By Elisabeth Urtel
He handed each student a Lutheran Service Book, and instructed us to open it to a random page. “Try to find a hymn that doesn’t end up in heaven.”
Each of us in the church music class tried, but every example we landed on mentioned eternal life in some way. Finally, a student thought she had found one, but as a class we located a heavenward reference in a middle verse. My professor then used this to explain one mark of a strong Lutheran hymn: it recognizes that the singers are not only the Church Militant, but also the future Church Triumphant.
Go find your hymnal, and try this for yourself!
St. Paul writes, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” 1 Corinthians 15:19
The desire to sing hymns of praise, secondary to receiving God’s Word proclaimed in them, is a fruit of Christian hope. Music is a God-given foretaste of perfection in heaven, where the angels and the Church Triumphant sing without end. Without this hope, the motivation to rejoice fades. If you don’t care about leaving earth for something better, or believe that heaven can be found on earth, why would you sing at all?
The early church’s principle of lex orandi, lex credendi comes into play here – the rule of prayer is the rule of faith. If you pray (including sung prayer!) about eternal life, you will believe it. If you believe in life eternal, you will want to pray words that look ahead to it.
A teacher of mine once explained that the Proper Preface is the part of the service when the “roof comes open.” “Therefore, with angels and archangels and all the hosts of heaven we praise Your glorious name and join their glorious song …” followed by Isaiah 6:3, the Sanctus. It also happens in the Te Deum, when the congregation sings what the angels “continually do cry,” along with the “glorious company,” the “goodly fellowship,” the “noble army” and the “holy Church.” Notice that they “praise” and “acknowledge” in the present tense. Where the gift of faith has begun, the act of proclamation and praise must keep going.
On top of that, we don’t just sing about the citizens of heaven, we join them as future members. In many Scandinavian churches, the Communion rail is shaped in a semicircle. The idea is that when the congregation receives the Sacrament, they gather with the communion of saints in heaven who complete the other half. Isn’t that great?
In contrast, listen to contemporary Christian worship music sometime. Does it “end up in heaven?” Most of the time, it doesn’t – instead, it calls down God’s presence on earth. Millennialistic thoughts? Maybe. If Lutheran congregations select texts that reflect this idea, replacing the classic hymns and liturgy, what will happen to their doctrine and practice? “The rule of prayer…”
Next time you’re at a church service, look for the connections to eternity. Point it out to a little one in your life. Liturgy is also the best cure for loneliness that I know of! Even when worshipping on your own, the scriptural language that you read and sing points you to centuries, actually two millennia, of believers who confess the same thing.
The author of Hebrews concludes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,” Hebrews 12:1.
This faith to which the “great cloud” adhered is kept safe in the liturgy; the words as well as the form. Quality hymnody likewise holds it up. Using these great gifts, sing about where you belong!
Elisabeth Urtel graduated Bethany Lutheran College with a bachelor’s degree in church music and religion. Currently, she is working on her master of church music from Concordia University Wisconsin as well as an master of arts in Lutheran Theological Studies from Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary. An active parish musician, she may also be followed at Her and Hymn.