Christian Music: History
Christian music has its origins linked to thousands of years of Hebraic culture. It was the folk music or music of the people often played with lyres, harps, tambourines, and other percussion instruments. Exodus 15:20-21 makes reference back to the time of Moses. “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” After the construction of Solomon’s temple in 900 B.C., professional worship music, using dual reed pipes, was incorporated during special religious events such as Passover and the Feast of the Tabernacles.
Christian Music: Its Birth
The Jews worshipped liturgically, and their temple worship was reinvented and adapted into Christian worship quite logically. The early Christians had been Jews who now followed Christ. Their faith was the completion of Judaism, and they continued to use many aspects of the Jewish liturgy. The Jews of the Old Testament sang psalms, many of which were written by King David. They also praised God, and asked God to be their help and guide. These were prayers and sacred songs influenced from the text of the Holy Word set to music.
The type of singing that was used in the ancient Hebrew temples was antiphonal singing. It is text based on the Jewish Book of Praise or Psalms. It is two choruses, or priest and congregation, singing back and forth, very much like an echo, but not always identical. It is known as a responsorial chant, almost like a call and response. The chant goes back and forth between the priest, or officiant, singing what is called the verse and the congregation, or choir, singing back what is called the response. Ezra 3:11 gives an example of this when is says “They sang together by course in praising and giving thanks to unto the Lord.”
The word liturgy is defined by Webster as the customary repertoire of ideas, phrases, or observances. The liturgy is full of the repetition of ideas. We repeat the ritual of sacrifice, known as the Eucarist or Holy Communion. We have the communal repetition of scripture, spoken, not silent, so that it can be heard and absorbed. Much as it is important to repeat ideas and behaviors for children, so, too, do we need repetition to make ideas and behaviors part of our life, and that includes our religious life. We sing praises, but the most often repeated prayer is one of supplication, called the Kyrie Eleison.
Kyrie is the Greek word for Lord. Kyrie Eleison is Greek for Lord have mercy. The primary use of the Kyrie from the perspective of the Bible has been to call to God confident in His mercy. The people of Israel called out to God in Isaiah 33:2 “Be gracious unto us.” In the New Testament two blind men in Matthew 20:30 call out “Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David.” Matthew 15:22 tells of the woman who has a daughter plagued by the devil. She calls to the Lord, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David.” Blind Bartemaeus, in Mark 10:47, cries, “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.” The poor lepers in Luke 17:13 beseech Jesus to help them with the words, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” These are repetitions of a plea for mercy across the ages as recorded in Scripture. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Kyrie Eleison.
Antiphonal singing, although repetitious, is not boring. On the contrary, it has benefits to the Christian. One must, of course, be fully present, with mind body and soul paying attention to the words, thinking about them as they are said and sung, being mindful of the meaning and powerful nature of the words. Antiphonal singing unites the hearts of the family of God in the intensity and passion of intercession allowing us to receive a blessing when we come to Him in unity. It allows for new understanding and revelation as the Holy Spirit comes to us as we hear God’s word.
Christian Music: Kyrie Elieson
May you receive a blessing as you listen to the Kyrie sung as a Gregorian chant. Kyrie Eleison. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.