Home Worship Planning Music Resources And They Sang a Hymn: The Incarnational Nature of Congregational Song in Multicultural Contexts (Part 2)

And They Sang a Hymn: The Incarnational Nature of Congregational Song in Multicultural Contexts (Part 2)

By Cynthia Wilson

Stock couple singing hymn

Part 2: Surface Rhythms: Variances

When the deep structures of Christian worship are faithfully adhered to, ritual celebration provides a clear roadmap to the Paschal Mystery. Through the use of Words that speak of, to, and about the Triune God, these structures allow for a variety of theological interpretations, but generally follows the same rough shape. However, liturgy is not a private enterprise, but rather corporate action, a social relationship that Erving Goffman refers to as many to many. (Kavanagh, On Liturgical – 136-37) That is to say that the liturgical event functions in four ways: it is festive, taking into account the liturgical seasons of the church year; it is formal, therefore it recognizes a deep structure; it is repetitive and rhythmic with an established timbre, taste and tempo; and ultimately, it is unified by its repetitive and rhythmic ethos. Such unity assumes a kind of supernatural power that can either destroy or build up. The latter is a direct result of the intricate connections between the primary and secondary streams of rhythmic actions and symbols that usher in the realized presence of Christ in worship. Consequently, without the full, conscious, and active participation of every person in the worshiping community, the liturgical event can be aborted.

Theologian Anscar Chupungo refers to liturgical inculturation as “the process whereby the texts and rites used in worship by the local church are so inserted in the framework of a culture, that they absorb its thought, language, and ritual patterns.” Inculturation is thus both a theological and an anthropological concept, “touch[ing] on everything that touches on the relationship between God and [God’s] people, everything that the Word of God took up when [God] became flesh and came to dwell among us.” (Chupungco, Liturgies of the Future -28-29)

In 1962, one of the high priority issues addressed by the Vatican II Council was the matter that had the greatest impact on the lives of Catholics was the revision of the liturgy. In fact, it is only in the post-Vatican II dispensation that the subject of inculturation has been broached in official Church documents and purposely dealt with by the Church. The fundamental vision was toward greater involvement of the laity in liturgical celebrations. According to the General Principles for the restoration and Promotion of the Sacred Liturgy:

To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, "the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross", but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20).

This historic document also makes provision for “legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples” with the caveat that “the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved.” the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy advocates for secondary streams of rhythmic action and symbols that: articulate the faith, offer a firm scriptural foundation, express the full range of human emotion, and initiate corporate participation. On a practical level it is clear that different musical genres convey different theological truths better than others.

In ritual celebration, even understood as an encounter with the risen Lord, the mysterious event can indeed be obstructed by words, actions, images, or symbols that lack meaning in certain context. In the Republic, Plato recognized the power of music as it related to the role of the poet, he was convinced that music and poetry could easily sway people’s emotions. On the other hand, both art and music behave as interpreters of the ever-unfolding mystery in liturgy, yet, they never draw attention to themselves. Judith Marie Kubicki would say that “the language of ritual is the language of the arts.” Music has played a critical role in ritual celebration from the most primitive calls to worship by the drum to present day renderings of classical composers such as Haydn, Handel and Mozart. More specifically, liturgical music ameliorates the shape of the lex orandi and lex credendi in particular faith communities. The ritual event is wholly understood as proclamation and prayer. St. Augustine reminds us that "He who sings well prays twice.”[1] As with literature, there are generally accepted deep structures of musical language which, when adhered to, enable the music to communicate as effectively as the spoken word. At the same time, if the structures are arbitrarily broken, the music the music cannot succeed in its function as an efficacious symbol in liturgical performance. Yet, in the end, liturgical music must be the servant to the message of the words.

Both hymn and psalm texts have played a pivotal role in the spiritual formation in ritual celebrations for Christians throughout the ages. (Praising God-Duck, 81-97) Shaped by Scripture, as shown through a study of the Psalms, to a great extent, Congregational Song is itself, a cooperative movement that invites us not only to community with each other, but more essentially, with God. For the early Christians, the real meaning of their message was Christ, both human and divine. This was the true spirit of the Gospel. God in the flesh, dwelling among the people is a prominent theme throughout the New Testament Gospels as well as in the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples knew that their faith depended upon the real presence of Christ. Therefore, as Jesus prepared to leave them, he covenanted with them: “I am with you even to the ends of the earth.” Consequently, in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus keeps His promise and sends the Comforter, the Mediator, the Paraclete, in the person of the Holy Spirit. It is the presence and work of God’s Spirit that Christians anticipate whenever they gather for worship. Emmanuel, God with us! This is the hope of salvation, the eschatological hope of the “unseen”, redemptive presence of the Paschal Lamb, Jesus, the Christ.

In present day liturgical celebration, this same underlying message remains central to the deep structure of liturgy. Through symbolic action – the bread and wine, the anointing with oil, the laying on of hands, and more specifically for this discussion, the songs of the saints, Christ is alive and present with the saints in worship. The holy scriptures reflect this reality. Examples can be found in the Lukan canticles (1:46-55, 68-79, 2:29-32) and the Songs of Acclamation found in the Book of Revelation. Although the precise meaning of the Biblical reference to “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19 and Col 3:16) is somewhat ambiguous, these three categories might possibly suggest that Congregational Song should integrate a rich and diverse offering of doxological praise.

Likewise, as we inventory the development of liturgical music over time, we see that Aristotle observed that “music has the power to shape character”, Calvin acknowledged that “we know by experience that music has a secret and almost incredible power to move hearts”, from Ambrose to Luther to Wesley, unless the song of the people expressed the doctrine of the Church, it was inappropriate for corporate liturgy. Thomas Cranmer, one of the leaders of the English Reformation was passionately convinced that texts, especially song texts, should not conflict with Scripture. Both John and Charles Wesley saw hymnody as didactic opportunities, specifically in cultures where illiteracy existed on a large scale. Charles Wesley was intentionally devoted to the creation of hymn texts that offered the powerful theological insights. Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. However, he advocated that Scripture is primary, revealing the Word of God “so far as it is necessary for our salvation.” (UM Book of Discipline, p. 77) Further, John Wesley advised,

“Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing [God] more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven” (Select Hymns, 176).

Undoubtedly, Congregational Song functions as a powerful symbol that changes the atmosphere of the gathering and evokes the participation of the whole assembly, providing a network of sound that fosters Christian koinonia, the spirit of hospitality and welcome. Obviously, the need to sustain and strengthen such discourse has to do with the efficacy of this powerful liturgical symbol. The sound of music gently circumcises hearts, minds and spirits in order that revelation and transformation can bring about a radical passion for discipleship. My African ancestors declare that “the Spirit will not descend without a song.” Though Congregational Song has been relegated to the second tier of liturgical symbolism, it is not simply bound to other primary and secondary rhythmic action and symbols, but in an unusual way, like no other sign, it acts a bonding agent for the entire assembly. In other words, the Word proclaimed in song creates a holy connection for a holy people causing the Word to live in the midst of God’s people through the symbolic action of singing. Hence, Congregational Song can be understood as ritual action: the Word wedded to music becomes the incarnate Word.

The primary rhythmic action and symbols of Word, Table, Bread and Wine are rite-ly transfigured, causing the saints to remember (anamnesis) the redemptive work of God in Christ on behalf of God’s people. The process of symbolic transfiguration is the core theology for liturgy. Christ comes to sup with the saints, and through work of the Holy Spirit, a turning (metanoia) takes place in the body of Christ (the assembly). God’s people are changed and filled with God’s power for kin-dom work in the world. For this one purpose, Christians gather to worship a true and living God in Spirit and Truth.

By means of rhythm, pitch, melody, accents, cadences, intonation, emotion, memory, bodily motion, and text, Congregational Song potentially creates an atmosphere that serves to connect what Nathan Mitchell identifies as three fundamental liturgies: “liturgy of the world,” “liturgy of the Church,” and the “liturgy of the neighbor”. (Mitchell, xiii) Liturgical meaning is contextual and truth is elusive. For that reason, all of meaning and truth are both about linkages. Not linkages that offers the same language and melody at a prescribed time, but rather, a medley; an assortment of very distinct tunes that amicably communicate a universal message in diverse ways.


[1] Attributed to Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 C.E.

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