Reflections on Music in Worship
“Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with His gracious presence.” –Johann Sebastian Bach
Reflections on Music in Worship at The Church of the Epiphany
By Jay Wilcox
There is much music in an Episcopal service. Sacred music provides us with an opportunity to encounter God individually and as a congregation. Each piece of music in a service is a unique offering to God that can never be repeated, and this brochure seeks to help us to better understand and honor those offerings.
I. Music for Congregational Participation
Before the Reformation, the congregation’s role as active participants in the Eucharist had almost been eliminated. Music in worship had become the domain of cantors, choirs, deacons, and priests. The reformers intentionally included opportunities for the community of believers to sing in their revised liturgies, to ensure their participation. Theologically, it is the congregation that is the primary choir of the church.
“Sing to the Lord a new song” and “Make a joyful noise to the Lord” are two of many Biblical exhortations to raise our voices in praise to God. The shared song of the God’s people is more than an expression of individual feelings; it is a way to claim our communal identity and minister to one another. Each of us becomes part of the Church’s larger song and, in so doing, encourages others to do so. Communal song is an outward and visible sign of the shared grace that binds us together. When we come together in song, we engage in a counter-cultural act, as we live in a world where this has all but died out. The tenets of the Christian faith have always been counter-cultural, so it is fitting that our corporate worship should be so too.
Because communal singing (as opposed to choral singing) is so alien to our culture, it can be challenging to feel comfortable participating in it. It can help to remember that worship is primarily neither for us nor about us. It is for and about the Living God, the creator of all–including our voices. There is no need to second-guess whether the voices God gave us are “good enough” to be used in worship, especially since God so clearly desires them to be used in that way.
Each of us is called to be a living sacrifice. By singing in worship, we can offer a sacrifice of our pride, our ego, and our self-conscious attitudes and give ourselves fully to God, holding nothing back. The two-penny offering of the poor widow–all she had–was more valued by the Lord than that of the rich person who gave much more. Similarly, the person who is self-conscious about his or her voice but who sings from the heart may give a greater gift to God than the trained singer who thinks more about producing a beautiful sound than about honoring the Giver of Song.
John Wesley, whose followers were renowned for their singing, wrote rules for singing in church. In essence, Wesley believed that everyone should sing without fear or embarrassment and should think about God and the words being sung, thereby demonstrating the unity of the community of believers. Thus, we should never hesitate to raise our voices in song in worship.
A. Liturgical Music
There are certain texts that are routinely part of the Eucharistic liturgy, and which have been common to Eucharistic celebrations for well over a thousand years. These are the Kyrie (Lord, have mercy), the Gloria (Glory to God in the highest) and the Trisagion (Holy God); the Creed; the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy); and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). At our service, all of these are sung regularly except the Creed.
Near the beginning of the service we sing the Kyrie, the Gloria, or the Trisagion. The Kyrie and Trisagion are prayers for mercy, the Kyrie coming from the Catholic tradition and the Trisagion coming from the Orthodox liturgy. The Gloria is a song of praise that begins with the song of the angels on the first Christmas (Glory to God in the highest). Because of its joyful nature, the Gloria is not sung during the penitential seasons of Advent or Lent. These texts help us to focus on God, the source and object of our worship.
The text of the Sanctus is inspired by the 6th Chapter of Isaiah, in which Isaiah has a vision of God enthroned in glory and the seraphim calling to one another “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts” as they flew around God’s throne. When we sing the Sanctus, we join with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” with the Church in heaven and on earth and in all times and in all places in this great hymn of praise to God. This reminds us that what we do is part of something far greater than we can even imagine. And this is the moment when eternity breaks into our worship, when all the company of heaven, all those who have come before us, all Christians around the world today, and all those who are to come, are united in singing to God.
The text of the Agnus Dei is based on John 1:29, when John the Baptist sees Jesus and says “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” The Agnus Dei reminds us of the presence of Christ with us in worship and in the sacrament.
The Book of Common Prayer permits the substitution of a Song of Praise for the Gloria, and the substitution of other music for the Agnus Dei; the Sanctus, however, is always required. Because this music is an essential part of the congregation’s participation in the Eucharistic liturgy, it should be sung wholeheartedly.
Hymns are sacred poetry set to music for the congregation to sing. Our hymns are selected to shed light on the lessons of the day or themes of the liturgical season; they also fulfill a specific liturgical purpose based upon their place in the service. The processional hymn unites the congregation in the common purpose of worship. The sequence hymn usually reflects on the lessons and prepares us to hear the Gospel. The dismissal hymn is a summation of our worship and sends us out “to love and serve the Lord.”
II. Musical Offerings
Music sung by choirs or played by instrumentalists affords an opportunity to worship through the offered gifts of others, who have devoted their time and energies to perfecting music for our services. All choral and instrumental music offered at Epiphany is just that–an offering. The musicians are offering the time they have expended in preparation and their talents on behalf of the congregation in order to glorify God and edify God’s people. Their preparation enables them to open themselves to the Holy Spirit so that a prelude, anthem, or postlude is not a musical performance, but is, instead, their spiritual worship through which the listeners can also experience God. Talking during such music would be inappropriate–it would not respect the offering being made and would distract those who seek to worship through that offering. Additionally, applause would not be an appropriate response to music at one of our services as that would indicate the music was being perceived as a performance and not an act of worship. Thanking our musicians personally is the best way to acknowledge their contributions to worship.
I Chronicles 6:32 refers to the Levites who “ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. ”This is the first mention of a group of musicians who offered their songs as a worship ministry. While the primary role of a choir is to lead and support the congregation’s song, a choir also provides an opportunity for music in worship that requires a commitment of time to perfect.
The text of anthems sung at Epiphany relates to, and frequently quotes from, the Biblical readings of the day. Whether an anthem is by a great composer who lived hundreds of years ago or by a composer who is now alive, whether it is “classical” or “contemporary” in style, whether it is from the wealth of Anglican music or from an entirely different culture, it has been selected to support and illuminate the themes of the service and to enhance the congregation’s worship.
In today’s society there is so much music around us that it can become little more than aural wallpaper. We “hear” so much music that it has become difficult to really “listen” to it. Those not in the choir can worship through anthems by actively listening to them and opening themselves to the working of the Holy Spirit. Because anthems are selected for the relevance of their text, the words can be a gateway to worshiping through the anthem, whether it be in English or whether a translation is printed in the bulletin. We can consider how the music illuminates the text and how it relates to the service as a whole. We can meditate and reflect on the message of the anthem and how it speaks to our faith. We can observe how the words and the characteristics of the music speak of the transcendent beauty of God, of God’s power and majesty, or of another of God’s qualities. We can experience awe and wonder. We can even grow spiritually by experiencing the unfamiliar and learning from that experience.
B. Prelude and Postlude
Instrumental music at the beginning and end of the service offers the congregation the opportunity to prepare for and reflect on their worship and to experience God’s presence. This music falls into three broad categories: (1) music based on a hymn tune,
(2) music inspired by scripture, or (3) abstract music.
Music based on hymn tunes is often related to a hymn sung in that morning’s service. Sometimes the melody is clear and obvious; at other times, the composer treats the hymn tune freely, giving an impression of the meaning of the text that can form the basis of a meditation on the text. Sometimes the hymn on which a piece is based is not included in that morning’s service but is related to the themes of the lessons for that day. And sometimes, the music is based on an unfamiliar hymn whose title or text connects to the themes of the service. In that case the title, and sometimes an excerpt from the text, will reveal the relationship of the music to the scripture of the day, and provide a basis for meditation.
Many composers have written pieces inspired by their reading of, and meditation on, scripture. These are chosen when they relate to the lessons for a specific Sunday. When this occurs, we can meditate on the scriptural text and how the music reveals its meaning.
Abstract music is a less obvious, but still rewarding, vehicle for worship. Perhaps it will convey a specific mood appropriate to the service. Perhaps the qualities of the music–beauty, awe, reverence, majesty, and even complexity–will inspire thoughts about God’s qualities or the worshiper’s relationship to God. Perhaps the music will express sheer joy and exuberance to send us out into the world “rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”
In these varied ways, music can minister to us, bind us together, and reveal deep truths to us. If you would like to discuss music at Epiphany or if you have any questions, please feel free to speak with me or email me at [email protected].