I wonder if much “early” Christian music (well, it lasted long past the early years of the Church!) was some variation of chant because the Church was so aware of the brokenness of the world, and the chant allowed worshippers to lift up their voices in lament, in solidarity, in supplication, and, ultimately, in a hope devoid of false optimism. The tones of traditional chant are so haunting, so melancholy, and yet so natural to sing to – almost as natural as speaking – and I think those qualities reflect the way in which early Christians saw the world. They were close to its pain, suffering with it and for it and because of it, oppressed and persecuted, a misunderstood minority, laboring for the vulnerable and cast out, weeping with Christ for a world that they saw destroying itself. One cannot simultaneously be saving babies from abandonment to the elements and skipping around like nothing is wrong with the world; one cannot see friends and loved ones tortured and killed for their faith and still think that this life is a fountain of roses and rainbows.
So their music was born of the pain they saw (pain stemming from unredeemed sin in the world), the pain they felt (pain born of their own jarring disconnect with the culture around them), and the pain they remembered (pain that Jesus had endured on their behalf). It should be no surprise that it was a sorrowful and melancholy music, a music of prayer and supplication, of lament and mourning; we should expect that even their joy and hope would be colored by the sorrow they felt for a broken world and the pain they knew at their own persecution and suffering in that world. I wonder how we could re-introduce this spirit of worship (not necessarily the style) back into our Christian worship today, which (at least in the Evangelical circles I’m familiar with) tends to be buoyant, cheerful, excited, and positive. I don’t think those are bad things by any means – I think the church has much to be thankful for and much reason to give praise to God – but I do think that it tends to be the focus at bit too much of the time. Our constant obsession with the positive leaves us isolated when suffering comes, because we have never seen our community mourn together over the simple, everyday, sorrows and struggles of life in a fallen world. Instead, we see that the “Christian” thing to do is to give praise no matter what, to focus on the blessings no matter what, and to deny the pain and the brokenness.
There’s obviously a balance that’s needed, on a theological as well as a musical level. It is good to be reminded of the larger purpose and beauty of God’s plan when life is hard and things hurt; it’s not so good to feel like the worship service is a pep rally and our pain is out of place and unheard even by God. It is good to enter into the sufferings and laments of those who broken and hurting; it’s not so good to be left feeling that there is no cause for hope or joy or celebration in this life. But maybe if we learn from the Church throughout the ages, in all her many traditions, we might find a way to better balance the tendencies and weaknesses of our own age.
And now just for something incredibly beautiful and uplifting, even if you don’t think chant is your type of thing 🙂
(I’ve been learning a lot more about chant tones, notations, and how to chant prayers from David Clayton through his website The Way of Beauty and especially through his talk to the Institute of Catholic Culture, which, incidentally, I would highly recommend as a source of information about the history and theology of the Church from Biblical to modern times.)