Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (3:15b-16)
At the heart of the worship of God is the communication of the “word of Christ” and His “wisdom” from the hearts of Christians into the ears and the hearts of others gathered together. How is this done? One of the chief ways is through the singing of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”
The Church has used music from Her earliest days to communicate the richness of Christ’s Gospel. By the time of the Reformation, it was common to have choirs, consisting of anywhere from a solo voice on up to large numbers of singers making music together, providing almost all of the music for a Divine Service (with most of the rest provided by the Liturgist or Celebrant chanting his portions of the service).
Martin Luther recognized the power of music to communicate the Good News of the Gospel. In fact, Luther recognized that what Paul wrote to the Colossians was a universal truth: music, a gift of God, was given for no other reason that to provide a vehicle in which to sing God’s praises. Luther wrote:
“I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone…the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music.”
If you study the songs of praise in the Scriptures, you notice that the praise is never empty; that is, the words are never merely declaring the praise and worship of God. Instead, the words always contain explicit reference – sometimes at great length – to what God has done for His people.
Likewise, Luther encouraged the artists and theologians of his day to devote themselves to writing hymn texts that conveyed the great works of God – and in particular, the great work of God in Christ crucified for our sins. They set these texts to tunes that could be sung by the congregation, and started the widespread practice of congregational hymn singing as part of the Divine Service.
We have a long tradition, then, of singing hymns in our Lutheran congregations. And we have a long tradition of seeking out, and writing anew, great hymns that declare the wonder of our God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – working to save, comfort, and protect us from sin, death, and the devil.
Over the next year or so, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we’re going to take one new (or newish) hymn a month and learn it. In the Divine Service, the hymn will be introduced ahead of time and then we’ll sing it (or parts of it) as the closing hymn each week. There will be a short writing about the hymn in the bulletin each week, unpacking the meaning of the stanzas or providing some information about the composer. We’re going to learn hymns from many different time periods of the church’s life, but especially we’ll focus on some hymns that come from our rich Lutheran heritage. I can’t wait to do this with you. What a blessing to have these treasures passed down to us from our forerunners in the Faith.
Peace be with you,