Singing around the Table
Phillip Morgan is the director of music at Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the music editor for the annual Lectionary Companion issue of Call to Worship.
And when they had sung a hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.
—Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 (KJB)
My earliest recollections of hearing that particular verse from Matthew are from the celebrations of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of each month as a child. After we had sung and prayed through the meal, the pastor would conclude with that verse. It resonated with me deeply for two reasons. First, the name of our church was Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. I always thought this verse must have been special to the faithful who had formed our congregation, and to me this meant the verse must be especially important. And second, this was the only time I heard about Jesus singing. I remember hearing a lot about Jesus preaching and praying, but this important act of praise and worship was missing. It turns out this is the only moment in the Gospels where singing is mentioned. Just before departing to do the will of the one who has sent him, Jesus remembers that it is essential to give thanks in song and offers a moment of beauty in the face of trial. And thus this moment helped shape my thoughts about the Lord’s Supper: we too should remember to add a touch of beauty to the joyous feast.
One of the best ways we can make a more beautiful celebration is by remembering to add music. There is an old adage that says, “Where words end, music begins.” The implication is that there are some ideas and experiences that are too much for words to convey alone. The language of music can allow our minds to explore those experiences in a more profound way. All our words around the celebration of communion can cause us to forget that the Lord’s Supper cannot be expressed by words alone. The language of music invites us into deeper experiences of communion. There are perfectly valid and practical reasons for forgetting the role of music in our worship planning around the Lord’s Supper. But unfortunately, in our planning I find that we too often forget about the beauty music brings.
David Gambrell tackles the subject more broadly in his book Presbyterian Worship: Questions and Answers. He poses a question from the viewpoint of those interested in what worship means in a Presbyterian sense, asking, “What’s the least we have to do for a valid celebration of Communion?” His answer begins, “Instead of asking, ‘What’s the least we have to do for the sacrament to “count”?’ why not ask, ‘What’s the most we might do to glorify God and nourish God’s people?’ Instead of settling for validity, why not strive for vibrancy, search for variety, and stretch for viability in Christian worship?”1
I would add that the concern for validity is also rooted in mere practicality. Since most churches don’t celebrate the sacraments in weekly observances of Services for the Lord’s Day, worship preparation can feel the weight of keeping the celebration succinct and uncomplicated. I think there are some creative and easy ways to make the experience we offer to our congregations gathered around the table both vibrant and accessible.
Rediscover the traditions and patterns of music during communion.
In the section on prayerful participation in the Directory for Worship, we are reminded that
the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs is a vital and ancient form of prayer. Singing engages the whole person, and helps to unite the body of Christ in common worship. The congregation itself is the church’s primary choir; the purpose of rehearsed choirs and other musicians is to lead and support the congregation in the singing of prayer. Special songs, anthems, and instrumental music may also serve to interpret the Word and enhance the congregation’s prayer. Furthermore, many of the elements of the service of worship may be sung. Music in worship is always to be an offering to God, not merely an artistic source of entertainment.2
Here is a clear call to remember that congregational song is prayer, and, therefore, more of our liturgy can actually be sung. Given the vast amount of congregational song written to guide us through the Eucharist, I am surprised at how seldom we sing eucharistic acclamations. I think the overwhelming hesitation is, again, that we will overcomplicate the liturgy or wade into unfamiliar and lengthy prayer. But if we remember that we are all participating in prayer as we sing, it seems almost imperative to include moments of prayerful participation from the entire congregation. Without these responses it can seem that the celebration of Eucharist is entirely the work of ministers of Word and Sacrament. Communion is not a meal at a restaurant where we are seated and served, but rather a family dinner that we have all prepared and enjoy together. Congregational song during the celebration reminds us of this. One of the many gifts of Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal is the expanded collection of music for use during the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving.
In the midst of the continued realities of COVID-19 and the struggles of re-entry into communal worship spaces, the two biggest challenges I have often discussed in worship planning have been singing and distribution of communion. In an effort to be as safe as possible and in an abundance of caution, the celebration of communion has often been the biggest victim to our precautions. We stopped coming forward to receive communion, instead receiving pre-packaged elements. And in an effort to reduce singing, we removed the eucharistic acclamations. Though these precautions may have been very necessary, the celebration seemed dull in comparison to the taste of freshly baked bread accompanied by a community singing. These elements are essential to the beauty of the meal.
Again, I turn to Gambrell’s answer. “Instead of settling for validity, why not strive for vibrancy, search for variety, and stretch for viability in Christian worship?”
Find the connection between spoken word and music.
Often we parcel out parts of the liturgy as either spoken or sung. I find there is deeper meaning and connection when we consider ways that these actions can be joined. This bit of creativity I first experienced in a worship service at the 2018 PAM Worship & Music Conference when a Great Prayer of Thanksgiving was mostly sung. The liturgy by Margaret LaMotte Torence also appeared in volume 55.3 of this journal, the issue titled “New Topics in Music.” For the publication of that issue Margaret offered this introduction and liturgy:
Several years ago, Eric Wall suggested using “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You” (now GTG 104) as the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. It seemed to me that the hymn text was missing both the component of salvation history and an epiclesis, so I wrote a couple of extra verses and composed this table liturgy.
Invitation to the Table
The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.
O Lord, how shall I meet you, how welcome you aright?
Your people long to greet you, my hope, my heart’s delight!
O kindle, Lord most holy, a lamp within my breast,
to do in spirit lowly all that may please you best.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
You breathed us into being; you named us as your own;
and when we wandered from you, you grieved our hearts of stone.
You sent to us your prophets, your poets and your priests
who told us of your mercy, the promised day of peace.
Therefore, we praise you, joining our voices with choirs of angels and with all the faithful of every time and place who forever sing to the glory of your name:
Love caused your incarnation; love brought you down to me;
your thirst for my salvation procured my liberty.
O love beyond all telling, that led you to embrace
in love, all loves excelling, our lost and fallen race.
Great is the mystery of faith:
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Pour out your breath upon us, and on this table spread,
that we might come to meet you in cup and broken bread.
And bind us to each other that we might live to see
your grace in blind eyes opening and captives breaking free.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power,
and the glory, forever. Amen.
The Words of Institution
The Sharing of the Bread and the Cup
Prayer after Communion
truly you have met us here;
we have tasted your love,
and glimpsed your image reflected in
Continue to burn in our hearts, we pray,
until we recognize your coming
wherever bread and hearts are broken.
For we pray in the name of Jesus, whose
every breath was praise.
You come, O Lord, with gladness, in mercy and goodwill,
to bring an end to sadness and bid our fears be still.
In patient expectation we live for that great day
when your renewed creation your glory shall display.3
This experience led me to consider other ways music might enhance liturgy at the table and to lean into my skills as an improviser. As a musician I often hear underscoring of music when I’m listening to beautiful, spoken liturgy, especially if the liturgy references a text that is traditionally sung. Such was the case when I encountered a particular prayer from the newly revised Book of Common Worship. The prayer4 begins with the lines “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,” the first lines from the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I am often asked about the appropriateness of using this particular hymn in worship in predominately white spaces, and my answer is often that we should remember that this is a hymn written for the use of praise to God and that if we truly believe that all people, regardless of race, are children of God, then we should strive to be singing more songs from other traditions, not less. Finding a way to incorporate “Lift Every Voice and Sing” into the Reformed tradition through liturgy honored that goal and led to a moment combining the strains of music with spoken word.
Two of the last three sections of the prayer end with the refrain “And let the church say, Amen.” This refrain is common in the African American tradition, and its liturgical use is common. This refrain also brings to mind the traditional spiritual “Amen” (GTG 600). It seemed a natural fit to end the prayer by singing the familiar spiritual. Below is a general outline for weaving musical ideas into the text. On the Sunday this prayer was used we sang “Amen.” Except for the ending sung refrain, the music was improvised, and I simply allowed myself to pray at the piano alongside the celebrant. I didn’t use any printed music to be timed with speech; rather, I gave myself guideposts for where I wanted to be in the tune by the designated section. The goal was that by using familiar tunes connected to the text, the congregation would, in their minds or even aloud, begin to sing the strains of these tunes and pray through the liturgy in song. It took just a bit of rehearsal and imagination, but the experience was definitely vibrant and varied.
Music begins with the opening tune of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (GTG 339) as the words of the prayer below are spoken.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
you have brought us this far along the way.
In times of bitterness
you did not abandon us,
but guided us into the path of love and light.
In every age you sent prophets
to make known your loving will
for all humanity.
The cry of the poor
has become your own cry;
our hunger and thirst for justice
is your own desire.
In the fullness of time,
you sent your chosen servant
to preach good news to the afflicted,
to break bread with the outcast and despised,
and to ransom those in bondage to prejudice and sin. (BCW, p. 127)
The second section of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” begins (“Sing a song full of the faith . . .”). The Words of Institution (BCW, 142–43) are included here, if not elsewhere.
The final section of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is played (“Facing the rising sun . . .”) and transitions to “Amen” (GTG 600).
For as often as we eat of this bread
and drink from this cup
we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (BCW, 127)
The Memorial Acclamation is spoken (BCW, p. 143). The tune of “Amen” becomes very clear by the end of this section.
Remembering, therefore, his death and resurrection,
we await the day when Jesus shall return
to free all the earth from the bonds of slavery and death.
Come, Lord Jesus!
And let the church say, Amen. Amen.
Send your Holy Spirit, our advocate,
to fill the hearts of all who share this bread and cup
with courage and wisdom to pursue love and justice
in all the world.
Come, Spirit of freedom!
And let the church say, Amen. Amen.
Join our prayers and praise
with your prophets and martyrs of every age that,
rejoicing in the hope of the resurrection,
we might live in the freedom and hope of your Son.
Through him, with him, in him,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor is yours,
almighty Father, now and forever. Amen.
(BCW, p. 128)
All sing “Amen” (GTG 600).
Don’t Forget the Hymn.
Two years ago, in the spirit of Invitation to Christ, Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, where I serve as music director, decided to rethink our Maundy Thursday services. After talking to some great friends and colleagues, we borrowed a tradition from Central Presbyterian in Atlanta. We would have services in homes with our Lenten book study groups. Other groups that included those who had not participated in a book study were also formed so that everyone was involved.
In our initial planning, the service ended with the celebration of communion followed by a prayer and dismissal. The liturgy included several options for singing, but eventually we decided that singing was perhaps a little too much for the small groups. Some wouldn’t have a piano to accompany a hymn, and singing a cappella might be too difficult or uncomfortable. Sharing the meal was the important part for us and what we wanted to be the central experience, so we did not initially include any options for singing.
Just before the bulletins went to print, however, I remembered those words of Scripture from my childhood, when Jesus sang. Even though music has always been a part of sacramental action for me, I had almost forgotten how essential it really is. I immediately said to my colleagues that we had to include a hymn. When they asked why, still thinking of the limitations some would face making that happen, I told them I could not forget that verse from Matthew. If that scene in Matthew was the pattern we were hoping to recreate, we had to follow Scripture all the way through the departure. The meal isn’t finished until we’ve sung. Not until we have sung a hymn can we go out to our own Mount of Olives to pray, discern, and do the will of the one who has created us. The invitation we were extending to our congregation to rethink communion had to also include the invitation to sing. The limitations that we faced would enrich us in the end as we discovered the gift of music in a context we may not have been used to. Music is not reserved for the sanctuary. It is a part of our worship wherever we are.
On Maundy Thursday we arrived at the home of our hosts, some of us with covered dishes, excited to share a meal with friends. It made me wonder who had brought the bread and wine to the upper room the night Jesus broke and blessed it. The conversation was lively and robust. The group I was in had been having profound discussions each week as we dived into No Innocent Bystanders, a book about becoming fuller allies for racial justice by Shannon Craigo-Snell and Christopher Doucot. That night we told more stories about our lives surrounding those themes and even traded a recipe or two as we ate.
After a brief liturgy, with the manicotti and brownies still on the table, the freshly baked biscuits and potato bread we had eaten for dinner became the gifts of God given for the people of God. The blessed feast had a wholly new meaning to us. I went to the piano, situated in the dining room, and began to lead those gathered in “What Wondrous Love Is This.” Then, mostly in silence, we packed up the leftovers, washed the dishes, and went home. But we did not leave the way we had come. It was an experience like none we’d had before.
The same sentiments were echoed for weeks by those who participated, and when people told me their stories of that night, I always asked if they had sung after the meal. The responses moved me. Everyone had found the singing to be an important part of the service. I heard about people leading a song unaccompanied from the dinner table and even learned that some hosts who had pianos that often sat unattended had found a reason to sit down and play again. The music had given the service deeper meaning, and the whole experience had enriched our sacramental lives.
I recently encountered the 1987 film Babette’s Feast for the first time. The film, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film that year, tells the story of two sisters who lead the religious community started by their father. The community’s focus on piety often leads them to shun what they perceive as extravagance. After their French housekeeper, Babette, receives a great monetary prize, she offers the gift of a great meal to help the sisters celebrate a major anniversary in the life of their community. All are incredibly hesitant around the decadent meal and fear what participating might say about their faith. They are afraid of the beauty and bounty. But to the delight of everyone, the meal is delicious. Babette has used the great gifts of her culinary training she thought she had left behind in France.
After the meal is finished, everyone enters into the night to find that they are surrounded by more beauty. It has begun to snow. Their response is not to hesitate but to join hands and sing in the town square. After they sing the hymn they depart, changed by an experience of beauty.
- David Gambrell, Presbyterian Worship: Questions and Answers (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 40.
- Directory for Worship, Book of Order (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), W. 2.0202.
- Margaret LaMotte Torrence, “Sung Table Liturgy Using ‘O Lord, How Shall I Meet You,’” Call to Worship, vol. 55.3, p. 55.
- Prayer 7, Book of Common Worship (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 127.