One has to feel sorry for the Wales rugby team following their exit from the Rugby World Cup. It just seems as though their defeat by France was inevitable following a dubious red card decision by an Irish referee. Yet up to that point in the tournament, they had performed so well, playing with great skill, passion and unity as a team.
Part of their success was attributed to the fact that they had learned to sing together as a choir. Everywhere they went, they took their hymn sheets, and their togetherness was nurtured and enhanced by doing what the Welsh do better than most other nations — singing! Every rugby supporter knows that the Welsh rugby players seem to raise their performance to a new level when the sounds of Cwm Rhondda echo around the stadium. There is something about the melodious Welsh support that raises their players’ spirits and calls them to new efforts on the field. And there was clearly something about their singing together as a choir that created and maintained unity in the team during this current tournament.
Music and singing is one of the handful of practices which has been, and which remains, a universal feature of Christian worship. “Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous”, says the psalmist in Psalm 33. There is something about music and song that is appropriate and fitting for Christians to do when they want to praise and worship their Saviour.
Augustine observed that when sacred words are joined to pleasant music “our souls are moved and are more religiously and with a warmer devotion kindled to piety than if they are not sung.” He bore witness to the power of music in his own life:
When I remember the tears which I poured out at the time when I was first recovering my faith, and that now I am not moved by the chant but by the words being sung, when they are sung with a clear voice and entirely appropriate modulation, then again I recognise the great utility of music in worship. (Confessions, X, xxxiii)
Music moves us. It engages one’s soul and one’s emotions. Our hearts are “kindled to piety”.
When Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, his view of music is instructive. He understands music as having a role to play in our sanctification. Most of Ephesians 4 and all of Ephesians 5 address what it means to live as children of light, or how to live holy lives. Paul gives many commands and instructions, but ultimately men and woman are made holy by the Spirit who is called Holy.
The command in Ephesians 5:18, “Be filled with the Spirit” is the culmination of these chapters, both rhetorically and theologically. The passive imperative, “be filled”, is followed by four subordinate, participial clauses: i. speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, ii. singing and making music in your hearts, iii. giving thanks to the Lord, iv. submitting to one another. These participles are grammatically dependent on the verb, and they give substance and content to the command to be filled with the Spirit. Remarkably, two of the four clauses (three of the five participles) have to do with making music.
Many commentators simply absorb the command to sing into a general exhortation to worship. But if Paul had wanted only to indicate a relation between the filling of the Spirit and worship in general, he could have done so. Instead twice over he indicates a link between the Spirit and this particular aspect of worship. Whatever explanations we might offer, Paul binds together singing and the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
Why is that? Song is an apt response to sensuality because music engages body and sense. Music is one way in which the Holy Spirit brings the life of sense and embodied experience from the darkness into the light. In psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, the world of bodily experience is enlisted in praise, and reoriented toward the worship of God, and the benefit of others. The senses are not held down, but by the Spirit are lifted to God in song. Our whole beings are drawn into worship of Almighty God.
But Paul’s exhortation to sing is also connected with his emphasis throughout Ephesians on the unity of the body of Christ. As we sing together we are conscious of the activity of our own voices in making sound, and we respond to our own song as we hear it resonate in the space around us. But we also hear and attune ourselves to the sounds of others’ voices. We respond not only to people, but to the physical qualities of the sound we are creating with others as well as the physical and acoustical properties of the space in which we sing. More than that, we submit ourselves together to a tempo and to a pattern of melody and rhythm.
In that way, music and singing gives voice to the shared life of the church. It is not accidental that the commands to sing in Ephesians 5:19 lead on to the exhortation in verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Music is both an image and a means of attaining to this unity, and of how we are meant to relate to one another.
Some commentators have pointed out that the command to sing is the hinge which connects the two sections of the epistle. Chapters 4 and 5 urge the Christian to put away the self-gratifying and self-interested behaviour that destroys community. The second half of chapter 5 and the first half of chapter 6 paint a picture of healthy community life, in which each member senses and responds to the needs of others.
When a congregation sings together, a new entity emerges. A sound is created which has qualities and properties that the individual voices do not have. But the special power of singing together is that one voice, the voice of the church, is heard. Many, diverse voices become one sound. The singing of the church then becomes an aural image of the unity of the Body of Christ, in that it creates a symphony and a harmony comprised of different people with different backgrounds and abilities being united in a common activity.
So music and singing make a distinctive contribution to growth in the Christian life and to the unity of the church. It is no surprise then that the unity of the Wales rugby team was enhanced as they sang together. Even in their sad defeat, they played defiantly and bravely as a team.
At the end of many international matches which were likely to be a victory for Wales, the great rugby commentator Bill McLaren was often heard to say, “They’ll be singing in the valleys tonight.” Sadly, not tonight. But once the Rugby World Cup is over and they return home, there will, with such a young and talented team, be many opportunities to sing again. Don’t lose the hymn sheets, lads.