This article, written by Dale Adelmann, Canon for Music at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta is still available in PDF format on the Cathedral's website in the August 3, 2014 edition of the Cathedral Times.
Have you ever thought about the fact that, after the Bible itself, our hymnal is the richest collection of Christian texts we have at our disposal?
We have no greater anthology of Christian poetry for use in worship. Whether you sing or not, I encourage you to open the hymnal—as you await the beginning of the service, and during worship—to read the texts we are singing. Our hymnal is an astonishing treasure-trove of Divine revelation in verse—from the simplest truths to the most profound mysteries—through the musings, admonitions, prayers, and praises of nearly every generation of Christians who have gone before us, as well as our own.
Music aside, if you check out the fine print underneath every hymn, you may be surprised to notice that, for instance, the text we are currently singing at the breaking of the eucharistic bread is attributed to Thomas Aquinas. And that some of the Christmas carols you love most have been sung by Christians for 200, or 500, or 1700 years. The Hymnal 1982 contains words penned by some of history’s greatest poets, even one hymn by a living Pulitzer Prize winner. Did you know that the texts to several of your favorite Easter hymns have been sung by Christians (albeit in Latin, and obviously to other music) for 1500 years? We live in the only age in history that has ready access to the profound poetry and hymnody of every previous generation. We also live in a time when newly composed hymnody, both texts and tunes, has flourished as it has in only a very few other generations before us. Those two facts provide immense potential for our spiritual enrichment, and they also pose significant challenges for the Church.
“none of us will live so long that the Holy Spirit will run out of unexpected words and music to inspire us”
It is a fundamental tenet of my own life pilgrimage that, like life itself, a vibrant faith should always be dynamic rather than static. This core belief also governs my approach to music, to text, and to music-making. I have been working full-time with the “new” Episcopal hymnal for several decades, yet rarely a week goes by that I do not discover something profound that seems “new” to me. If there is wisdom to be gleaned from that realization, I suspect it is that none of us will live so long that the Holy Spirit will run out of unexpected words and music to inspire us, or the ability and will to open our eyes and ears to something more of “the beauty of holiness.” The question might be, will we be open to receive it?
Of course I hope you will read and sing the hymns, whether you think you have much of a voice or not. Why? Well, the answer to that would fill books, but one of the many reasons we sing is because singing texts helps us to remember them. I enjoy a great preacher as much as anyone, but as the old quip goes, when was the last time you left church humming the sermon? Throughout Judeo-Christian history, singing holy texts has been one of the ways that people who seek God have learned and internalized their faith. God's self can be revealed in more ways than we can begin to name or imagine, and one of those ways (interestingly, in nearly every religion known to humankind) has always been through singing sacred words.
I invite you to discover the hymnal. Where else are you likely to receive a 1500-year-old text message?
Canon for Music
As an afterward to this, it may interest readers to know that Church Publishing offers a book that contains only the words (not the music) of The Hymnal 1982. It is called Poems of Grace.
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