Music is all around us- in the car, under commercials, in stores, and whenever we get a song stuck in our heads. Music is one of the few universal human behaviors that exists in all cultures and expresses the breadth of our diversity. Music has a unique evocative power, which is why the Church has turned to music for expression from their earliest gatherings.
In 110, the Roman governor Pliny the Younger sent a report to Emperor Trajen to inform him of a new sect called Christians. He describes their meetings where they “chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god” (Epistulae 10.96).
When Paul gives advice to churches, he encourages them to “speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:18-21 and Colossians 3:12-17) as a primary response to their newfound identity and community.
The gospel of Luke, most likely written to an audience that would have been unfamiliar with Jewish music, employs three songs at the beginning to capture the attention of those listening: Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Zachariah’s Benedictus (1:67-79), and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (2:29-32). In the decades between Jesus’ life and the gospels being written, his story would have been shaped by songs that retold his life and teaching. A likely example that we have of one of these songs that predate the New Testament is found in Philippians 2:6-11, which Paul quotes as a way of appealing to their shared knowledge of the character of Christ.
Music finds its way into our liturgy in many forms: prelude and praise, anthems and arrangements, meditations and melodies, celebration and sending forth. We participate in this part of our liturgy most frequently as we sing together.
When we sing together, we learn our identity. Much like the Christ Hymn in Philippians, songs provide a way to present theology and history in a way that is more memorable and malleable to our minds. The songs we choose to sing instruct us something about ourselves, the world, and the divine.
When we sing together, we are opened to a language used to describe spirituality that we may not be comfortable with. Whether deep sorrow or unshakable confidence, songs find the words to describe what we cannot name ourselves. Like a love song or a blues ballad, a musician adds depth to common experiences or rustles our imagination to consider what is beyond our comprehension at the moment.
When we sing together, we place ourselves in a larger, interdependent community. Especially in group singing, harmony can only be achieved by singing different notes and singing them loudly enough to be heard. If we are not truly together, the beauty of the music cannot be appreciated. This is not to say that singing must be perfect, but in a community built on mutuality, each person is supported by those around them to find their full and unique voice.
Try to sing one song as loud as you can, without purposefully singing out of tune or shouting. Sing quietly and try to listen to the other voices around you. Remain silent and read the words to a song- what may have prompted the artist? Why has it found a life beyond that of its composer?