Last Supper

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Mt. 26:29 – 31 and Mk 14: 26).

The Gospel writers – Mathew and Mark – mention Jesus singing a hymn (Mt. 26:29 – 31 and Mk 14: 26). The special mention of this detail in the Passion narratives is very interesting.

It’s not very often when we think about Jesus that we think of him as one who sang with his disciples. In fact, any association with Music, song, and dance may seem strange or perhaps, even unthinkable.

However, an imaginative reflection on Jesus’ use of Music and Song can offer inspirational insights for the Church’s communicative praxis.

Jesus was part of Jewish musical traditions

Recent NT Scholarship has renewed its interest in Jesus’ lived experience. The spotlight is more on the Jewishness of Jesus.

Music, Song and dance are integral to Jewish religiosity and cultural life. Jesus grew up in a Jewish home, and it is only natural that he was part of Music, song and dance. We read of Jesus being part of the Synagogue worship and other cultural events (the wedding at Cana in John 2).

Music was a vital part of the sacrificial worship in the Temple. Jewish prayers and chants of Torah, Prophets and other sacred texts were set to choral and other forms of Music. Music and Song were part of prayer services in the synagogue and religious observances at home. Religious Music included prayers led by a professional prayer leader (Cantillation), the chanting of private prayers set to melodies (Nusah), and even wordless melodies (nigunim).

Jesus shared the social-cultural space and therefore, should have participated in sacral Music and other socio-cultural expressions of Music, song and dance. It can be reasonably assumed that Jesus and his disciples sang together – traditional prayers, special prayers and scripture chants – during Synagogue prayer services and in private prayers.

A Jewish wedding is not without Music, Song and dance. It is not difficult to imagine the family inviting Jesus to be part of music, song and dance, particularly after his miraculous intervention that saved them from a huge public embarrassment. Surely, Jesus would have participated in all the festivities that accompanied this wedding.

The Hallel Experience at the Last Supper

Mathew and Mark draw our attention to the experience of Jesus’ Music and Song along with his disciples. We read that they had a time of singing, before heading out to the Garden of Gethsemane.

It was customary to sing the Hallel at the meal at the end of the Passover. Jesus and his disciples would have probably sung Psalms (113 – 118). It is most likely that Jesus led the hymn, and the disciples responded to him in keeping with the antiphonal singing tradition.

The Hallel ( Psalms 113 – 118) are replete with messianic symbolism. A closer look (with theological imagination) reveals the elements of music and song –  lyric, rhythm and melody – that shaped the collective experience of the Passover feast – famously known as “the last supper”.

Psalm 113 offers the introduction and renders praise to our God.

Psalm 114 reflects on the slavery in Egypt and celebrates the salvation that God provided for his people. The journey to Freedom serves as a picture of God’s salvific work of redemption from sin.

Psalm 115-118 looks forward to the eternal salvation provided for his people.

Interestingly, Mathew weaves references from the final Hallel hymn in his Passion narrative.

  • “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  (21:9)
  • “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes.” (21:42)
  • For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (23:39) 

Traditionally, our focus has been on

  • Jesus’ teaching (on the sequence of events in Jerusalem)
  • the preparatory washing of his feet with expensive oil (Mt. 26: 6-13)
  • Jesus’ illustrative washing of the disciples‘ feet (Mt. 26: 17 – 35)
  • and Jesus’ invitation to preparatory prayers at the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26: 36 – 46).

However, Mathew and Mark place Jesus’ use of songs alongside the acted parable of ‘the basin and the towel’. The songs provided the backstory of the Passover and were replete with Messianic symbolism. The singing of the Psalms would have ministered to Jesus and his disciples as well. Further, these spiritual resources would have provided Jesus with the much-needed strength, comfort, and courage to suffer.

We have rarely engaged in a reflection on Jesus’ use of Music and Song as a spiritual resource to teach his disciples. 

The need for a better understanding of Jewish musical tradition

The Church is no stranger to negative attitudes to the Arts. Many early Church fathers (Tertullian, Origen, and Novatian) were not in favour of instrumental music and vocal praise in worship. Music and song were not considered to be the right approach to worship and therefore, preferred silent contemplation to Music/song. Singing (if not Music) was only a concession granted to those who find the exercise of contemplation difficult ( Cf. Herbert Schueller, 1988).

Interestingly, the Early Church Fathers were mostly non-Jewish. Their attitudes to Music and Song were in part shaped by their pagan past and overly ascetic inclinations. But, more importantly, the negative attitudes were due to their lack of understanding of the Jewish tradition of hymnody, temple music and synagogue prayers. Despite their philosophical depth and intellectual articulation, they were mostly “unlearned” concerning Jewish culture.

For all the rich Music and lyrical traditions that we have inherited, the Church has historically wrestled with the question of Music and Song. While Luther considered Music as a sacred gift, the other reformers (Huldrych Zwingli 1484 – 1531 and John Calvin) did not wholly approve of the use of Music and Song in worship.

Zwingli rejected all forms of Music within worship. Initially, Calvin advocated caution but later vehemently banned the use of instrumental music. The Reformer’s rejection of the use of music/song was due to the regulative principle (i.e. Worship through Scripture only). Perhaps, it was also due to their perceived suspicion of its ties to “antiquated and unorthodox methods before the Reformation” (cf. Herbert M. Schueller, 1988 ).

The Bible records various musical/lyrical traditions and their use for worship and other cultural events. However, the promotion of traditional, regional and folk music as tools for spiritual contemplation and reflection is theologically exhausting even today. We must carefully study the musical/lyrical traditions in the Bible.

The need for an imaginative reflection on Jesus’ use of Music and Song

Music (if not Song) is still viewed with suspicion – of distraction, low theological/scriptural value, inappropriate spiritual role, emotional manipulation and cultural compromise. Yet, music and song can help provide strength, comfort, courage and hope to the Church, particularly those under pressure.   

The inclusion of the detail – “Jesus joined his disciples in songs” – is interesting. Jesus ‘imaginatively’ used Music and song to prepare his disciples for the sequence of events.

We will do well to use regional lyrical resources to provide meaningful spiritual experiences to God’s people. Our rich spiritual musical and lyrical heritage will be an important contribution to Global Christianity.

We need to abandon old thinking and the vocabulary that controls it. Alternatively, we need to create a new narrative about Church and performing Arts. Only then can a recurrence of negative attitudes be prevented.

We must continue in our efforts to help the Church to think and act differently. We must inspire the young generation to engage in relevant forms of Music ( Rhythm, melody and harmony) and Song ( lyric, meter and rhyme) to invite God’s people for worship, prayer and Scripture engagement.

The use of music and song will make our communicative praxis culturally rich and socially relevant.

References SCHUELLER, H. M. (1988). The idea of music An introduction to musical aesthetics in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Kalamazoo, MI, Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Samuel Thambusamy is a PhD candidate with the Oxford Center for Religion and Public Life.