After hearing some stirring hymn singing during the annual Pepperdine Bible Lectures, noted Anglican theologian N. T. Wright observed: “If the Holy Spirit is not active, I would jolly well like to know what you think is going on when your ‘lot’ is singing.” Wright’s words are a reminder that something deeply spiritual happens when Christians sing. I would call it a “sacrament.”
We experience many things in our lives for which we may not have a precise name. Perhaps we have known the guilty pleasure in seeing an enemy experience a misfortune (schadenfreude). Perhaps we’ve engaged in an office conflict (a kerfuffle). Or perhaps we’ve delivered the perfect zinger in a debate (a riposte). We can have all sorts of experiences without a precise word to name them. Similarly, many Christians experience the sacrament of singing, even if they don’t use the word.
A sacrament is an outward or visible sign of an inner spiritual reality. From childhood I enjoyed encounters with the sacred—in quiet moments at the Lord’s Table, in baptism, and in powerful manifestations of beauty all about me. Before I had ever read Simone Weil, I knew the truth that “beauty is eternity here below.” With Gerard Manley Hopkins, I sensed that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” But I experienced the Presence most often in robust congregational singing. Everyone around me sang, and it thrilled me. In the great hymns I sensed the presence of God. Though I lacked the vocabulary, I knew that singing was sacramental.
So when N. T. Wright, drawing on the rich resources of the New Testament and the grand tradition of Christian theology, said in his delightful British accent, “If the Holy Spirit is not active, I would jolly well like to know what you think is going on when your lot is singing,” I “jolly well” knew just what he meant.
Wright’s observation is perceptive. He reminds us of a great truth: when we are fully engaged in singing, when we are expending our breath (spirit, wind) in honor of God, the Divine Breath is within us. The Apostle Paul makes this point in Ephesians when he links the Holy Spirit with singing. “Be filled with the Spirit,” he says (5:19). Being filled with the Spirit and singing to God are necessarily related. In a word, hymn singing is—or ought to be—sacramental.
The next time you sing in church, may I suggest you sing with special joy and engagement. With N. T. Wright, I jolly well think that when you do, you are inviting the Holy Spirit into your heart.
Header image by Montel G. Worship! Taken October 18, 2012. Retrieved from flickr.com. Some rights reserved.
Darryl Tippens (Ph.D., Louisiana State University) is University Distinguished Scholar at Abilene Christian University, where he teaches English, researches, and serves in the Provost office. He is Provost Emeritus of Pepperdine University. Dr. Tippens enjoys writing on a variety of topics including Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible as literature, Christian spirituality, and higher education. He is the author or co-author of several books including “Pilgrim Heart: The Way of Jesus in Everyday Life” and “Shadow & Light: Literature and the Life of Faith.”