Home Worship Planning Music Resources And They Sang a Hymn: The Incarnational Nature of Congregational Song in Multicultural Contexts (Part 1)

And They Sang a Hymn: The Incarnational Nature of Congregational Song in Multicultural Contexts (Part 1)

By Cynthia Wilson

Stock choir holding hands

Part 1: Introduction

The structural pattern, Gathering, Word, Table, and Sending Forth has served as the primary roadmap for Christian worship throughout liturgical history. This pattern constitutes what Levi-Strauss refers to as a “deep structure”. Hence, the establishment of this time-honored worship tradition has established the catholicity of Christian liturgy in the following ways: 1.) the coming together of God’s people to encounter the divine mystery of God’s presence corporately (Soli Deo Gloria); 2.) The spirit of fiesta where the central theme is Jesus Christ, sacraments facilitate the remembrance and acting out of the life of Jesus Christ; 3.) The time of prayer; 4.) The reading and hearing the Word in song. In other words, Christian liturgy can be partially defined as communion sanctorum: the fellowship between Christians. It accentuates the awe-inspiring relationship among the saints (living and dead) and helps to form spiritual koinonia which can be experienced in worship and community. James White explains it this way:

The basic forms of Christian worship, remember, were developed from the Jewish synagogue services and other Jewish rites. These ancient rites included sabbath assemblies, festivals, prayers and exhortations. From these emerged the Christian Eucharistic or love feast and weekly worship services. By the middle of the second century (at least in Rome), worship had come to consist of a fixed sequence of Scripture readings, sermon, common prayer and Communion. This pattern as the essential shape of worship has remained fairly constant. (White, Introduction – 31)

Further, this deep structure is built around the redemptive story of the crucified, buried, risen and ascended body of Jesus Christ. It is important to call attention to the two movements that initiate the liturgical event. Defined by German Reformers in the sixteenth century as Gottesdienst, in Christian worship, Christ offers himself to us in “Sacramentum” and our prayer/confession/praise are offered to God in “sacrificium,” a dialectic between life and liturgy. (Brunner, 203) Christian liturgy is understood as an encounter with God through ritual action: words, gestures, images, and symbols that ultimately reveal the paschal mystery: Jesus Christ, the crucified One who was revealed in the flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory (I Tim. 3:16b). Under grace and according to the canons of scripture and creed, prayer and common laws, the people of God assemble in order to remember and rehearse the story and secure their unity in lived faith transmitted from generation to generation for the life of the world.

In addition to the primary streams of rhythmic action and symbols that undergird these traditional deep structures in liturgy, other surface or secondary streams of rhythmic action and symbols. (Lathrop, 10) This dialectical relationship of history (first things) and eschatology (last things) makes lucid the unfolding of the paschal mystery in liturgy; we remember ‘back’ to actual historical events and remember ‘forward’ to that which is yet to take place. As a result, the mystery is re-configured and we become more attentive to God’s movement in our lives, in the end becoming a part of the divine event in a particular time and space. (Zimmerman, 310)

At the beginning of the fourth century specific symbols were officially declared essential to Eastern liturgy. “Holy things for the holy people” (ta hagia tois hagiois) [1] are made holy by “the name and reality of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, eschatological banquet, [and the] people gathered to God” (Lathrop, 116-117) under the auspices of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Writ, a pool of water, a table, a loaf of bread, and a pitcher of wine [2] all function as primary rhythmic symbols in worship recapitulating what God has already done (anamnesis) and looking forward to a prophetic performance of what God will do (eschaton) in Jesus Christ. Secondary rhythmic action and symbols such as oil, images, fire, clothing, musical instruments, and corporate song, are all converted within the ritual process, taking on new meaning, eventually leading to the conversion or rebirth of the faith community, the foremost “holy thing”. For without the assembly of saints, there can be no rite; without the rite words, symbols, actions, or images, there can be no celebration; without rite celebration, there can be no real presence. Thus, it all begins with a holy aggregation, the Church, gathered to a holy event in the name of the Paschal Lamb. Who, what, where is the Church?

The Church is a place of community – a collection of connections between baptized believers. The Church is a place where the sacred and secular rendezvous, but are converted. The Church is a place where the Good News of the love of Jesus Christ is proclaimed again and again. Finally, the Church is a place that is obligated to issues of liberation and righteousness for the entire world. The Church is a specific house of worship where an event of divine splendor, awe and majesty intersects with particular things that can be tasted, smelled, touched, heard, and spoken by those who confess and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior. Within this event we find the ways and means of God’s people speaking about God and the things of God that direct the worshiper’s gaze toward a hope and desire for the realization of God’s purpose in each individual life and the collective life of the assembly, and in the entire world.In the end, the paschal mystery becomes a lived event for the worshipers.

The liturgical celebration is the embodiment of Christ’s presence in corporate worship intricately entangled with a lucid understanding of who God is, and an unambiguous sense of the redemptive process. Liturgy and theology extract from and impart to each other in symbiotic ways. This is liturgical theology, and its primary task is “to discern what is being set out in the scheme of licit ritual choices and then to interpret that selective perception of the order of salvation, accounting for what it affirms and what it omits, negates, or rejects as the truth about the present experience of the saving grace of Christ in the Church and in the world”. (Collins, Critical Questions – 317)
Liturgical theology is acted out socially in an ordered community of faith that is conscious of their common past, present, and future and its shared memory; symbolically “with

gestures and words of the liturgy that carry a meaning and an energy that are present and operative every time the liturgical action is repeated”; by sacral human beings called and set free by Christ to follow in holiness that alone “provides a solid basis for the person’s dignity”; in liturgical assembly as Celebration and Feast, a communal break in the continuity of everyday life to do something in mutual in a solemn, religious way. (Vogel, Primary – 18-25). Maynard –Reid labels it as a perpetual dialectic between constancy and diversity (Diverse Worship, 41) This dialogue is not confined to one space, time period, or culture, but pillages the riches of all Christian experiences their shared past and present. It is no secret that in the work of worship, the task of making present that which is past has been an arduous task disturbed by various movements in the Church. But how have faith communities managed to live in the tension between constancy and diversity in liturgy? All of worship history belongs to all of us whether it is the Reformation, the American frontier, or other historical period along the continuum. At the same time, there are rich possibilities for thriving in the richness of this dichotomous relationship.


[1] “ ‘Holy Things for the Saints’: The Ancient Call to Communion and Its Response,” in Gerard Austin, Fountain of
Life
(Washington, D.C.: Pastoral Press, 1991), 75-88.

[2] See R. C. D. Jasper and G. J. Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist, Early and Reformed (New York: Oxford, 1980),
54, 69, 78, 87, 91, 104.

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