Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A legacy of song

I'm a bit sad to find that I'm nearing the end of Roland Bainton's biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand; a life of Martin Luther. I would say I will miss him; but I have another biographical work on Luther yet unread to turn to later. For now I'm reflecting on his legacy in various spheres of ecclesiastical life - music for one.

With Luther, music took a more prominent place in the church. While some in the Reformation, Zwingli for instance, would have it relegated to strictly to secular life, Luther felt it should remain an integral part of the liturgy and even took it beyond its common use which was "almost entirely restricted to the celebrant and the choir." In Bainton's opinion, Luther "may be considered the father of congregational song. This was the point at which his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers received its most concrete realization. This was the point and the only point at which Lutheranism was thoroughly democratic. All the people sang."

Beyond doctrine, this practice is also rooted in Luther's own experience of the power that music wields over the heart of man. In his own words:
"Music is to be praised as second only to the Word of God, because by her are all the emotions swayed. Nothing on earth is more mighty to make the sad gay and the gay sad, to hearten the down cast, mellow the overweening, temper the exhuberant, or mollify the vengeful. The Holy Spirit himself pays tribute to music when he records that the evil spirit of Saul was exorcised as David played upon his harp...This precious gift has been bestowed on men alone to remind them that they are created to praise and magnify the Lord...He who does not find this an expressible miracle of the Lord is truly a clod and is not worthy to be considered a man."
And again:
"Music is a fair and lovely gift of God which has often wakened and moved me to the joy of preaching...I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchasitiy, arrogance, and the like. After theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. I would not exchange what little I know of music for something great. Experience proves that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart."
And so Luther set about writing hymns and teaching the congregants how to sing, arranging that practices be held for the congregation mid-week and that home worship include practice in the singing of hymns. And his trust in this gift from God was proven not to be unfounded, as one of his enemies, a Jesuit, testified: "the hymns of Luther killed more souls than his sermons". And how could that be, you may wonder? Well, listen to just one of the hymns penned by Luther:

I cry to thee in direst need.
O God, I beg thee hear me.
To my distress I pray give heed.
If thou shouldst wish to look upon
The wrong and wickedness I've done,
How could I stand before thee?

With thee is naught but untold grace
Evermore forgiving.
We cannot stand before thy face,
Not by the best of living.
No man boasting may draw near.
All the living stand in fear.
Thy grace alone can save them.

Therefore in God I place my trust,
My own claim denying.
Believe in him alone I must,
On his sole grace relying.
He pledged to me his plighted word.
My comfort is in what I heard.
There will I hold forever.
How sweet these words of free grace and unmerited favor must have tasted to those beaten down by law and pennance. How sweet they sound to me today!

1 comment:

David Porter said...

Laurie,

Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing your insights of Luther.