Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Singing the Creed. . .

I have often described the Gloria in Excelsis as something of a sung creed in the guise of a hymn of praise.  It is one of the earliest of the church's songs but it sings not in the poetry of a typical hymn.  Rather it unfolds in creedal form, blending the Trinity with the Incarnation, and including bits of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei.  Perhaps for this reason I am somewhat ambivalent about the other hymn of praise -- not because I do not like it but because it lacks the creedal character of the Gloria.  I have begun using it not in the place of the hymn of praise but as a distribution hymn where it seems designed to go.  Even folks in the congregation recognize how appropriate it is to sing it there, especially when we sing of the foretaste of the feast to come which we are about to receive in the Blessed Sacrament.

It has led me to discover how much the great hymns of the faith have successfully accomplished the same purpose -- singing them is like singing the Creed.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the wonderful and beloved carols of Christmastide.  Luther ends the versification of the Lukan story with the Gloria, the culmination of both the recounting of the events and the church's prayer in observing them (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come).  This is not atypical but has become the standard for carols which tell of all or even small portions of the traditional Christmas Gospel from St. Luke.

O Come, All Ye Faithful is much more direct, borrowing actual phrases from Nicea in order to shape the song of the faithful. Highest, most holy, Light of Light eternal, born of a virgin, a mortal He comes...  In the original Latin the phrases show their unmistakable source in the creed.  Hark! The Herald Angels Sing puts it a bit more obliquely by leading us to sing:  Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity, pleased as man with us to dwell...

Of the Father's Love Begotten preserves, perhaps, a language even earlier than the Nicene Creed as the church sings of Christ "whom seers in old time chanted of with one accord."  Once in Royal David's City speaks of the condescension of the Son of God "who is God and Lord of all."  In the final stanza the carol directs us to Him whom we shall see, not in the manger against, but in heaven, set at God's right hand on high."

These carols weave together the rich language of the creed while framing the incarnation into the larger story of the saving purpose of that birth -- His self-offering for our sin and into our death upon the cross.  The most successful and popular of these carols do not merely speak of our feelings and joy but the doctrinal truth of Christ and His incarnation within the unfolding plan and saving purpose of the Father.

Far from isolating the singing to the season at hand, the carols of Christmas insist upon confronting us with the full revelation of Christ.  The paradox of Christmas is not on the fringes of the carols but form their center: the baby born in such lowly manner at Bethlehem is at the same time truly divine, the Word made flesh. Christina Rossetti's familiar carol expresses this paradox like this: “In the bleak midwinter a stable-place sufficed/the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.” The carols of Christmas not only anticipated the suffering and death of Jesus.  They also look backward, all the way to Eden.  Back to creation and the fall, we sing of serpents and death, of bruised heels and crushed heads. 

Finally, we cannot miss the fact that these carols call us to come and worship, to kneel and bow down, to believe and see, and to rejoice.  From the words that pray our hearts to be fitting mangers for the Christ to the calls to be cheered, led, and comforted by the presence of the Emmanuel, keeping in our hearts Christ who is our true treasure.  We adore Him who comes not because of a sweet story but became this is the story of our redemption, of the end of the dark night of the soul, and the dawn of creations new and eternal Light.


Anonymous said...

Well, that took a different turn.

When I saw the title, I thought you were going to talk about the sung Nicene Creed, something Anglicans do very often, but a thing I don't recall every encountering within Lutheranism. But I was wrong. It was about singing bits of the Creed elsewhere. Oh, well...

Fr. D+
Anglican Priest

Anonymous said...

I learned a lesson in humility when the congregation sang the Creed.
As most people know, in the Russian liturgy the voices are those of the choir, the priest, and the deacon. The congregation remains silent. I had been to many Russian services as a child, but growing up I became convinced that most Russian Orthodox church-goers are superstitious, ignorant about their faith, and not aware of the Gospel. As an adult, finding myself in the Soviet Union beginning in 1976, I went to Russian churches primarily to hear the wonderful music. I was in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg again, on a Sunday in October of 1978. I wanted to find a church service – to find a Lutheran one was out of the question. After a long walk I finally entered St. Nicholas church. Except for the altar, it was quite dark inside, and the place was wall to wall people, like a New York subway station during the rush hour. I barely squeezed in. I don’t know how long I stood there when suddenly the whole congregation started singing, “Veruyu …”, “I believe in one God …” I remembered reading that during the Soviet era, among all of the persecution of Christians, somehow the custom had developed that the entire congregation would join in the singing of the Creed. I was overcome with emotion. These “ignorant”, “superstitious” people, with eyes aglow were singing the Creed.
I am still convinced that the church in Russia is devoid of the Gospel. But somehow the Holy Spirit gets through to His people even during the grimmest of times and teaches them what to believe. I felt thoroughly humbled.
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart