This pandemic is certainly horrific, but I have found many positives during this time. One of these positives was a slower and more reflective Holy Week, allowing me to ponder and study Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and to write some lessons on it for my school. In this Passion, as the evangelist—St. Matthew—and the rest of the biblical characters narrate the story, Bach uses chorales to mark the communal response of all believers to the biblical events. These chorales, or hymns, can be seen as our congregational response to Christ’s saving work, much like our hymns act within the church service.
Recognizing Familiar Hymns
Several of Bach’s chorales are included in our hymnal today, such as “Lamb of God, Pure and Holy” (LSB 434), “O Dearest Jesus, What Law Hast Thou Broken” (LSB 439), “Upon the Cross Extended” (LSB 453), and “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” (LSB 450). Like us, the people in Bach’s congregation in Leipzig, Germany, would have recognized these tunes and words. They would have considered these chorales to be their songs.
Imagine that you are listening to a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion but you (like me) do not understand German. The performance starts and you are immediately lost; however, you soon hear a familiar melody drifting through the milieu of voices in the opening chorus. You recognize this melody as “Lamb of God, Pure and Holy.” Soon, you start to recognize other hymns that you commonly sing during Lent. While you may not understand the language, you understand the point of each hymn. You can understand how each hymn responds to a certain part in the Passion story. This is what Bach intended. He wanted his hearers—even those who did not understand German—to recognize these hymns. He knew they would have a deep knowledge of these hymns.
Of course, we are now past Holy Week and firmly in the Easter season. Our hymns, though, are still responses to the biblical text. Our alleluias fill the air as our communal response to Christ’s resurrection. We Christians sing these hymns in one voice, united in our response to Christ’s saving work.
Music Builds Community
We need this communal response especially now when we are forced out of our physical gathering spaces by disease and death. We are beings who need to gather physically. We are a combination of body and soul, meant to live in physical community. When that is taken from us, we struggle. Of course, technology is a gift in a time like this, allowing us to gather virtually, if not physically.
Our hymns carry us through this time because we are still able to sing them in community, even if not while physically in the same space. My church has been livestreaming services with a miniature choir to sing the hymns and to speak and sing the congregational responses. Even as the small group of us gather in the building, we know that many others are gathering online and are singing the same things we are. In this time of uncertainty, we still sing our old, familiar hymns that remind us of our salvation and Jesus’ victory over sickness, disease, and death.
Hymns Share God’s Saving Work
Our hymns are a treasure because they are ours. We sing them week after week, year after year. We recognize them as our own. Like Bach’s Leipzig congregation at St. Thomas Church, we hear them and sing them as our communal responses to Christ’s saving work. Why are old liturgies, old hymns, old prayers, and memorized passages still important? Because there are times when life is no longer normal and we need these things to cling to. We cling to these remembered, familiar things because they guide us to the ultimate steadfast and unchanging truth: Christ Himself.
We were taught these things, and we teach them to the next generation because they are true, beautiful, and good. We continue to sing hymns because they are ours and because they belong to this community of believers, a community that can gather despite the rages and ravages of the world. Our hymns unite us and point us to the One who lives. Because He lives, we respond evermore with alleluias! No longer are we downcast, no longer do we fear death. Instead, we sing joyously together. We sing our songs, our hymns of life.
For Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Cling to every hymn you hear, and find deep, devotional meaning in their texts with Lutheran Service Book.