Thursday, July 16, 2009

Learning to Listen to Music


It was only through the church that I learned to ‘listen’ to music. By the church I mean her liturgy, Christ’s saints, and the call to freedom in the Gospel. Furthermore, I cannot underestimate the formative instruction of Luther’s Small Catechism which opens up the Christian’s heart to embrace creation in the forgiveness of sins. Together with the psalter, a Christian can most readily “find his voice” – speak and pray with boldness and confidence, knowing that it is pleasing to His Father in Heaven. In morning prayer (Matins) the first thing the church speaks is “O Lord open my lips..And my mouth shall show forth Thy praise.” This is a prayer – a petition – thankful praise that God would do such a lovely and marvelous thing to open Her lips. Christ’s Church has always greeted the daybreak by this creaturely plea. It is here where we speak back to God what he speaks to us in the words of creation - that he would form our inmost parts and pour us out as living men – partners and cooperators in His creative work – granted the breath of life to speak – to sing in the calm of daybreak. Furthermore that he would bless us, saying be “fruitful and multiply” – “fill and subdue” – “eat and rest.” To live by Christ’s invitation in eating and drinking and hear his words is to live a life a doxology. Our living, our being, and our voice is brought to life only because God first pours himself out in Jesus Christ.


It is the breath of life and giving up of His Spirit that God himself fills our lungs and opens our lips. This is what distinguishes us from all other creatures on earth. Though all animals have various forms of communication, some more elaborate than other (eels communicate with electric current, dolphins and whales with extremely high and low range and frequency), humankind has the unique gift of being able to speak responsively in an apprehensible and immediate way with the living God – in Jesus Christ. Music proceeds from this confession, that the heavens and the earth are created and spoken poetic compositions, as is the day and night, the stars and light, morning and evening, and all living creatures. Man’s body itself is a spoken word, the church living by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deut. 8:3, Mt. 26:26).


I love the historic order of Matins and Vespers because right after the creaturely plea that God might open our lips, with our new found voice we immediately ask for deliverance, “Make haste, O God, to deliver me…Make haste to help me, O Lord!” When we are granted our lips and breath there is no mincing of words – no wasting time. It is to say “Lord help us, there is none but you to deliver us! Who but you will fight for us! Save me from myself and save your church! Come now!” The dialogical procession that moves out between Christ’s speaking and man’s plea and thanksgiving is not in cold and dry discourse but defines the drama of man’s rebellion and God’s mercy in Jesus crucified, resurrected, and poured out for all. Stalking lions, dragons and the deeps, fire and hail, snow and vapor, stormy wind all fulfill His Word (ps. 149). The drama of God’s lifting up, taking down, and pouring out takes musical form whenever his Word is heard and experienced in the church. For there can be no drama without music and no music without drama. The great drama – the drama that matters above all else – between Christ and His Church will of course speak, pray, give thanks, and address each other.


Expounding on a few of Luther’s aphorisms on the use of music, Robin Leaver reflects on a Lutheran understanding of music: “Music therefore is more than occasional entertainment for the human spirit; it exercises a moral influence that diminishes the negative effects of evil, promotes the positive aspects of goodness, and creates a sense of therapeutic well-being for individuals as well as for groups as they perform or hear it.”[1] It is probably the common understanding however, that music is no more than an “occasional entertainment.” However what we confess about music is directly linked to matters of faith and theology. The Newtonian search for truth always sought and ascertained both natural and divine principles. Bach’s understanding of music was that it pursued as its “ultimate end or final goal…the honor of God and the recreation of the soul.”[2]


Therefore the act of speaking, every sort of devotion to music, all singing can never be completely severed from worship. Luther notes in his Genesis Lectures that man by his very nature is a worshiping creature. If he is not worshiping the true God he is worshiping another. This is not to say that every musical instrument and human voice must always be playing what we might consider “sacred music.” However, if the Church prays at daybreak that God might grant Her lips to speak, she in faith delights in using them to praise God by speaking the love of the gospel to her neighbor. Or as the psalmist prays, “ The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things: Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us?” (ps. 12:3-4).

[1] Leaver, Robin. Luther’s Liturgical Music, p. 71.
[2] From Precepts and Principles for Playing the Thorough-Bass (Leipzig, 1738), translated with a commentary by Pamela L. Poulin (Oxford, 1994), p. 11.

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