What’s with all the Psalm chanting

From last Sunday’s service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church

Where do we have Psalms in the service?

The Introit, the Gradual and (often) the Alleluia Verse are portions of Psalms. Sometimes, a whole Psalm takes the place of the Gradual. Also, some of the hymns we sing are paraphrases of Psalms (such as The Mighty Fortress and Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven).

Why do we have Psalms in the service?

The Psalms are the hymn book of the Bible. They are the only hymns Jesus would have sung (e.g. Matt 26:30), and they have always been the chief songs of the church (Col. 3:16). When we sing the Psalms, we are singing the same songs that the people of God have sung since the second millennium bc! And when we sing the Psalms, we are singing words that God has given for us to sing. So why wouldn’t we sing the Psalms?!

Why do we sing the Psalms?
Psalms are songs. They were written to be sung. In fact, there are still some musical instructions left in the book of Psalms in the Bible—although unfortunately we no longer know what they mean.

So singing the Psalms is like singing the hymns. They are meant to be sung. And speaking the Psalms are like speaking hymns: not wrong, but not the full experience.

But why do we chant?

The Psalms are ancient poems, written with a very different idea of what singing is from our own. Unlike in the hymns in our hymnal, there’s no regular meter. Therefore, it’s almost impossible to set them to a regular, repeated tune.

As a result, the way Psalms have been sung for at least 1,500 years (and possibly much longer) is by chanting, where most of the words are sung to a repeated note, with other notes only at the ends of phrases. This way, it’s possible for the congregation to sing together with a simple melody. The only alternatives are speaking (but see the previous question), or writing an enormously long melody that covered the whole Psalm—but that would be very hard to learn!

But since the word ‘chant’ just means ‘song’, you can just say that we ‘sing’ the Psalms if that sounds better to you, and it would be just as true.

The purpose of music in the church

Sunday CantataHere’s an extract from the episode of Sunday Cantata on 25 August 2013 on Lutheran Radio UK. You can listen to the whole programme here. The first part of the programme demonstrates how these words apply to the cantata of the day, BWV 33.

One of the important questions for all church musicians—and indeed for clergy and congregations—is: what is the role of music in worship. Of course, much music in the church’s worship is there to set and adorn the text of the liturgy and the hymns and songs of the church. What sort of music ought to be used to set these texts? How should they be accompanied? What about other music? Should there be any other music? What kinds of music are appropriate? Can there be instrumental music? What’s it all there for?
The answer to these questions has varied from era to era and from one Christian denomination to another. It’s not uncommon to go to church services where the congregation is reduced to a concert audience, listening to and hopefully appreciating the efforts of the professionals who do the music making. This phenomenon has occurred across the board—in modern megachurches, in Anglican cathedrals of the last few centuries, in sixteenth-century Roman Catholic city churches. Other churches are so indifferent to the role of music in worship that almost anything goes and little attention is paid to anything other than that the job gets somehow done.

Both of these extremes would have been completely alien to the devout and diligent Lutheran church musician that was Johann Sebastian Bach, and to most of his colleagues. For Bach, music had a very specific task in the church, whether that music was accompanying congregational singing, or playing a chorale prelude on the organ, or performing a cantata. That task was to move the hearers, the congregation. By this, I don’t mean mere emotional manipulation. Rather, the music was there to present the words of the liturgy, the biblical text, the text of a hymn, or the libretto of a cantata, in such a way as to drive them home to the hearts of the hearers. It served as a handmaiden to theology, to assist proclamation and to give added rhetorical force to it.

This is why Baroque composers such as Bach took such pains to find the most appropriate musical expression for the words they were setting. They used all their skill to paint significant words and phrases, to create the right atmosphere and mood for the words with harmony, rhythm and instrumentation, and composed melodies best suited to bringing out the meaning and amplifying it in such a way as to make sure that the hearers, the Christian congregation, were not left untouched by what they heard. The right words combined with the right music—the perfect tool for kindling a response of faith.

This overriding concern in cantata-writing also explains why it made perfect sense to write chorale cantatas. When the words of the hymn were re-cast as poetic paraphrases and re-set as choral fantasias, arias and recitatives, the familiar congregational song was dressed in a fresh garb designed to make a fresh impact on the gathered assembly, to move them in a new way to repentance and to faith.

The Structure of the Collect

The following was printed in the service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on 25 August 2013 (Trinity 13). As far as I’m aware, the mnemonic was invented by the Rev. Bosco Peters on the site Liturgy. At any rate, that’s where I learned it.

The Collect always takes the same form. This form of prayer goes back to very early in the Church’s history, and has stood the test of time. Not every Collect has all these parts, but the structure remains the same.

Address: The prayer opens with an address to God.
Rationale: The church’s prayer isn’t based simply on our perception of what we need. Rather, we appeal to something we know about God and His promises.
Petition: This is the gift we are asking for.
Benefit: Here we name what benefit we ask to have from God’s gift.
Doxology: The conclusion, invoking the name of Jesus and giving glory to the Triune God.

A childishly simple mnemonic for remembering this structure is: You-Who-Do-To-Through.

Here is today’s Collect broken down into its constituent parts:
Address: Almighty and everlasting God,
Rationale: omitted
Petition: give us an increase of faith, hope, and charity; and … make us love what You have commanded
Benefit: that we may obtain what You have promised;
Doxology: through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Tip for the day: Try this at home. It’s a great way to give structure to our prayers, and to root them in God’s own promises.

The invitatory: teaching us to pray the Psalm

I’ve been listening to the current series on Issues, Etc. on the daily prayer offices, with Pastor Wil Weedon. If you haven’t, I recommend them to you, even if you consider yourself to be an expert on them.

Listening to Pr. Weedon’s discussion on the Venite (Ps. 95), which is an integral part of Lutheran Matins and Morning Prayer, the following detail struck me:

The Invitatory, which introduces the Venite, is a great tool for teaching us how to pray this Psalm – and by extension, all the Psalms.

Psalm 95 itself is an invitation to God’s people to “sing to the Lord“. Who is this Lord? To this, the Invitatory provides the answer.

The common Invitatory simply blesses “God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. O come, let us worship Him.” Fair enough.

But if you use the seasonal Invitatories, the worshipper’s eye of faith is drawn to greater details:

Advent: “Behold, the Lord comes to save us. O come, let us worship Him.”
Christmas: “Lo, to us the christ is born. O come let us worship Him.”
Epiphany: “The christ has appeared to us. O come, let us worship Him.”
Lent: “The Lord has redeemed His people. O come, let us worship Him.”
Passiontide: “Christ became obedient to death, even death on a cross. O come, let us worship Him.”
Easter: “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! O come, let us worship Him.”
Ascension: “The King ascends to heaven. Alleluia! O come, let us worship Him.”
Pentecost: “The Spirit of the Lord fills the world. Alleluia! O come, let us worship Him.”
Holy Trinity: “The Lord has called us by the Gospel. O come, let us worship Him.”
Post-Pentecost (Trinity 1–Trinity 19): “The Lord has called / gathered / enlightened / sanctified us in the true faith. O come, let us worship Him.”
Michaelmastide: “Glorious is God with His angels and saints. O come, let us worship Him.”
End of church year (Trinity 25–27): “The Lord will come again in glory. O come, let us worship Him.”

See what’s going on? We aren’t directed only to the glory of the Triune God, but to the specific offices of the Divine Persons, chiefly the redeeming work of the Son (Advent–Ascension) and the sanctifying work of the Spirit (Pentecost–Trinity 19).

This is the Lord whom we worship: He who comes to us not in the abstract, but in the specific work of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. He is YHWH of Sabaoth.

As we confess in the Athanasian Creed: The Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord. Yet there are not three Lords but one Lord!

This Way and That: Liturgical Orientation

Another liturgical titbit, from last Sunday’s service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church:

Liturgical Titbits: Liturgical Orientation

One of the noticeable things about the liturgist in a Lutheran service is the fact that he doesn’t stand still. One moment, he’s facing the congregation, another he’s got his back turned on them. What’s that all about?

The clue is in the fact that the liturgist has a dual role in the service. Sometimes he addresses God with, or on behalf of, the congregation. At other times, he addresses the congregation on behalf of God.

Whenever he speaks with or on behalf of the congregation (invocation, confession, Psalms, hymns, prayers), the liturgist faces the same way as the congregation: towards the altar (which symbolises God’s presence). And whenever he speaks on behalf of God (absolution, salutation, readings, sermon, blessing), he faces the congregation being addressed.

The one exception is the Service of the Sacrament, when the liturgist does both at once. There is an explanation for this—but it’s somewhat debatable, so we’ll leave that to another time.

The hymns in the service

From last Sunday’s service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church:

Hymn singing in church is actually a fairly recent innovation: traditionally, hymns were mainly sung at Matins and Vespers, but not in the Sunday main (Communion) service. The practice of hymn-singing in the Communion service was a Lutheran innovation at the time of the Reformation. It serves a simple purpose: to put the word of God in the mouths and ears of the congregation. (Col 3:16).

Hence, the hymns are part of the day’s liturgy in the same way that the readings and prayers are, and for the same reason. The different hymns of the service have their own role in the service.

1. The opening hymn is usually either a hymn of invocation, asking for God to bless the congregation that has gathered to receive His gifts, or a hymn of confession, preparing them for the confession of sins.

2. The sermon hymn, or hymn of the day, is linked specifically to the day’s readings, and its main role is to teach the word to the congregation.

3. The communion hymn should really be a distribution hymn, sung during the Communion to assist the congregation to appreciate and rightly to receive the Sacrament.

4. The closing hymn is frequently a hymn of praise, thanking God for the gifts received, or a commissioning hymn, sending the congregation back into the world with the word of God on their lips as they prepare to serve God and neighbour in their daily lives.

On liturgical orientation

Lutheran MassThis post is a development of a couple of Twitter posts as part of this fruitful exchange, initiated by John H.

Full disclaimer: I currently celebrate the Sacrament versus populum

For most of the Divine Service, there are two ways liturgists can face. Ad orientem means ‘towards the east’, and refers to the liturgist facing the altar, with his back to the congregation. The opposite way is versus populum, facing the people, with his back to the altar.

The rationale for these is simple: when the liturgist addresses God with or for the people (chiefly in the confession and in the prayers), he faces the same way as the people, and towards God, whose presence the altar symbolises. When the liturgist addresses God’s word(s) to the people (e.g. in the absolution, in the readings), he faces the people whom he addresses.

Because it’s polite to face whomever you address. And it doesn’t make sense to do otherwise.

So which way should the liturgist face during the liturgy of the sacrament? Some of that liturgy is addressed to the people (the Preface), some to God (the Proper Preface and eucharistic prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sanctus & Benedictus, the Agnus Dei). Easy enough.

But what about the Words of Institution? Who are they addressed to? If they are embedded in the eucharistic prayer, as they are in many traditions, they are addressed to God. Simple.

And if they were addressed to the people, as a sort of additional Gospel reading accompanying the celebration of the sacrament, versus populum would make sense.

But in Lutheran theology at least, they are not addressed to the people. They are the Words of Institution—not merely the historical institution of the sacrament in general, but the institution of the sacrament there and then. The words do what they say, that is they bring about the sacramental union of the body and blood of the Lord with the bread and the wine. In other words, the Words of Institution are addressed to the elements.

And this is not unimportant or merely technical. The Sacrament is the Gospel: it is where the word ceases to be information for the ears and becomes a tangible reality. It is where the crucified and risen body of Jesus, which is the Temple of God on earth, meets with our mortal bodies as the medicine of immortality. And therefore the Words of Institution are the Gospel precisely when the congregation eavesdrops on them, hearing them pronounced over the elements for their good. As long as they are addressed to the people, they remain historical information without direct contemporary relevance or benefit.

And this, to my mind, is a key argument against the increasingly common, and historically pretty unheard-of, practice of versus populum celebration of the Sacrament in the modern style: with the celebrant positioned behind a free-standing altar, facing the people over the altar. It removes the priest from the people, and it turns the congregation into an audience being addressed, as if God were declaring the Words of Institution to the people as well as the elements.

Now it’s true that Luther suggested that the consecration should be done versus populum, although he never did anything about it. I used to share his argument. In fact, one of my very few printed publications makes that case. And so when I say that I disagree with Luther on this point, I also disagree with myself. Which I hope makes it OK.

Anyway, as it happens, Luther did nothing about it, and neither did any other Lutherans.

Not until Vatican II anyway, when Rome introduced free-standing altars and versus populum celebration for entirely different and rather un-Lutheran reasons: better to include the people in the sacrifice with the people. It makes poor sense in Roman Catholic theology, as my good friend and Roman Catholic priest tells me, and it doesn’t make any better sense in Lutheranism. And it’s pretty ironic that we should be aping Vatican II practices at all, given that they are solutions to problems for which we had much better solutions in the 1500s.

Because what Luther did do was to break the silence over the Words of Institution. In the mediæval Canon of the Mass (and after Trent as well), the Words of Institution were said silently by the priest. Luther had them not merely spoken aloud, but chanted to the Gospel tone! And by this radical yet simple device, Luther turned the Words of Institution into the Gospel they are in the most effective possible way. No need for the pastor to face awkwardly towards the congregation, no need for re-ordering churches. No need to break with catholic tradition that pre-dates the corruption of the Mass in the Middle Ages, just to make the point, which hadn’t been lost anyway.

Stand to pray, sit to sing

The latest Liturgical Titbit:

Lutherans, unlike everyone else it seems, stand to pray and sit to sing. Why?

The reason for sitting for hymns is almost certainly entirely prosaic. Lutheran hymns were traditionally long, and often sung very slowly. If hymns last 20 minutes or more, sitting down is quite sensible. Since that’s rarely an issue these days, perhaps this is a tradition we would do well to reconsider.

As for prayer, the Bible knows three postures for prayer: standing, kneeling and prostration. All of these are ways of recognising the fact that when we pray we are in God’s presence.

Just as we stand in the presence of a judge or a monarch, we stand in the presence of God—unless of course we kneel or prostrate ourselves. These latter postures are expressions of humility and penitence, of our dependence on God and our unworthiness. This is why kneeling for prayers of penitence (such as the Confession) is particularly appropriate. Again, perhaps this is something for us to reconsider.

Whole body worship

From time to time, I add a little section called ‘Liturgical Titbits’ to the service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church. The idea is that, over time, the congregation’s knowledge and understanding of various aspects of the liturgy will grow—and bring about a growing appreciation thereof.

These pieces are, as the name suggests, very brief, so that people will bother to read them, and have little trouble learning, marking and inwardly digesting them.

Inspired by this post by John Halton, here’s last Sunday’s entry (the longest one yet). I will post others as and when.

P.S. These little snippets are never scholarly and rarely very complete. I hope they are accurate, though. So liturgiologists, don’t nit-pick!

Liturgical Titbits: Whole-Body Worship

Some people have a deep suspicion of any kind of ‘bowing and scraping’. Worship is a matter of the soul and the mind, to be done in words, not gestures.
Though this is well-meaning, it is not how the Bible speaks. The biblical words for “worship”, in both Hebrew and Greek, mean physical postures: bowing, kneeling, prostration.

Just as we were created body, mind and soul, God saves us body, mind and soul (“I believe in the resurrection of the body!”). And so it is appropriate to worship Him with body, mind and soul. At the same time, physical gestures can be helpful ways to remind and teach our minds the meaning of what we speak and sing.

Therefore, you may:

Bow:
* at the altar on entering and leaving the church, to acknowledge its role as a symbol of God’s presence, and the presence of Christ in the Sacrament
* during the doxology at the end of the Psalm (‘Glory be to the Father, etc.’), as a sign of reverence for the Triune God
* during the words ‘and was incarnate … and was made man’ in the Creed, as a sign of reverence for the mystery of the incarnation (but not originally: see next page)
* during the first half of the Sanctus (‘Holy, holy, holy…’), as a sign of reverence for the presence of God.
In Isaiah 6, where this song comes from, Isaiah didn’t just bow, but prostrated himself at God’s presence.
* whenever we sing of worshipping God (e.g. in the Gloria in excelsis and the Venite in Matins), since that’s what the word ‘worship’ usually means.
Christians throughout the centuries have also bowed their head at the mention of the name of Jesus, on the basis of Philippians 2:9–11. This includes the conclusion of the Collect (… ‘through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord…’).

Kneel (or genuflect) :
* during the words “and was incarnate … and was made man” in the Creed. Bowing (see previous page) was introduced as a less arduous alternative in the 1960s.
* all the way from the Proper Preface (‘It is truly good, right and salutary…) to the end of the Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God’), as a sign of reverence for the great mystery of Christ’s presence in the sacrament. Or, at least:
* during the Words of Institution. Or, at least:
* following the consecration of each element, to acknowledge and reverence the presence of Christ’s body and blood in our midst.
* whenever we sing of kneeling before God (e.g. in the Venite in Matins)

Raise your hands: This is the customary stance for prayer. Jewish people have prayed with uplifted arms for as long as we know, and it was also assumed to be the posture of prayer by St. Paul (1 Timothy 2:8).

Make the sign of the cross:
* whenever the name of the Triune God is pronounced over, or by, the Christian. This is in remembrance of our Baptism.
* during the announcing of the Gospel and the words of Christ in the Words of Institution. This is to acknowledge that Christ comes to us in grace, as at our Baptism.

How to vary the liturgy

Why should the same musical setting be used on Advent Sunday, on Christmas Day, on Good Friday, on Easter Sunday, and on a Day of Humiliation and Prayer, when in each case the spirit and character of the day varies so greatly. Thoughtful Christians thus realize that it is not the text but rather the musical setting of the Liturgy which needs variety.

Walter E. Buszin (Chairman of the Commission on Worship, Liturgics, and Hymnology, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod), ‘Introduction’, The Order of Holy Communion(Healey Willan, 1959).