And They Sing...
“What to do?” asked Pliny the Younger, Roman Governor of Pontus and Bithynia in the year 112 A.D. He wrote a quick letter to the Emperor Trajan in Rome, asking for advice. By all accounts Trajan was a good and just Caesar. So surely he would know how best to investigate, try, and pardon or punish these… “Christians.” I would be glad to release them, Pliny wrote, if only they would “offer prayer with incense and wine to the statues of the gods and of the Emperor and curse Christ—but none of those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do it.”
Pliny said, “I investigated by torturing two female slaves called deaconesses, but only found evidence of their stubborn superstition”—not even worthy of being called a true religion—”yet there are Christians of every age and class, both male and female.” So what should I do? Trajan’s reply was fairly simple: Don’t seek them out or hunt them down. Also don’t allow anonymous accusations to stand. But if they are accused and proven to in fact be Christians, definitely punish them without reservation—that is, execute them. If they will worshipping our gods, then they can be pardoned.
This is our heritage. It might be surprising to think that simply being a Christian could be punishable by death. But there is an even more interesting observation from Pliny’s investigation into Christianity. “[The Christians] meet on a fixed day before dawn and they sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god. They do bind themselves by oath—but not to some crime, but instead they promise not to commit fraud, theft, adultery, or lies.” And “they assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food.” Pliny may not have known much about Christians, but he knew that they sang hymns to Christ as God.
Today is Cantate Sunday, which simply means, “Sing.” The introit Psalm is “O sing unto the Lord a new song.” And the Old Testament reading is the first Song of Isaiah: “The Lord God is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation.” Isaiah speaks to Israel about the great day, the day of salvation, when they would say, “though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me.” “Sing praises to the Lord, for He has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth.”
Christians sing. That is not a German tradition. It is not a preference or an option, even. It is Christian. We sing. And we must, for Christ, God’s Right Hand and holy Arm, has gotten Him the victory. It was the singing of the early Christians that stuck in the memory of Pliny. It was their singing that indicted them, their refusal to stop that condemned them. And according to the martyr accounts we have, they even died with these hymns on their lips.
Now, the honor of such bold saints would be reason enough for us to sing and to do it loudly and tirelessly, without complaint. We stand out of respect for veterans and those who still serve; we honored our mothers last week, at the very least. Neither of these is really “optional,” if you are truly a citizen or a child. In the same way we Christians must continue to sing. But the need runs deeper and truer than just the memory of our fallen brothers and sisters.
“Theology is doxology,” said Martin Franzmann. “Theology must sing.” The words of God are not meant for the shelf, for the page, or even for the eye, so much as they are meant for the ear. And if for the ear, then for the voice. And if for the ear and voice, then not only in dull and simple ways, but in the grandest and most diligent ways. Only a few centuries after Pliny’s persecution it was said, “He who sings, prays twice.” St. Paul, writing God’s own Word by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, said this in Colossians 3: Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Two points must be noted here about our singing. The first is the content of our song as Christians. It is to be rich in the Word of Christ, able to teach and to admonish in all wisdom. In other words, what we sing as Christians is to be orthodox and loaded with Christ. The word “orthodox” means it’s supposed to be straight, right, and true—like the ortho-dontist makes your teeth. But what’s the “doxy?” It means glory and praise. Orthodoxy doesn’t mean right on the books, right among the professional theologians; it means right praise. Right singing, you could even say. You are the keepers of orthodoxy as much as I am. And so, what we sing as gathered Christians—whether on Sunday, or at a wedding, or at a funeral—must be rich in orthodoxy: the right praise of God that extolls His true Word.
The second point from Colossians 3 is just this: Paul says “sing!” The Word of Christ is to be alive among us. “Mumbled” and “muttered” just doesn’t cut it. “Cantate” is an imperative, a command and an invitation. The best American translation would be, “Y’all sing now.” Lutherans in particular have been known for singing. Just as Pliny heard the Christians in his day, so the Roman Church in the 1500s complained about the Lutherans. They could still hear their hymns being sung by the faithful common people long after Lutheran pastors had been replaced by force with Roman Catholic priests.
The hymn of the day for Canate is one of Martin Luther’s own hymns (Dear Christians One and All, Rejoice), and one of his best. It’s a perfect example of what St. Paul encouraged. Take it home with you and consider how these Words bear Jesus Christ richly, and teach and admonish us with the whole story of salvation. It actually fits perfectly with what Jesus says in today’s Gospel also, that the Holy Spirit’s work is to convict us of our sin, to convince us that our righteousness is in Christ alone, and to rejoice in the judgment of this world’s prince, the Devil, who has been defeated. That is what makes a song “spiritual:” it does what Jesus says the Holy Spirit will do: “glorify Me, and take what is Mine and declare it to You.”
You and I are here now in the day of salvation. We are here in the little while between the Lord’s accomplished salvation and His fulfilled salvation. And each week, even each day in our own homes, we are drawing water from the wells of salvation. We have received with all meekness the implanted Word, which is able to save our souls. We have before us every Lord’s day the true, forgiving Body and Blood of Christ given for us to eat and drink (or don’t you think we certainly ought to, as even the underground and persecuted Christians of Pliny’s day did!). That is why we must sing. We must “give thanks to the LORD, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted, shout, and sing for joy. For great in our midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Dwelling among us richly in the Holy Spirit’s Word.
So, as St. Paul urges, I also urge you, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, singing.” The hymns we sing will never be ditties. They may sometimes be challenging—most things worth doing are. But that means they will never be a waste of your time. Do not be timid. You are Christians. And Christians sing. Hymns in church may be the only time you sing. By God’s grace, I pray you would begin to sing at home with your families also, but I recognize that Americans simply don’t sing. We listen to others sing. Well, not so among Christians. Our singing can’t be silenced. And if singing seems awkward, and if we are the strange ones like those Christians in the Roman Empire, know that you aren’t awkward. You are Christian.
Therefore, if you don’t find your voice particularly strong or tuneful, don’t let that stop you. Practically speaking, when a congregation sings—all of us, the clunkers along with the clear bells—it sounds awesome. Enough to startle a Roman governor into thinking his civic idols and gods don’t stand a chance! But that’s not why we sing. We sing because Christ, our God, lives. We sing because His Spirit glorifies Him, even in our voices, and takes what is His and declares it to us. We sing because the Word of Christ dwells among Christians, and allows no other god to stand beside Him in our hearts and on our lips—even if demanded on pain of death. So whether in life or in death, we will sing loudly and joyfully of Christ.
+Alleluia, Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed! Alleluia!]+