Sunday, October 20, 2019

Better sung than said. . .

The chief distinction between a low mass and a high mass is the singing.  Low mass is spoken; high mass is sung (chanted).  Much has been written about how the exception (low mass) became the norm and norm (sung mass) became the exception.  Music was not always welcomed into the liturgy.  St. Augustine had concerns for the sensuality of music, fearing that it would detract from the mass.  But it eventually won out over fears.  At least until some of the reformers overcame the music that sang in the Reformation with their own fears and reservations.  Think here especially of Zwingli who wanted it banished entirely.  But Luther was unequivocal.  Music is the handmaid of the Word, its most profound and noble servant!

I wonder if it might be possible that the Christian faith is better sung than said.  It is not that I have anything against the spoken Word but that music is one of the most profound mediums to use in the proclamation of that Word.  We sing it better into our memory and singing allows the many voices of a congregation to be one voice together.  But I cannot take credit for this.  Anglican cleric Giles Fraser was the one who asserted that “Christianity is always better sung than said.”  His point was made not only for the love of music but because of his fear of academia and the descent of faith into words that attempt to say what is hard, if not impossible to say.   So, according to Fraser, “to the extent that all religion exists to make raids into the what is unsayable, the musicians penetrate further than most.”  Music has the power to address in more than words the depth of the great mystery of God in flesh.  Of course, it does not hurt that the angels sang in the birth of the Savior and that Scripture is replete with calls to sing praise to the Lord.  This singing is not only worship but also witness and confession.

Luther himself was not simply in favor of music as a musician but saw the whole thing theologically,  regarding music as God’s second greatest gift to creation (after theology).  So many have said it that it must be true -- the Reformation might well have failed without the power of the hymn to sing it into the hearts and minds of the people of God.  Still to this day the Lutheran chorales are noteworthy for the way they sing the Gospel into the minds and hearts of the singers and through the witness of song into the ears of the hearers.  Yes, it does matter what we sing.

As the Anglican bishop Nick Baines said it: “I go along with Wesley that if you sing you learn your theology from what you sing. And if you sing rubbish you believe in rubbish. Language matters.”  I am not sure he was the first or the last to suggest that the content of the song and how that sounds  has as much to do with it benefits the Word or detracts from it.

Every pastor knows that you can tell a great deal about the theology your people hold dear by asking their favorite hymns.  Yet even that may be more information than you want to know.  Our people struggle to understand why the silly little ditties or guilty pleasures are not beneficial to the faith and they struggle to identify what it is that makes hymns good.  Yet that should not detract from our recognition that for Christians, faith is sung as much as it is said and perhaps better sung.  What we owe those in the pew is the training to understand what make s hymn noble and profound and what makes it, well, empty and ordinary.  


Carl Vehse said...

Lutherans shed the heterodoxies and heresies of the Roman Church when reestablishing in a visible Evangelical Lutheran Church the orthodoxy of "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." This is explained in AC.XXI.5 ff.

Some words or forms within the Roman Church may be used, but stripped of their perverted meanings, and returned to their original association with the Word and Sacrament of the Christian Church rightly taught and administered (AC.VII).

Also the term mass, although used in the AC as a word for the Lord's Supper was later rejected by Martin Luther, who later referred to the Sacrament of the Altar in his Smalcald Articles, and then castigated the term "mass" in Part II, Article II. This was thoroughly discussed in a paper, "Luther and the Mass" by Rev. Daniel Preus:

Luther was convinced that the use of the terms “mass” and “sacrament” interchangeably has resulted in great confusion, and that the only way to provide a clear understanding of the nature of the Lord’s Supper is to stop calling it the mass. “Indeed, I wish and would very much like to see and hear that the two words ‘mass’ and ‘sacrament’ would be understood as being as different as darkness and light, yes, as different as devil and God.”

PPMMV (Papish proselytizer mileage may vary)

Anonymous said...

Mass refers to the entire service not just the LS. I'm all for calling the Mass the Divine Liturgy but Holy Mass is good too. Potato. Potato.

Anonymous said...

Pastors and LCMS congregations unconditional vow to a document that uses the term "Mass" that was adopted 34 years after Luther's death. Luther's thoughts on the use of the word "mass" while insightful and beneficial, even for our day, but it is VERY Lutheran to use the word "Mass", as well calling your pastor "Father." (As Luther was and all our Lutheran Fathers were called.)