Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 10 February 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
4 before Lent E&B
Pliny to the Emperor Trajan, from the Roman province of Bithynia in 98 or 99 AD:
They [meet] regularly before dawn on a fixed day to sing hymns to Christ as to a God. Pliny, Letter to Trajan (10.96.7) 98 or 99 AD
And from our second Lesson:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. Colossians 3.16
That verse of Colossians and our anthem this evening (printed in your order of service) led me to think about how we get our hymnody, and especially what we call ‘office hymns’, the oldest liturgical hymns in our regular worship. We’ve had two of those tonight, because in addition to the office hymn of Evensong (‘O Trinity of blessed might’), our anthem was a French paraphrase translation of the office hymn for Tuesday Matins, addressed to Christ: consors paterni luminis (O Word, equal of the Most High).
Hymns formed part of Christian worship from apostolic times, developing from Jewish practice: remember, after the last supper, we’re told that ‘when they had sung the hymn they went to Mount of Olives.’ The Magnificat and the Sanctus (the origin of which we heard in our reading from Isaiah this morning) are examples derived from Jewish liturgical music.
St Paul refers several times to such worship songs. Pliny’s letter to Trajan, from which I quoted, is important early evidence for hymn-singing in first-century congregations, and notice that he picks up an emphasis on Christ’s divinity in these early congregations in Asia Minor, near Nicaea. Similarly, Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, says
‘All the psalms and hymns, written from the beginning by faithful Christians, sing of Christ as Word of God, and address him as God’ EH 5.28.5-6
The liturgy always expresses the faith, even before the faith is codified (in this case long before the Canon of Scripture has been fixed or the creeds agreed): both the pagan Pliny and the Church Father Eusebius note simply that the hymns are offered to Christ as God.
But these songs are not quite the sort of thing we find in our New English Hymnal or any similar book. Much of our hymnody derives from the reformation tradition, including an especially strong English element from our own Anglican patrimony. The Latin church avoided using this sort of vernacular hymnody within the liturgy until very recently, and has now borrowed the best of its English hymns from us.
St Ambrose, who is credited with the text paraphrased by Racine and used by Faure for this evening’s anthem, was foremost among the early Latin hymn composers. He took over the Eastern tradition of antiphonal singing (that is alternating the verses of psalms and hymns – the reason why we still alternate the verses of our office hymn) and laid the foundation of a rich tradition of Latin hymns, some of which we sing here at Evensong in English translation.
Other writers, like Prudentius, took up his innovation and a large body of hymnody was born, eventually becoming a distinct genre of Christian poetry, not necessarily intended to be sung (a tradition continued by our own poets – think of Donne’s ‘Hymn to God, my God in my sicknesse’).
Ambrose and his successors, as I hinted earlier, were writing, at least in part, to teach people theology, a project which reached its peak in the 13th century with the beautiful Eucharistic hymns of Thomas Aquinas, which we know from Benediction and the liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Corpus Christi. The reformers, abandoning Latin, quickly saw the value of vernacular hymns as memorable teaching tools, a strategy which flourished in Lutheran and Anglican traditions and continues to be prominent in a debased form in modern worship songs; so much so that the word ‘worship’ in modern evangelical services has come to mean just singing songs.
These Latin hymns were first adopted into the fixed daily services of the church by St Benedict, and from his monastic rule we derive the practice of attaching texts to particular hours of prayer on particular days of the week – as with this evening’s text, which is that for Tuesday Matins. Hence ‘office hymns’: hymns attached to a particular ‘office’, or fixed form of prayer at a particular time of a particular day, varying only for the season. ‘Office’ in this context, from the Latin officium, means a ‘duty’: it is the duty of those ordained or in religious vows to pray and sing in this way; Cranmer combined the old seven or eight daily Latin offices into our Matins and Evensong and made them services for shared parish worship, not just for those clerics and religious who are bound to pray them. And so our Anglican Evensong tradition was born, and a rich musical heritage.
Of course the music of the old office hymns differs from the type of melody we associate with hymnody and modern worship songs. There are others here better qualified than I to talk about that. But for most of us the office hymn provides a marked musical and formal contrast to the rest of our congregational singing. Sometimes, of course, that’s because we can’t sing it at all, but I was thinking more of the simplicity and purity of a chant tune, without harmonies, without descants, without, usually, even shifts in metre. The Latin rite, much more sparing in words and decorative flourishes than those of the East, is sometimes characterized as having a ‘noble simplicity’: that is how these hymns strike me, examples of pure worship.
This parish and my home parish in Sydney played a significant part in introducing these hymns (and the other chants which we call ‘Gregorian’) to Anglophone liturgy from the mid-19th century. The enthusiasm of churches in our tradition for this form of musical worship may even have cross-fertilised the Latin tradition to some extent. When the Roman hierarchy was introduced into England in the 19th century and great churches like Westminster Cathedral were imagined and then built, their enthusiasm for excellent choral music was presumably encouraged by the strong choral tradition in our cathedrals, and churches such as this.
As for this evening’s anthem text, ascribed to S. Ambrose, I mentioned earlier that it is a Matins hymn. When I say Matins I’m talking not about 11.00am in a cathedral but somewhere between 2.00am and 5.00am in a monastery chapel. So the text makes reference, characteristically, to Christ as the Light dispelling darkness, proceeding from the Father’s pure light, and urging the singers to get up and get on with their business, their ‘office’, of praising God ‘with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’, neatly echoing Pliny’s much earlier observation,
‘They [meet] regularly before dawn on a fixed day to sing hymns to Christ as to a God’
And so connecting us, by an unbroken musical thread, to the lives and worship of the earliest Christians.