In our last post, we discovered the beginnings of a profoundly enchanting narrative of aural redemption. This narrative began with the music of the garden, revealing the harmony between heaven and earth, which was lost due to Adam’s fall, and could now only be accessed through divine revelation and approximated by the music of David’s Levitical chorus in the tabernacle and eventually Solomon’s temple.

Against this backdrop, we will now encounter the sounds of a world where heaven and earth come through the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

The Heralds of Heaven: The Soundscape of the Church

Against the backdrop of Israel’s subsequent exile, we can appreciate the significance of angelic song on the night of the Son of David’s birth, for it is with the birth of Christ that these sounds of heaven – encountered by visions and approximated by temple – return explicitly back into the world. From the region of Bethlehem, the song of the seraphim and the angelic choirs that were silenced in our world because of Adam’s fall and Israel’s exile began to resound throughout the entire world. Hence, the angelic host sang of the reunification of heaven and earth in Christ: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14). Similarly, in his heavenly vision, John describes how “every creation which is in heaven and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea,” praised God saying: “Blessings, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever” (Rev 5:13).

For early Christians, this symphonic reunification of heaven and earth was the soundscape of the shared life-world of the church. Eusebius records how Ignatius of Antioch in the second-century received a vision of angels singing to God in alternative chant and subsequently introduced antiphonal singing to the church at Antioch (Church History 6.8). In his letter to Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390AD), Basil of Caesarea (330-379AD) describes how the monastic practice of sanctifying the hours of prayer each day with singing imitated on earth the chorus of angels in heaven. Gregory himself described the singing in his church as more angelic than human (Oration XLIII, In laudem Basilii Magni). He talks of the role of singing in Christian worship to unite both the Christian community on earth with the angels of heaven and thus exemplify the harmony of creation (Carmina 2.1.1.180). Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335-394 AD), in a Christmas Sermon, conceived of creation as “the temple of the Lord of creation” that was sung into being, and it was this divine song that was to be echoed in the hymns of praise among God’s people but has been silenced by sin.[1] As a result of the work of Christ, however, people excluded by sin could now rejoin the liturgy of heaven and earth, and in so doing enter into the holy of holies to worship with the angels.

The church in Jerusalem seems to have been particularly drawn to this apocalyptic theology of music. In the Catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem, he writes how the singers of the church imitate the angelic hosts (XIII, 26). And in his Mystagogical Catechesis he writes:

We call to mind the Seraphim also, whom Isaiah saw in the Holy Spirit, present in a circle about the throne of God, covering their faces with two wings, their feet with two, and flying with two, and saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts’ (Isa 6:3). Therefore we recite this doxology transmitted to us by the Seraphim, in order to become participants in the hymnody of the super terrestrial hosts. (V. 6)[2]

In Antioch, John Chrysostom (c.347-407) describes the practice of singing the ‘Gloria in excelsis’ among monastics in the morning as being identical with the choir of angels in heaven (In Matthaeum, Hom. LXVIII, 3). And in his Homilia I in Oziam seu de Seraphinis 1 he writes:

Above, the hosts of angels sing praise; below, men form choirs in the churches and imitate them by singing the same doxology. Above, the Seraphim cry out the Trisagion Hymn [‘Holy, holy, holy’]; below, the human throng sends up the same cry. The inhabitants of heaven and earth are brought together in a common solemn assembly; there is on thanksgiving, one shout of delight, one joyful chorus.[3]

In his exposition of Paul’s words in Col 3:16, “Teach and admonish one another with psalms, with hymns and spiritual songs,” Chrysostom makes a distinction between psalms and hymns: “The psalms contain all things, but hymns in turn have nothing human. When one is instructed in the psalms, he will then know hymns also, as a more divine thing. For the powers above sing hymns, they do not sing psalms” (In Colossenses, Hom. IX, 2).[4]

Thus, there was a profound sense for many in the early church that the Christ-event returns the sounds of heaven to earth and thereby provides a sonic embodiment of the reunification of these two spheres in himself.

In our next post, we will look at the distinctively re-enchanting commission of the soundscape of the church. Until then, how do you see the music of the church? How does interpreting the church’s music as a sonic manifestation of the reunification of heaven and earth change your perspective on church music in general?

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[1] Margaret Barker, Temple Themes, 225.

[2] Cited in James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature, 76.

[3] Cited in McKinnon, Music, 89.

[4] Cited in McKinnon, Music, 87.

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