Installation of Edith M. Humphrey as
William F. Orr Professor of New Testament
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
December 15, 2005
To Sing is a Lover’s Thing
Can you hear them?
They’re singing, singing a song
as strong as the sea,
as sure as the rock, as heart-rending as a glimpse of sapphire sky caught through
a tear in an ominous bank of clouds.
Can you hear them?
“Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God Almighty,
The One who was, and who is, and who is to come …
Worthy art thou, our Lord and God,
To receive glory and honor and power:
For thou didst create all things,
And by thy will they came to be, and were created.”
In the fourth chapter of the book of Revelation the song surrounds John, directed by the cherubim who sing the thrice-holy hymn, and entered with abandon and reverence by the twenty-four elders, representative of God’s people. Encircled by the celestial singers, John weeps, lamenting the death, deceit and evil of this world, crying out because of the impurity of God’s people, in extremis because he is afraid there is no one who can open the scroll that explains the meaning and resolution of all this. Perhaps like Isaiah of old, he weeps also for himself, frail and sinful, snatched up into a vision that is just too much for human eyes.
Yet he is not left to his own devices. Even amidst this scene of sublimity, his sorrow is not ignored. One speaks tenderly to him, words of comfort that indicate the source of his hope. He is directed, for help, to the conquering Lion of Judah—but before his eye appears the Lamb, “standing as if it had been slaughtered.” The song surrounds John again, as the elders present before the Almighty all the prayers of the saints. And the song has modulated, for it is new.
Can you hear them?
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain” they sing,
“Worthy art thou, for Thou wast slain,
And by thy blood Thou hast redeemed for God
People from every tribe and tongue and race and nation.
And thou hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God:
And they shall reign upon the earth.” (5:9)
Can you hear them? The whole creation joins the song now, all the animals and saints and angels together in a great jumble. They’re singing our song. They’re singing his song – the song of the Lion-Lamb, whose proper place is on the throne, but who also remains with us, in our midst.
But maybe I have moved too rapidly to this song of praise to carry all of you with me. The postmodernist will demur “too unreal!” Here we are in the twenty-first century, trying to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land – among a people who has almost forgotten the Lion-Lamb, among a generation to whom lambly sacrifice and lionish monarchy is abhorrent, among a society afflicted by a worldview that is allergic to grand narratives that move to a climax, resolution and conclusion. Or, you liturgists will correctly object, “Why now!?” Now, we are in Advent, in a time of watching; we are finished with the Reign of Christ for this year. Edith Humphrey, do you know what time it is?
So, in recognition of my postmodern friends (and in deference to those with liturgical sensibilities) let us move back from the Apocalypse’s song of victory to the beginning. Here, at the very beginning, in protological time song – the time before the beginning song – we learn why it is that creation may sing in joy without devolving into sentimentality, or unreality. No one could rightly accuse the book of Job of being glib or inculcating mindless high spirits. “Don’t worry, be happy!” is the antithesis of this OT book. It is in the very context of this ancient, dark and probing drama, at the very climax of its laments and disputes, that the Almighty himself gestures to the primordial place of song: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? ... When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). At the very beginning, God tells Job, the great unseen powers and principalities hymned in response, offering angelic appreciation for the handiwork of the Lord, for the dawning of the light. Yet this was not their first song, it would seem, for even before the light of creation was seen, there was the uncreated light to adore. “Meet it is that you should at all times be worshipped with voices of praise.” Indeed, before the beginning of our world, there was song: remember the eternal “Holy, holy, holy” chanted before the face of God. The archangels sing, and then nature herself sings, clapping her hands, rejoicing at the bounty of the LORD.
Singing, then, is a response of a heightened sort. Perhaps, because song is by nature responsive, it is an activity proper to us, belonging especially to the created order. God speaks—and the world is created. But the angels sing, we sing, because of the life and love that God has showered upon us. As St. Augustine put it: Cantare amantis est (Sermo 336,1): “To sing is a lover’s thing.” St. Augustine spoke about the lover’s song as the “new song” that responds especially to the joy of salvation. But love may sing in other modes, in response to the vicissitudes of love and of life. Since, in our great story of salvation, the next major act after the creation is that of the fall, God’s people have never been strangers to the minor key – though there are some contemporary Christian communities who, afflicted by an unreal approach to faith, would like to banish the minor key from the repertoire of their worship! Over against such artificial happiness, Pope Benedict XVI has wisely commented that, this side of the New Jerusalem, our “love is always marked by pain at the hiddenness of God.” Indeed, if our response is to be authentic, it must learn also to lower the third of the chord, and weep. Consider this lament uttered by an unknown visionary just after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D.:
For you see that our sanctuary has been laid waste, our altar thrown down, our temple destroyed; our harp has been laid low, our song has been silenced, and our rejoicing has been ended; the light of our lampstand has been put out, the ark of our covenant has been plundered, our holy things have been polluted, and the name by which we are called has been profaned; our free men have suffered abuse, our priests have been burned to death, our Levites have gone into captivity, our virgins have been defiled, and our wives have been ravished; our righteous men have been carried off, our little ones have been cast out, our young men have been enslaved and our strong men made powerless. And, what is more than all, the seal of Zion – for she has now lost the seal of her glory, and has been given over into the hands of those that hate us. (4 Esdras 10:21–23)
Here is a paradox: “our song has been silenced,” yet the prophet continues, against his better instincts, to sing. He cannot help himself, for he is in love; like the Psalmist he has “set Jerusalem above [his] highest joy” (Psalm 137:6). Indeed, he hopes that, despite all appearances, the Lord of the temple may still act on behalf of his people. Of course, this lament, coming to us from the margins of the Christian canon, from the book of 4 Ezra, does not know that God has already responded to this desolation – for the seal of Zion’s glory is now to be found in a Person, and not in that great temple made with kingly and human hands. But even in his unenlightened longing, this first-century visionary typifies the poignancy of lament, that dark response born of love and of loss.
Let us return to the Psalmist, whose words were read for us earlier. Psalms 42 and 43, though separated into two psalms from our very earliest renditions, seem by literary analysis to form a whole. We only heard selections of the piece, in order to highlight the themes of singing, but must attend to the structure of the entire poetic diptych, or two-tableau scene. Psalm 42 is written, for the most part, in the third person: “As a deer longs for the water, so my soul longs … my soul thirsts for God, for the living God”; Psalm 43 addresses the Lord directly throughout: “Vindicate me, O God … deliver me … send out thy light.” Throughout the ages, the people of God have, in the Psalmist’s words, expressed the pilgrimage of those who long to see the face of God. The song begins by expressing that deep hunger and thirst, flashes back to a time when God was present in corporate worship, meditates upon the paradox of separation from the Lord even while God remains steadfast, and mourns over the mockery that comes from the mouths of those who do not acknowledge God. Then the Psalmist cries out for vindication and deliverance (42:1–4), reminds God of the desperate situation (42:7–10; 43:1–2), begs for a journey out of the darkness into the light, from the valley onto the hill (43:3), and envisages a time of ecstatic abandon before the Lord (43:4). Throughout the song, we hear the Psalmist talking not just about the situation, not just addressing God, but also speaking to himself. Both the first part, that mourns the human plight, and the second, that cries out for help, are punctuated by the Psalmist who addresses his own soul, and encourages himself to hope. Three times we listen into his internal dialogue (42:5,11; 43:5) towards the beginning, in the middle, and at the very end. Indeed, though the poem moves towards a resolution and climax – “I will praise thee with the lyre, O God, my God (43:4b)” – the psalm ends on this note of reality and introspection. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God: for I shall again praise him, my help and my God” (43:5).
There is something else to notice. Twice the Psalmist actually speaks about hymnody, about song. If we have been well-trained in the liturgical tradition, we expect that singing will be the result of God’s deliverance: so we are not surprised that after our pilgrimage with the Psalmist through the terrains of longing, separation, remembrance, mockery, crying out for help, and being led up the mount, that he should finally make music. But this anticipated song of joy is matched by a darker song that comes earlier in the sequence, in the midst of pain: “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of thy cataracts …. The Lord commands his steadfast love; and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (42:7–8). Who, we may wonder, is doing the singing here? We could assume that since this is “a prayer to the God of my life,” the song is that of the Psalmist himself, whistling in the dark. But I am not so sure that is the whole answer. For the Psalmist uses a curious turn of phrase: “The Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me.” Is it, after all, the Psalmist’s song, or is it a given song (God’s song) that he makes his own? And with whom, after all, was he having his internal conversation throughout the psalm?
All of us, of course, carry on an internal monologue every day. Left to our own devices, it is not always a conversation of hope, of encouragement, of direction; all-too-frequently our human prattling and deadening words circle round and round in our heads, cultivating worry, fear, and even hopelessness. How is it that the Psalmist has been able, during all these seasons, to continue to ask, “Why are you cast down?” and to advocate within the heart, “Hope in God!”? Surely, as an anointed psalmist, he has invoked the presence of God’s very own Spirit. Deep calls to deep, producing the dialogue of the Spirit of God within the spirit of the one who laments, who remembers, who confesses, who mourns, who calls out, and who hopes. Does God himself enter into the minor key? Can it be, after all, that singing is not proper to the creation alone, but that it is, like everything else, the poēsis of God?
The answer appears to be both Yes and Yes. Since God is the great Alpha, the great initiator, and the creation is called to answer to God, we must first say that God is such that he will merely SPEAK, and it will be done. Response is proper to creation, who sings her song in the music of the spheres. Our God has no need of incantation, or response. And so the divine words in the Genesis creation story are solemnly spoken; yet the seven-day sequence reminds us of the liturgical life of the Hebrews, ending on the Sabbath, whose liturgy was always sung. More than that, our God is one who visits, who in the fullness of time comes to dwell with those created ones who are made after his image. And so Mary rejoices in wonder:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever. (Luke 1:46–55)
“My soul magnifies the Lord.” Have we ever stopped to think about this? What cheek to speak about “magnifying the Lord.” How can it be possible, that a human being – even this most-blessed one! – should magnify the Lord of all things, the Lord of all magnifying glasses, the Lord whose delight it is to magnify and whose prerogative it is to cast down? Of course, it is only through the divine humility of one who stoops to enter our world that this is possible, that we should bless or magnify the LORD. The soul magnifies the Lord, because he has regarded us, body and soul, and had mercy upon all those who fear him. It is out of his great might that he shares his blessedness, and does great thing – he is the one who blesses, and so he is, by us ever blessed. We find ourselves here on holy ground: the greatness of God is such that it cannot ever be diminished by his exaltation of others. The humility of God is such that he comes to dwell with the lowly and meek.
Mary knows about the character of this God, both by report, and by personal revelation. Through the scriptures, through the worship of God’s people, she knows the promises, the actions, the RESPONSIVENESS of her God to “Abraham and our ancestors” – and even overflowing to the “stranger” connected with the people of God. She knows from the ancient stories of Israel that God has mercy “from generation to generation.” We hear, in her words of joy, echoes of the great victory hymns, especially the songs of Moses and of Miriam after the crossing of the Red Sea: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him …. Who is like you, O Lord? … In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode …. Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously.” (Exodus 15:1 et passim.) Her song echoes their joy in Exodus deliverance, and in the character of the living God, who hears the cries of his oppressed people, and acts on their behalf. At the same time that Mary’s song has this corporate dimension, it also acknowledges the personal care of the Lord, hearkening back to the plea of another desolate and waiting woman, who in the temple sought a child – her elderly and barren ancestor, Hannah. “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God …. There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our god …. The Lord makes poor and makes rich …. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap …. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones …. The Lord will exalt the power of his anointed” (1 Samuel 2:2 et passim).
Some have thought that Luke, or a scribe, have made some mistake in ascribing the song to Mary, rather than to her older cousin, Elisabeth, whose situation more nearly mirrors that of Hannah of old. I think not. For in Mary’s song, we hear the response of Israel to that utterly new thing that God is doing. Here is the beginning of the absolutely new song, that song that rejoices in God’s full and complete answer to our corporate and personal needs. Mary’s song brings together the hopes and fears of Israel’s years, while also celebrating God’s deep care for all the poor, and for each son and daughter. Mary’s song, Mary’s stance, mirrors for us the way that we may come, personally and corporately, into the presence of the living God: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord”; “His mercy is for those who fear him, from generation to generation.” In the particularity of Mary’s situation we see God’s concern for all, and God’s care for each. With the babe in her womb, she knows that ages-old longings for God’s action are being fulfilled; yet, a revolution, a subversion, a surprise is also at hand.
And so she sings a song that acknowledges both the mercy of the Lord – and the darkness of a human plight to which only God can answer for our good! Those who will not see the situation for what it is (that we are indeed “in darkness and in the shadow of death”) are scattered; the construction of imaginary and pretentious worlds cannot stand before the real poetry, before the mighty acts of God. Here is, then, both a song that confirms and that unsettles. We would rather have the former without the latter, but this cannot be, for in a musical piece that has modulated from the major to the minor key, there must be a resolution, before the piece can return to its tonic.
And who, after all, is the singer of this song? If we place the Magnificat in its narrative context, we will remember that there has already been a word of prophecy, by which Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” acknowledged the blessedness of the one before her, and the unseen anointed babe. Can we doubt that Mary’s own words are also the words of God, reminding us of his inimitable ways and his heart-breaking mercy? Traditionally, Mary has been seen in the Church as a picture of the faithful all together – she has presented herself to God, said yes to him, and prepared herself for the holy Presence. It is hardly possible that Luke intends for us to picture Mary as anything other than inspired by the very Spirit of God. And so we learn from Mary God’s tenderness for the lowly and suffering. St. Paul, considering the whole shape of the salvation story to consider, speaks about how it is that the Holy Spirit is active in God’s people, active within us just as the infant Jesus was active within Mary’s womb. In Romans 8, Paul speaks about the Spirit’s work within us, leading us together into life, giving voice to our stalled prayers, participating in our pain, and interpreting what is obscure. God acts from the outside, the transcendent and sovereign One, the source of our being, the standard of justice and truth, the hope of our own glorification, the object of our awe and love; God acts from within, so that our capacity for life, light and love grows. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are ‘sons of God’ [“anointed ones,” like God’s own Son]…. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness …. [I]n everything God works for good among those who … are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:14, 26, 28). The Spirit within us, Christians interceding on behalf of others; humankind giving voice to the inchoate labor of the fallen world – we form a set of concentric circles that will issue in glory (Romans 8:18–25). It is the prophetic and wooing Spirit who, in Christ, blesses and transforms.
So, then, we return to our question—whose songs are these? They ring out in response to the One who has done all things well. In the end, however, it seems that all songs are inspired by that One, who lamented, “Where are you?” concerning disobedient humanity, who by the prophets sang sad songs over his desecrated vineyard, who placed hymns of hope in the dark night of the Psalmist. Nor are all the songs of God laments: for he promised by the prophet Zephaniah (3:17) to utter his rinnah, his ululation or great cry of triumph, when we his people are renewed. As St. Gregory of Nazianzus exalted,
All things breathe you a prayer,
A silent hymn of your own composing.
All that exists you uphold,
All things in concert move to your orders.
You are the goal of all that is ….
Well, but is this simply a matter of inspiration, of God putting songs on the lips of his prophets, or of anthropomorphism, of the prophets picturing God as a lamenting lover or exultant warrior? Perhaps. After all, there are precious few places in the Bible where God actually sings himself. I wonder, though, if that is because God’s most proper song would be the music made between Father, Son and Spirit – intimacy known only to them. Yet, at times in the Holy Scriptures we catch a glimpse of a singing God. So we might not think that the inimitable C. S. Lewis has simply imported a foreign element into the creation story, supposing that the Word should sing. Why should this not be so?
We hold before us the centre-piece of our great family story, the Incarnation itself. That ancient hymn of the Church that we sang at the beginning of our service this afternoon reminds us forcibly that God, in his Son, has come nearer to us than our own breath, taking on humanity, dying our death, having the victory, and taking our humanity up with him to the heights. We celebrate that one
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In this God, then, who has humbled himself, who was baptized into our corruptible life and our death; in him we anticipate the rescue of all good things, and the glorification of all that is truly human, truly made after the image of God. If the song of response is a good thing proper to a creation in love with God, then this, too, is part of what God has taken to himself, and honored, and glorified. Indeed, our Lord Jesus himself practiced the singing of eucharistia as well as of lament – worshipping in the synagogue, singing a psalm on the night of his betrayal, taking the psalms to his lips even when on the cross. Singing is characteristic of that dear One who is fully united with the Father.
But there is more. Consider the high points of the Christian liturgy. Even today a solemn service is full of song in response to God’s grace. But in the most ancient liturgies, the whole of the prayers are sung. This includes the sung blessings and the giving of peace, where the celebrant sings, on behalf of God, “Peace be unto all.” And so it is that, in the end, though singing in lament, in joy, in thanksgiving, may be an action that is m most fully characteristic of the human family – we are created for thanksgiving! – this, too, comes only through God, and has become God’s very own. For what we could not do fully, the thanksgiving that we could not offer due to the weakness of our nature, he has himself taught us, by the Advent of his Son, and through the presence of his Spirit among us. When we were too weak to respond, at just the right time, God sent his Son, who offers our response for us, and teaches us how to sing.
Did we think, after all, that response begins with the creation? We should know better. This would be true of the general theist, but not for those of us who have been let into the mystery of the Holy Trinity. One liturgist puts it this way:
Music is the language of love. Hence the Church, as the Bride of Christ, has always sung the praises of her Divine Lover, Jesus Christ. Her praises, in turn, are the echo of that ineffable canticle sung in the Godhead from all ages. For the Eternal Word Jesus Christ is a Divine canticle singing the Father’s praise. This is the infinite hymn that ever sounds “in the bosom of the Father,” the canticle that rises up from the depths of the Divinity, the Living Canticle wherein God eternally delights, because it is the infinite expression of His perfection.
Response itself begins with the One who is Alpha and Omega, as Son and Spirit respond to the Father, and as the Father responds to Son and Spirit. Some of late in the twentieth century have waxed eloquent about the “perichoretic dance” that goes on between the persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This notion may be picturesque, but it is actually based on a misunderstanding of the word perichōresis. There has even been talk of our entry into “the great perichoresis that flows between” Father, Son and Spirit. Such discussion, is, I believe, too glib, even a category error. Indeed, the Greek term used for the inner-relations of the Trinity is not, despite all the common – and published – wisdom, the word for a divine “dance.” That choreographical word (perichŏresis with a short “o”) is used in the ancient texts of the encircling movement of the cherubim in Ezekiel 1, whose wheels revolve around as they move in concert. But for our triune God, another word is used (perichōresis with a long “o”): this is a word that implies a far deeper spiritual intercommunion than a mere inter-weaving dance! We are here at the holy of holies, attempting to understand something that is proper to the Godhead, and not (I would think, not ever) to humanity. Perichōresis implies an indescribable ecstasy and intimacy, a “song” that is, in its fullness, known only in that holy place, among that holy Three-in-One.
Yet, if we are not to enter into the very inner relations of the Godhead, still there is such a divine hospitality towards us that we may be taught by them how together we might reflect their life. Indeed, music provides the perfect analogy by which we can understand how God can remain God, and yet bring humanity into the fullness of life. There is the tonic note, the centre of all things, that One who remains always the foundation of all that is good, and lively, and illumined. In relation to this, we who are in Christ find ourselves in relation to that tonic, and in harmony with each other: notes sounded together, heard together, yet distinguishable and particular in that very moment of harmony. In the end, it seems that the imaginary creation of Lewis in the Magician’s Nephew is consonant with the Christian view, and not simply nostalgia imported from Scandinavian ancient stories. For, after all, the creation is the word of Father, Son and Spirit, who by the Christian reckoning of Genesis deliberate together, “Let us make adam.” And so, through Lewis’s artistry, we think in a different way about the primordial time when the first created light emerged, as the Logos responded to this divine deliberation. Listen to his telling of this original song of the creating Lion, who is also the recreating Lamb:
In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away, and … it was hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes [it seemed] it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth itself …. It was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it .…
Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the Voice was suddenly joined by other voices, more voices than you could possibly count. They were singing in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently, one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out: single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world. There were no clouds. The new stars and the new voices began exactly the same time. If you had seen and heard it, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves who were singing, and that it was the first voice, the deep one singing, and that it was the first Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.
“Glory be!” said the Cabby. “”I’d ha’ been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this ….”
But we DO know that there are things like this, so let us be better men and woman – no, let us allow the Spirit to have God’s way in making of us better sons and daughters, and in this time of Advent, continue to sing, with the Spirit and the whole Church, “Even so, come Lord Jesus!”
 Rev. 4: 8, 11. Throughout this paper the RSV is quoted, except where , as here, I offer my own translation.
 The phrase is from the Vesperal Hymn of the Church, east and west, Phos Hilaron (“O Joyous Light”).
 I offer thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, whose happy English translation of Augustine’s phrase, “Singing is a lover’s thing” has evidently influenced my own translation. For a taste of his 2000 book (translated from the German) The Spirit of the Liturgy, see http://catholica.pontifications.net/?p=527.
 “Music and the Liturgy,” Adoremus Bulletin VII: 8 (November 2001), 1.
 A. Hamman, ed., trans. W. Mitchell, Early Christian Prayers (London: Longmans Green, 1961), 162.
 Pseudo-Dionysius, The Celestial Hierarchy, available from the Christian Classics Etherial Library. For an English translation of the pertinent section, see pages 197–199 of http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/VolumeII/CelestialHierarchy.html.
 C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: MacMillan, 1955) 87–88.