“Making a Joyful Noise unto the Lord”
Proper B15 – 16 August 2015
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians continues his advice to the community at Ephesus on holy living. I would like to focus on the last part of today’s reading where Paul advises, “be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18b-20).
A significant component of our Morning Prayer service is fulfilling Paul’s advice to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, also fulfilling Psalm 100:1 where it says to “Make a joyful noise to the Lord”. I frequently joke that I am glad scripture calls for a “joyful noise” and not “beautiful singing”, for I can at least be joyful, and my singing definitely falls into the category of noise! Paul’s advice to sing is also reinforced by a statement attributed to St. Augustine, the fifth century bishop of the town of Hippo in northern Africa, when he says, “He who sings prays twice.” Lifting our voice in holy song also lifts our hearts and minds to God in a special form of prayer. Some may say they are unable of singing, and what they mean is unable to sing in a way that is praised as beautiful singing, but I also like to fall back on an African proverb that says, “If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing.” God gave us these voices, so it is God’s fault if they are not always particularly melodious, so that should not stop us from singing.
The Psalms that form the central portion of the Morning Prayer service were written to be sung. The book of Psalms is a music book that has been passed down for almost three thousand years. During the fourth century, some groups of Christians began to move into isolated, lonely places and live as monks. These monks would daily sing all 150 psalms from memory as they went about the manual labor they performed for their survival. When we sing the psalms, and notice we have been singing the psalms lately rather than reciting them, we are joining our voices to almost three millennia of prayer and praise to God. While we do not know the particular tunes to which these psalms were sung, and it would be meaningless to us if we did as they psalms were originally composed in Hebrew, there has been a long history of setting these texts to music. One of the more well known forms of singing the psalms is known as Gregorian chant, a style of singing that became popular in the ninth century. Even to this day it is possible to go to churches and monasteries and participate in the daily cycle of prayers based around the psalms being sung to Gregorian chant, and there have been several top selling CDs of the chant from monastic communities, the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain being one of the first communities to popularize a CD of Gregorian chant.
The Episcopal Church is heir to a form called Anglican chant. Some larger churches and cathedrals will have choral Eucharists and choral Evensong services with full choirs chanting the psalms and prayers in Anglican chant. A quick search on Youtube will find a person some magnificent examples, though the best way is to experience the service in person. While I would love for us to do the psalms and canticles of Morning Prayer in Gregorian or Anglican chant, these methods might seem too overwhelming for us to try at this time. You will notice that in the service bulletin the psalms and canticles are said to be “sung to the tune of…” Billy and I have been using a text called the Metrical Psalter as the source for these texts. Typical translations of the psalms and the canticles of Morning Prayer are translated for reading, not for singing. While Gregorian and Anglican chant can handle the irregular syllable patterns that may show up in standard translation from one language (Hebrew) to another (Latin or English). For ease of singing, the texts in the Metrical Psalters are translated so that they follow a regular pattern, called meter. With this regular pattern, the authors have then matched the text to a common hymn tune, making it easier to sing the psalm if one knows the tune of the hymn. Of course, some of you may have noticed that not all the hymn tunes are as well known to us as others, but we are working on that as we go along!
The goal, however, is to enhance our worship and allow us to follow the advice of Paul to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs more effectively in our worship. One of the joys of sung psalms, hymns and prayers is that there is strong connection between singing and memory. By singing the psalms and the hymns of our worship, I hope they can become ingrained into our minds and become part of our subconscious lives. I would encourage us all in worship to sing joyously. If we are not familiar with the tune, listen carefully to the music and try to pick up the tune. We can also sing powerfully, not in an attempt to overpower the rest of the congregation, but as a means of putting more of ourselves into the song so that it does become an act of prayer. One piece of advice that is often given at monasteries when one visits is that it is okay to sing along, but also be sure one is not singing so loud one cannot hear one’s neighbor, which I think also puts pressure on one’s neighbor to sing loudly enough to be heard. Like all of our worship, our singing is communal and not a solo performance nor an event for spectators!
As we continue with our worship, let’s be mindful of Paul’s advice and enter fully into our singing and worship. Perhaps in our singing we will in fact be praying twice!