in our brain that the ability to sing and understand music resides – it is not the same place as pure speech. I have been making pastoral visits with patients for nearly thirty years. During that time I have frequently noticed stroke patients, who had lost one particular brain function (governed by the area effected by the stroke) be perfectly normal in another area not affected by the stroke. It’s as simple as being paralyzed on one side of your body but not on the other (a common result of strokes).
In the same way, I have seen any number of patients who could not speak or respond to speech, who, nevertheless, could sing and respond to music. The most extreme case I ever saw was in a patient suffering from multiple infarct dementia (thousands of tiny strokes). He was a paraplegic and virtually unresponsive. However, his devout Christian wife had discovered that he responded to both music and to prayer. He would say, “Amen,” at the end of a prayer and tried to join in when you sang a familiar hymn.
God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. And so the mystery grows.
A surprising musical experience for me came in visiting St. Thekla’s Summer Camp (in South Carolina). We have youth in our Church, including some who attend the summer camp. My experience in Church is that, like most teens surrounded by adults, youth in Church remain quiet. However, at the summer camp, surrounded by their peers, they sang with all the gusto of their youth. It was completely natural. Kids sing.
God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. Kids sing.
So what happened in the Protestant West that made them change their tune? To their credit they did not completely stop singing. Some of the finest hymns in Christian history were written during the Reformation. Hymns that sang doctrine and offered praise to God – all these were part of the hymnody of Protestant worship. And yet something different did take place. What was different was a shift in understanding how or if we know God and the place that worship plays in all that.
For many in the Reformation God could be known only as He made Himself known in Scripture. Knowing God as He had made Himself known in Christ was a description of knowing what Christ said and did in the New Testament. God was distanced from the sacraments in most cases. He was distanced from worship. We could offer worship to God in our assemblies, but not necessarily because He was present.
The distance that arose between man and God at the time of the Reformation had many causes. Among the most important were the politics of severing God, the individual and the Church (particularly the Roman Catholic Church). Such a severing created the secular sphere as we know it today and at last established the state as superior to the Church with, for the most part, the happy cooperation of the newly minted Churches. For most centuries the Reformation has been studied on the basis of its religious issues – indeed “religion” has unfairly borne the blame for years of hatred and wars. The role of politics has been downplayed – indeed even seen as the force which intervened and spared Europe from further religious madness. The state, as secular state, was seen as the hero of the Reformation. However it is quite possible to understand the history of that period as the history of the rise of the secular state and the state’s manipulation of religion for the interests of the state (Eamon Duffy’s work on this topic is quite revealing).
The Reformation itself brought something of an ideological revolution, a redefinition of man as a religious being. The new thought saw man as an understanding, rational, choosing individual. Thus religious services began to have a growing center of the spoken word. God was reasoning with man through the medium of the spoken word. In most places of the new reforms, efforts were made to establish a radical break with the sacramental past. However God might be present with His people – it was not to be in the drama of the Liturgy. Vestments were exchanged for academic gowns, or no vestments at all. The minister was an expounder of the word, not a priest. The altar that had once clearly been an altar, a place where the bloodless sacrifice took place – a holy place where Christ Body and Blood were present – became a simple table – usually with the minister standing in a position that was meant to indicate that he was performing no priestly action.
The words surrounding the Liturgy were spoken and not sung. Singing at such moments were associated with acts of magic. Thus the “hoc est enim corpus meum” of the Roman Rite, was ridiculed as “hocus pocus,” ever to be associated with magic. Chanting was for witches, not for Christians.
Music did not disappear at the Reformation. As noted earlier, many great hymns were written as part of that movement – and have marked every major “revival” within Protestantism. People sing. But what do people sing?
There is no doubt that vast changes in much of Protestant Church music have taken place in the latter half of the 20th century. The same was true in parts of the 19th century. In efforts to remain “contemporary” much music has taken contemporary form. The influence of Pentecostal worship forms have also shaped contemporary “praise” music.
In many ways a revolution as profound as the Reformation itself has taken place within Protestant Christianity. Whereas the founders of the Reformation saw reason as the primary mode of communicating the gospel – contemporary Protestantism has become far more comfortable with emotion. An interesting player in this modern revolution has been the “science” of marketing which has made careful study of how it is that people actually make decisions and on what basis do they “choose” as consumers. From an Orthodox perspective, it is the science of the passions.
In this light it is important to say that people sing for many different reasons and that not all music in worship is the same. Orthodoxy has long held the maxim that music should be “neptic,” that is, should be guided by sobriety and not by the passions. Thus, there have been criticisms from time to time within the Russian Church that the great works of some modern Church composers are too “operatic” or too “emotional.” That conversation continues.
But why do we sing?
Here we finally come to the question that has no easy answer – just a suggestion based on human experience. We sing because God sings. We sing because the angels sing. We sing because all of creation sings. We are not always able to hear the song – usually because we do not sing enough. I will put forward that singing is the natural mode of worship (particularly if we follow the model of the angels) and that there is much that can enter the heart as we sing that is stopped dead in its tracks by the spoken word.
It is not for nothing that the one book of Old Testament Scripture that finds more usage in the Church (at least among the Orthodox) than the New Testament, is the book of Psalms, all of which are meant to be sung (and are sung within Orthodox worship). Years ago when I was a young Anglican priest – I introduced the sung mass at a mission Church where I was assigned. A teenager confided to me after the service that the chanting had made her feel “spooky.” She was clearly stuck in a Reformation “only witches chant” mode. She also had not learned to wors