Luke’s Christmas Carols

A URC Psalmody ChristmasLong, long ago, in a blog series far, far away, I tried to summarize and evaluate some different positions regarding appropriate music for Christian worship.  The first is exclusive psalmody—the view that the Book of Psalms is the complete and sole songbook for the church.  On the other end of the spectrum is a position known either as “inclusive psalmody” or “inclusive hymnody” (depending on one’s focus), whose adherents support the use of non-inspired extra-Biblical songs in worship.  Between these two views lies a lesser-known middle ground.  To my knowledge it doesn’t have any widely accepted name, so I’ll call it “exclusive Scriptural hymnody.”  According to this view, we ought to sing only the songs of the Bible, but these include canticles outside the Book of Psalms—usually the three songs recorded for us in Luke chapters 1 and 2, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon.

What’s particularly interesting about exclusive Scriptural hymnody is its prominence in our own Dutch Reformed tradition.  Since I’m fairly sure none of our readers remember the Christian Reformed Church in the 1930s, this excerpt from the foreword to the 1934 Psalter Hymnal explains the previous practice of our former denomination:

Up to the present time our Church has always adhered faithfully to its purpose to sing only the Old Testament Psalms in public worship, barring a few exceptions mentioned specifically in Article 69 of the Church Order. This article, until its revision in 1932, read as follows: ‘In the Churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the Sermon, shall be sung.’  In our American speaking congregations even these few hymns were not all in use since only three of their number were found in The Psalter, namely, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon.

So how should we view these Lukan canticles today?  Do they merit a place in our worship?  This is a question that has puzzled many scholars over the centuries.  Rowland Ward, for one, answers “no.”  In Chapter 5 of Sing a New Song, he says:

Mary’s song (the Magnificat) has at least nine references and allusions to the Psalms, and the Song of Zacharias at least eight…I have always found it surprising that one should argue for their regular use in public worship given that it is so obvious that they are unique songs for unique personal situations.  However, they certainly demonstrate that the Psalter was woven into the spiritual life of ordinary pious people.

While Ward opposes including the Lukan canticles in worship, at the same time he points out an important facet of these songs: They are built on the foundation of the Psalms.  As you can see from the online ESV Bible, for instance, every verse of the Song of Mary is linked to at least one passage from the Psalter.

At the same time, it is essential to realize that these canticles are not simply “New Testament psalms.”  Since the Psalter was the songbook of God’s people, its contents—though they may have been tied to a particular situation in the life of the psalmist—are always applicable to any believer’s life.  These New Testament songs are beautiful doxologies (praises to God), but their purpose is to express the thoughts and reactions of their original singers, not necessarily the whole of Christendom.

Thus, if we sing the songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon in worship, I believe we ought to do so only with the understanding that they are not ordinary psalms or hymns.  So the line “For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed” needs to be explained and understood as the words of Mary which we are repeating in praise to God; the same with the words of Simeon, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.”

Nevertheless, all three of these songs contain concise yet powerful messages of redemption which, I believe, deserve a spot in our worship, especially during the Advent season.  My all-around favorite is the Song of Zacharias, which I’ve quoted in full elsewhere on URC Psalmody; it expresses the culmination of centuries of promise and prophecy in one exultant poem of praise.

I ought to mention that the 2010 URC Hymn Proposal, in line with the orthodox Dutch Reformed tradition, contains all three of these canticles.  But whether or not we agree that the songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon ought to be sung in church, we can study them with gratitude in our hearts for their beautiful descriptions of God’s unfolding redemption plan.


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