Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3:16
Today’s reflection is not about a specific line of the Liturgy but addresses the subject of hymns and singing. Following the Small Entrance, several hymns are sung. For those who claim the Divine Liturgy is the same each time out, while that is largely true, this section of the service varies each time it is done. Following the Small Entrance, the Apolytikion of the day (one of the 8 Sunday Resurrectional Apolytikia or the Apolytikion of the saint of the day) is repeated. On Sundays, after the Resurrectional Apolytikion, usually there is a hymn for the saint of the day. Then the hymn of the church is sung. And finally the Kontakion (Hymn of the Season) which relates to the season of the church year.
There are three kinds of hymns in the church—
Hymns that Praise God—for instance, the Hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord Sabbaoth, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory.” This hymn doesn’t ask God for anything, it offers praise and glory to Him.
Hymns that ask God for things—the one we hear most often is “Lord have mercy.” Another example would be “Save us O Son of God, who rose from the dead, to thee we sing: Alleluia.” These are hymns that ask the Lord for specific requests.
Hymns that teach—The majority of hymns fall into this category. The most well known of the teaching hymns is “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down upon death, and to those in the tombs, He has granted life.” This hymn does not praise God nor does it ask God for anything. It explains to us what the Resurrection is all about.
We’ve all had the experience of having a catchy tune stuck in our heads. A hymn like “Christ is Risen” is sung many times during the Paschal season so that it will stick in our heads and in our hearts. If anyone asks what you believe about the Resurrection, the answer is 22 words: Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down upon death, and to those in the tombs, He has granted life.
Before people could read (which wasn’t until a few centuries ago), how did they learn? Through pictures and songs, just like little children. My son learned the alphabet not by studying letters but with the “alphabet song.” He learned about animals and colors through pictures. We learn our faith through icons and through hymns.
We are meant to sing the hymns! It’s not just the priest, or the choir or the chanter who is supposed to sing the hymns and responses of the church. It is everyone! The word “Liturgy” comes from two words, ‘Leitos” and “ergon,” which literally means “the work of the people.” Worship is not entertainment, where we sit back and watch the proceedings. Worship is work, serious work. We are meant to praise God “with one voice” which means we are to stand and sing together.
I remember going to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” one year at Christmas-time. Before the performance, which was held in a large, Protestant church, (we sat in the balcony since I never get to sit in one as a priest), the audience was asked to rise and sing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” From my perspective in the balcony, the crowd of 700 strong rose as one and sang loudly this beautiful Christmas carol. You could almost feel the building shake—it was ALIVE with 700 voices singing praises to God.
A handful of people in a choir is not the way we were intended to worship. A choir is necessary because you need leadership in the singing. There will always be a need for a choir.
I remember a sermon I gave a few years ago on the congregation singing during church. I had a contest in which I played various ‘fight songs” from different colleges, and asked alumni of those colleges in our parish to stand up and do what comes natural to them. The University of Florida alumni did the gator chomp, and the Florida State alumni did the tomahawk chop. Then I asked everyone to stand up and do what came naturally to them. I intoned “Let us pray to the Lord.” And heard a tentative and cacophonous “Lord have mercy.” The point of this sermon was that at a college football game, when the band starts playing the fight song, two things happen: a) no one sits down and is oblivious to the song, everyone gets into it; b)everyone seems to know exactly what to do. The band provides the leadership. The student body provides the energy.
It needs to become the same way in our churches. The choir is like the band, they lead. But the rest of us need to follow—we need to learn what to do, and it needs to become almost instinctive for us. We hear a petition, and we naturally offer the proper response.
Can you imagine if the band played and no one cheered? There would be no energy, no enthusiasm, and maybe no fans.
What happens when the choir sings as we don’t join in? There is no energy, no enthusiasm and perhaps one day no people.
You don’t have to join the choir to sing. You don’t have to have a great voice to sing. St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:18-19, “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.”
Today’s prayer is one verse from Psalm 71:8. Meditate on this verse throughout the day today. Think about it before every conversation you have today and before every decision you make:
Let my mouth be filled with Your praise and with Your glory all the day. Amen.
Have a great day!
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