Singing the Bible

from the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Reflections magazine

 

by Rilda Baker

I remember vividly an ordinary Sunday Eucharist when I was ambushed by Scripture in music. It happened about a dozen years ago. The service bulletin for the day listed the choir anthem as “Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether.” Although I had sung in numerous choirs since I was a teenager, this was an anthem I could not recall.

Once the offertory sentence was pronounced and ushers began to pass the alms basins, the robed choir stood up, waited through the organ introduction, then began to sing:

Draw us in the Spirit’s tether,
for when humbly in Thy name,
two or three are met together,
Thou art in the midst of them.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Touch we now Thy garment’s hem.*

The first line simply took my breath away. I found myself unexpectedly in tears, quite verklempt as I listened to the lyrics. In that moment I felt “drawn in the Spirit’s tether.” This vivid image of God’s persistent longing to connect with God’s people came alive in the music. Right then and right there, God was seeking me. It was as if the pews around me were empty. I was alone in the Presence.

My family will tell you that I always cry at weddings and funerals, usually during the music. But this was not a special event or emotional occasion. It was an “ordinary” Sunday Eucharist. Already I had heard two Scripture readings along with a psalm and the Gospel. Yet somehow the scriptures gathered into these lines (Matt 18:20, Mk 5:27-28) broke into my heart as none of the other readings had. In that moment I became the woman in the crowd who finally touched the Master’s clothes and was healed.

This stirring experience prompted me to wonder what the Bible says or teaches about music in our lives of faith. It turns out that both Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament Scriptures tell us that music is an offering to God, an act of devotion that begins in the heart: “Sing praises to God, sing praises” (Ps 47:6); “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” (Eph 5:19).

It comes as no surprise, then, that most congregations in our diocese begin and end Sunday Eucharists singing “hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 13:16) as part of the liturgy.

Digging a bit deeper, I found that music is significant enough in Episcopal liturgy that the 2015 Episcopal Church Constitution and Canons states: “It shall be the duty of every Member of the Clergy to see that music is used as an offering for the glory of God and as a help to the people in their worship….” (Canon II.5).

So how is music “a help to the people in their worship”?

Certainly choral anthems and music sung by a small group are one type of liturgical aid for the people. However, it is the old-fashioned congregational act of singing sacred texts that develops our “listening hearts” (1Kings 3:9) to hear the stories of faith and salvation. Whether we have trained voices or barely can carry a tune in a bucket, when we join our voices in song, Holy Scripture becomes incarnate, breathes with our breath, rests on our tongues, resonates in our bones, dwells deeply in each one of us — and in all of us together.

How is Holy Scripture changed when it is transplanted from written text into music?

Actually, it may not change at all. Or there may be small changes to accommodate tempo and rhythm. Hymn 560 (The Hymnal 1982) offers a prime example of setting Scripture to music with few modifications. It is the arrangement of music with text that enlivens the meaning. Here, the familiar Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12a) are sung to the haunting Russian Orthodox chant tones framed by an antiphon: “Remember your servants, Lord, when you come in your kingly power.” In this antiphon we hear both the request of a criminal crucified with Jesus (Lk 23:42) and faint echoes of Mary’s acquiescence to God’s message (“Here I am, your servant,” Lk 1:38a). Rather than just hearing the Beatitudes, we find ourselves (“your servants, Lord”) inside the hymn as we ask for God’s acknowledgment, hear Jesus’ blessings sung, and then repeat our petition for God’s merciful recognition. Scripture texts thus illuminate one another as we sing.

Other hymns are paraphrases (or metrical paraphrases) of Scripture texts. Such is the case of “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” (The Hymnal 1982, No. 645, 646):
The King of Love my shepherd is,
whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his,
and he is mine forever.

Compare the familiar psalm text with the hymn lyrics and we note a change from “The Lord is my shepherd” to “The King of Love my shepherd is.” The hymn lyrics introduce another of God’s names (the King of Love) into the text and thus affirms God’s nature as we know it from other Scriptures: “For the Lord is good, his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps 100:5); “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). The phrase “I nothing lack” calls to mind Jesus’ instructions to his disciples (Lk 12:22-34), “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” In other words, you will have what you need; there will be enough. The relationship we sing about here between God and ourselves (“I am his/ and he is mine forever”) closely resembles the way Jesus describes his own relationship with God: “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (Jn 10:38b).

But hasn’t the composer of the hymn text departed from the “original” Psalm 23 or been unfaithful to the scriptural source? Not really. Henry Williams Baker’s paraphrase simultaneously encompasses the God of Hebrew Scriptures and the God revealed in and through Jesus — a perspective that the original psalmist could not have possessed. We thus bear witness in song to the nature of God as we have come to know God through the Incarnation, the cross, and the Resurrection. We can sing about “my ransomed soul” and “thy cross before to guide me” precisely because we are an Easter people, living in a time beyond the psalmist’s faith experience.

Finally, while many of our hymns do not directly quote or paraphrase Scripture, we sing and hear them as Scripture-inspired because they draw on our own “scripture memories.” Kathleen Thomerson’s “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” (The Hymnal 1982, No. 490) exemplifies this mode. The hymn text is plain-spoken and the melody simple, but scriptural resonance abounds in this personal declaration of faith. Consider the list of texts that echo in the lyrics—and others may also come to mind:

I want to walk as a child of the light (Eph 5:7).
I want to follow Jesus (Matt 4:18-20).
God set the stars to give light to the world (Gen 1:16).
The star of my life is Jesus (Rev 22:16).

Refrain
In Him there is no darkness at all. (Jn 8:12)
The night and the day are both alike. (Ps 139:12)
The Lamb is the light of the city of God. (Rev 21:23)
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.

All three verses of the hymn are first-person statements. Consequently, when the congregation sings, every person becomes the “I” who wants to follow Jesus, to look at Jesus, and to be with Jesus. Few encounters with Scripture in music are as compelling as this one.

These few examples show how sacred music can become a vehicle for bringing Holy Scripture into worship. Through music’s unique capacity to juxtapose scriptures, to place them in dialogue with one another, congregations who sing often hear God speaking in a different way. Congregational songs allow us to engage and experience Holy Scripture on multiple levels as the meaning of each text deepens in resonance with other texts. This is the very process that medieval composer and mystic Hildegard of Bingen once called “the coming to life of God’s word.”

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Rilda Baker is a teacher, writer, and Spanish translator. She directs the Diocesan Retreat Society and is a member of St. Paul’s in San Antonio. Reach her at drrildabaker@gmail.com.

 

Return to Contents, Spring/Summer 2018 issue of  Reflections magazine

From The Episcopal Diocese of West Texas

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