Feeding the Soul

Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

It’s that time of year when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and triumph over death. In Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands, one of our great Easter hymns, Martin Luther writes: Die Schrift hat verkuendigt das, Wie ein Tod den andern frass. This literally translates to: Scripture has proclaimed how one death ate the other. What an image! Furthermore, the word frass is used to describe how animals eat. So, Christ’s death on the cross and subsequent resurrection was so powerful, that all sin and death in the world have been gobbled up. Talk about table manners!

For sure, this central belief about Christ’s saving death on the cross is of the utmost importance. After all, we do spend 7 out of 52 Sundays celebrating this victory. Lately, I’ve also been thinking about another kind of eating that happens on Sunday morning, the food we feed our souls with the hymns we sing. Our Lutheran heritage places strong symbolism in the act of singing on Sunday morning. Similarly, we Lutherans tend to give great thought to what we sing on Sunday morning. How can the words and melodies we sing shape our beliefs? Below are some thoughts excerpted from an article by John Witvliet entitled, “Soul Food for the People of God.”

Music as Spiritual Nourishment

Singing together acts in protest of the solitary moments in life. Whether physical or emotional suffering, dealing with the death of a loved one, or other moments of despair or lament, singing together sends the message that the community builds each other up. Singing good music together also inoculates us from spiritual disease, for example, religious experience as a candy-coated happiness and bliss. The mental imagination, physical exertion, and sculpting of emotional space that occurs when we sing all play a part in providing our souls with the nutrients they need to tackle the difficulties of life.

Liturgical-musical Diets

We have a limited number of songs we can sing in a given year and a limited number of songs we can collectively remember. Of course, we’ve been told that a varied diet is the key to being healthy; the same is true of music. We should sing our thanksgivings, supplications, and laments. We should narrate the Christian story: creation, fall, Christ’s birth, teaching, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, the sending of the Spirit and the coming of the kingdom of God. We should sing about a range of Christian teachings: social justice, evangelistic witness, and prayer. We should sing from a range of cultural locations and ethnic communities (in both time and space), to form us in the native language of the many parts of the holy, catholic church. We should sing the songs that form our own cultural identity.

Feeding as an Event

Eating is social and so is singing on Sunday morning. The point of eating together is the relationship, not the food. Similarly, the point of worship is God. The point of liturgy is to enact the relationship we have with God in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. The date doesn’t exist for the food, and worship doesn’t exist for the music.

Liturgical-musical Taste, Liturgical-musical Etiquette

Appropriating food well requires skills, cultivating table etiquette and good taste. We need to try new things, make judgments about theological soundness, and have discipline to avoid simple self-gratification. Frank Burch Brown describes four aesthetic sins that apply to food and congregational song:

  • The Aesthete – All that matters is that the music be from the masters
  • The Philistine – All that matters is the translation into practical, moral, or religious terms
  • The Intolerant – All that matters is what I think is the best
  • The Indiscriminate – All is good regardless of lasting value or superficial appeal
The Eater and a Community for Eating

Music forges first-person plural experiences. Bonhoeffer writes, “It is the voice of the Church that is heard in singing together. It is not you that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song. Concert music values the proficiency and virtuosity of the soloist; in the context of church and liturgy, the highest value is enabling a group of musical amateurs to make music together.

In this Easter season, I pray that we may benefit from the great victory Jesus accomplished for us when his death ended death. I also pray that we may endeavor to share the feast of God’s reign with all of God’s children. God sets the feast and feeds us with soul food to last a lifetime and more.

If you’d like to join together for a conversation about how what we sing shapes our faith, come to Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Lancaster at 6:30 on April 18 for Barbecue Theology. We’ll get some food and talk about how the words we sing have shaped what we believe.

Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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Dr. Adam Lefever Hughes

Director of Music

Adam served as Director of Music at St. Peter’s from 2015 to 2022.

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