I thank God for modern writers of hymns and songs, committed to producing music that is true and excellent for the glory of God and the people of God. Music is a gift of God, a unique way of connecting His revelation with our hearts and minds. St. Augustine is thought to have said, “he who sings, prays twice.” The Church must recover a more robust understanding and practice of music.
Today, January 13, we remember the Hussites who, on this day in 1501, published the first hymnal in history written in the language of the common people. The descendants of the Hussites are known as the Moravian Brethren, who carry on the rich tradition of hymns and church music today.
Christians have good reason to commemorate this event. After all, ours, like Judaism, has always been a singing faith. The longest book in the Bible, and the one at its center, is the Psalms, a word that means “songs.” David’s plans for the Temple included clans of Levites whose entire job was music. Choirs, soloists, orchestras, and antiphonal singing were prescribed parts of Temple life and practice, and an entire class of Psalms, the Songs of Ascent, were sung by the people as they traveled to Jerusalem for the annual pilgrimage festivals.
Throughout the biblical texts, music is also connected to prophecy and to dealing with evil spirits. Jesus and the apostles sang a hymn after the Last Supper, according to two of the Gospels. The Apostle Paul specifically associates singing with being filled with the Spirit in his epistle to the church at Ephesus. And, in John’s Revelation of what is constantly happening around the throne of God, there is lots of singing, sometimes accompanied by harps.
Music also is part of the culmination of the creation story. When Eve is taken from Adam’s side, Adam awakes and exclaims, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Many scholars believe this to essentially be a celebratory song.
Eliminating the musical element from the text of Scripture would be to gut them and the practices that have emerged from them. Monks chanted the Psalms daily, in some cases covering the entire Psalter in a week. Medieval thinkers thought of the human heartbeat, respiration, and daily cycle of sleeping and waking as “music.” They also believed the motion of the heavenly bodies was regulated by the “music of the spheres.”