Monday, December 18, 2006

Advent words: Singing

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
(Robert Lowry, 1860)

Indeed, how can we keep from singing? Christianity is a singing faith and never more so than in Advent and Christmas. In today’s Old Testament reading, the prophet Zephaniah writes, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies”

Although it was his brother Charles who wrote the hymns, John Wesley understood the power and significance of music better than most Christian leaders. Wesley included a list of “Rules for singing” in the introduction to the Methodist hymnal.

2. Sing [vigorously] and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.

3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

4. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can….

5. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature….

But Christianity has been a singing faith from the very beginning. It was born from Judaism, which had a rich musical tradition, although we know little or nothing about the music of the Temple and the Old Testament. But the Old Testament, especially the Book of Psalms, is full of references to music. But that begs the question, why sing? This morning’s canticle commands us to “Sing the praises of the Lord for he has done great things…” Why not just SAY the praises of God?

The 4th century theologian, St. Augustine famously said, “Those who sing, pray twice.” I think Augustine said that because to repeat a prayer with our lips is all very well and good, but singing a prayer requires us to employ not only our minds but our hearts and spirits, too. Perhaps he should have said, “Those who sing, pray thrice!”

Jesus himself sang. We know this because as he left the Passover meal he shared with his disciples and went out to be betrayed and crucified, he sang one of the Psalms. A great contemporary hymn puts it like this, “And did not Jesus sing a hymn that night / when utmost evil strove against the light? / Then let us sing for whom he won the fight. Alleluia!” (Fred Pratt Green)

I want to offer one note of caution. Singing makes good theology better but it can also deafen us (in a sense) to bad theology. When our current Prayer Book was being put together, they consulted musicians to make sure that the texts that should be sung were singable. They called this the “singability committee” but there was also a “believe-ability committee” to make sure that everything was orthodox. It is a useful exercise to say the words of our hymns aloud occasionally. A catchy tune can frequently carry along a text that is not only badly written but simply not orthodox. When I taught Anglican liturgy I always did a session on music and had my students say aloud the texts of a few hymn and song that I did not believe were good expressions of the Christian faith. They were always amazed to find out that for years they had been singing hymns that were only marginally Christian at best.

But still, I wonder, Why is Christianity a singing faith?

First and foremost, I believe that Christians sing because ours is an incarnational faith. That is, we worship a God who came among us as one of us, not a God who is far away, not a fastidious God who stays safely above human life. Rather, we worship a God who is as close as the air we breath, as close as the breath with which we sing hymns.

Theologian Geoffrey Wainwright explains it this way, “…singing clearly demonstrates worship – and therefore the [kingdom of God] and human salvation – to be an affair of the whole person, mind, heart, voice, body.” In other words, when we sing we employ our whole selves – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – showing that worship involves all of these.

Second, we sing because I believe that in some sense music is the language of heaven. The Book of Revelation is full of references to singing. We are told that the redeemed sing the praises of God around the throne of God. Singing is not only preparation for heaven, it is an anticipation of heaven. When we sing, we are already experiencing something of heaven because singing unifies us. It makes us one with each other and one with God.

Music is also the language of heaven because music facilitates understanding. The Book of Genesis tells us that when humans tried to build a tower that would touch heaven, God confused their languages and made it impossible for them to understand each other. Music at least partially undoes that confusion. If all of us were to speak at the same time, we would be unable to understand what the person next to us was saying, much less the person on the other side of the room. But what if we were all singing at the same time?

I wonder if you remember a wonderful scene in the movie Amadeus. Mozart is describing a scene in his opera The Marriage of Figaro in which six main characters are all singing different words, but because of the magic of music, we can understand six things that are sung simultaneously although six things that are SAID at the same time would be mere noise.

Third, Christians sing because music is a vehicle for working deep truths into our soul. When I was rector of St. Stephen’s in Greene County, I went regularly to the county nursing home. Its residents were mostly in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. The nursing home staff wanted me to conduct a more or less traditional service of worship – scripture reading, sermon, prayer, and so on – but I immediately realized how pointless this would be. Instead, I just sat at the piano and played hymns. Remarkably, people who did not know their names remembered the old gospel songs they had learned in childhood – “Amazing grace”, “Blessed assurance”, “Jesus loves me”, and so on. We might think that they remembered them because they had learned them in childhood (and that might be part of it) but they also remembered them because music embeds itself deeply in the human heart.

When I teach confirmation classes for children, I require them to memorize the Gloria, the creed, the prayer of confession, and the post-communion prayer, because if they know these by heart, then they can follow the entire service without opening the Prayer Book. One of my confirmation kids had a very difficult time learning the Gloria until his mother suggested that he sing it for me. The words he had been unable to remember to speak came to him easily when he sang them.

Finally, I think Christians sing because music has the power to change the world. Think about this: There has never been a great revolution without a great song. Music is powerful and can be used for both good and evil purposes.

The fight to abolish slavery and re-unite the Union inspired Julia Ward Howe to write the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage
Where the grapes of wrath are stored.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
God’s truth is marching on!

And the words and music of her hymn, in turn, have inspired people the world over to work to break the chains of oppression.

The Marxist revolutionaries in St. Petersburg and Moscow in the winter of 1914 were inspired by the Internationale:

Arise ye prisoners of starvation
Arise ye toilers of the earth
For reason thunders new creation
`Tis a better world in birth.
Never more traditions' chains shall bind us
Arise ye toilers no more in thrall
The earth shall rise on new foundations
We are but naught we shall be all

How wrong they were and how much misery was caused by the Russian revolution, but imagine how inspiring that music must have been to people who overthrew the oppressive czarist regime?

The French revolution of 1789 gave us the Marseillaise, still the national anthem of France. “Arise, children of the Fatherland, the day of glory is at hand…” And although it was not strictly speaking a revolution, the civil rights movement in this country would scarcely have been possible without music: “We shall overcome, we shall overcome… deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”

Another evil regime that used music to sway people’s minds was the Third Reich. When Hitler and his thugs came to power in 1933, they decreed that all university professors must sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler and begin every class with the stiff-armed salute. At that time, Karl Barth was teaching theology at the University of Bonn. He refused to take the oath and regarded the stiff-armed salute as an idolatrous gesture. He was dismissed from his position but when he taught his last class, he concluded the class by having his students sing, “Now thank we all our God.” While the dark and menacing music of Hitler and his fascist thugs seemed to drown out every other sounds, Barth and his students raised their voices and sang,

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

Hitler and his music have disappeared from the face of the earth but God has given us a song that shall never die.

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?