Music as Liturgy
Models from Ancient Syriac Christianity
During the era of late antiquity (fourth through seventh centuries AD), as part of the early Byzantine Empire yet with distinctive articulation, Syriac Christians fashioned a liturgical tradition performed through a brilliant array of sung poetry, crafted by the likes of St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373) and St. Jacob of Sarug (d. 521). While the music of these early liturgists does not survive, their poetry continues to inflect our liturgies to the present day. And their poetry remains important, further, for their reflections on liturgy as song.
Ephrem, Jacob, and others extolled the power of the church at song – not only in the church building, but also in the context of the larger civic community. Why did they understand singing to be the perfect expression of worship? What did the sound (music, song) of liturgy accomplish? How?
Late antique Syriac Christians described and performed liturgy as music because they valued the functional, pragmatic capacities of music. Singing was an effective form of teaching and an effective form of learning. Further, singing was effective in the formation of faithful, ethical disposition – that is, a serene and unified self – whether for the individual believer or the larger church community. Finally, singing enabled the church as one voice, in unison and in harmony, to know and bear witness to its God. The music of liturgy, rightly sung, was worship in its fullest expression: all of creation joined in right relation to one another and to the Creator, as words joined syllables in metrical melodies to sing forth the one resounding Word of truth.
Copyright (c) 2020 Susan Ashbrook Harvey
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