04/20/2011 08:34 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2011

The Biblical Roots of Christian Song

Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in a thought-provoking book (The Spirit of the Liturgy) that "the importance of music in biblical religion is shown very simply by the fact that the verb 'to sing' (with related words such as 'song,' and so forth) is one of the most commonly used words in the Bible." Of roughly 345 appearances of "singing" in the Old and New Testaments, the very first mention sounds the basic theme for the rest: praising God for salvation.

We first read of singing in Exodus, chapter 15, where it makes its appearance in quite dramatic fashion: The Red Sea parts and the people of Israel are delivered, definitively, from Egyptian slavery by the very hand of God. In response, Moses and the Israelites sing to the Lord. In their song, they recount their deliverance and they ponder its significance; Aaron's sister Miriam joyfully takes up the tambourine; the women dance.

Amid the great tensions, contradictions and reversals in their flight to the Promised Land, the Israelites glorified God with a beautiful response to His loving mercy. The liturgical singing in our churches today glorifies Our Lord in very much the same way, and particularly so when we sing the Psalms -- the masterworks of prayer in the Old Testament. Sung by Christ and fulfilled in Him, the Psalms remain at the foundation of Christian prayer.

It is one of the great fortunes of history that we have no reliable record of what, precisely, the Psalms sounded like when they were performed. The texts themselves offer ample evidence that their singing was often exhuberant and supported by instruments. Psalm 150, for example, presents a veritable symphony of sound in praise of God. It calls for blasts upon the horn and rejoicing with harp and lyre, tambourine and dance, flutes and strings -- even loud and crashing cymbals! But the exact melodies performed by voices and instruments alike have not come down to us.

That void has spurred the artistic imaginations of liturgical composers from the early Christian period to our own day. Some of the earliest and most stable repertories of Christian chant drew from the Psalms and developed around the Communion of the Eucharistic liturgy: the point at which the gathered community shared "the bread of heaven" and "the cup of salvation" -- the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ wholly, really and substantially present under the perceivable species of bread and wine.

The singing of a Psalm at this point is attested by the fourth century and, in many of the earliest examples, sources reflect that Psalm 34 provided a regular hymn for the occasion. A lector or cantor would sing the entire 34th Psalm and the assembled faithful would respond intermittently with one of its verses taking the form of a refrain: "O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in the Lord." We can see here a very early example of the form used in singing the Responsorial Psalms during the Catholic Mass today.

The early appearance of Communion songs is hardly surprising. Indeed, their Scriptural roots take us back to the Last Supper. In Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 we read that, after the Passover meal, Christ and the gathered community of disciples sang a hymn. Although the hymn is not specified, Jewish norms would have called for singing the Hallel -- a song of praise and thanksgiving corresponding to the verses of Psalms 114 to 118.

In the venerable Hallel we hear echoes of that first song with which Moses and the Israelites celebrated their escape from Egypt. It praises God's name, offers thanksgiving for His gifts, and extols His greatness beyond all idols and nations. Toward the end of the Hallel (Psalm 118:25-26) we find the Hebrew cry of "Hosanna!" (Lord save us!) along with the acclamation "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" Both are sung in the Eucharistic liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church today and recalled throughout the Christian world during Holy Week.

"Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" The Gospel of Mark (11:9-10) reports that those very words were heard by Christ as he made his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It is moving to ponder what Jesus might have felt as he sang those very words in the Hallel just four days later as the Last Supper came to a close. Did they come to mind during the Agony in the Garden that evening? Did their recollection offer a sweet counterpoint to calls for His Crucifixion on Good Friday? Did they resound gloriously fulfilled at His Resurrection?

"Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" I pray that I may never take the gift of song for granted. Holy Week brings to mind not only an image of "the singing Christ" but also some fitting verses from St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians (3:16-17): "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him." Laus Deo.