On Durable Music, the Ten Commandments and Palm-Passion Sunday

Q. What makes a piece of music durable?
—Mississippi

A.Some factors that contribute to durability are fairly objective: music must be singable and interesting, texts must be true and memorable. Generally, songs with comparatively trite or idiosyncratic rhythms, melodies, or texts become dated in a hurry, as do songs that are dependent on a certain cultural context.

Think back to 1975. Imagine a song service with the selections “Pass It On,” “Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man from Galilee,” and “Seek Ye First.” Only the latter has survived. The others seem to have gone the way of orange plaid carpet.

In terms of text, melody, and harmony, “Seek Ye First” is certainly the most classic. It transcends the cultural moment in which it was written. However, other factors that contribute to durability are more arbitrary. If you’ve written two equally good hymns, anthems, or praise songs, a publisher or hymnal committee might choose one and not another. A composer might write a best-selling arrangement of one and not the other. A marketing division of a publishing company might decide to push one and not the other. A worship conference might feature one and not the other. Publishers, hymnal committees, marketers, and conference planners are all part of the economic machine that significantly influences what will last and what won’t. Some of these people are concerned about quality; others are concerned just about what sells. “Seek Ye First” had the good fortune of being selected for many denominational hymnals.

A balanced musical diet in any church will feature songs that have passed the test of time and songs that are new—perhaps even ones that were written for a specific occasion. But even when singing new material, it is wise for us to discern which texts and melodies are the most likely to endure. Over time, singing songs that have the potential to endure will prove to be a wise investment of our singing energy.

Q. In our contemporary worship service, we never hear the Ten Commandments. Why can’t we?
—Minnesota

A. First, a word to readers from other Christian traditions: in many Reformed congregations, the Ten Commandments (or another passage that summarizes God’s law) is read each week. It is read either before a prayer of confession as a teacher of sin, or following the assurance of pardon as a guide to grateful living. This is the liturgical correlate of a central theme in Reformed ethics, the idea that God’s law is a gracious provision for our well-being.

In many contemporary services this practice is abandoned for one of two reasons. Sometimes it is abandoned intentionally as not being seeker sensitive or as being too ritualized. Sometimes it is abandoned unintentionally when any traditional order of worship is set aside in favor of a more spontaneous form.

But setting aside the Ten Commandments is a fine example of a change that is not required when moving from so-called traditional to so-called contemporary worship. In many cultural contexts all over the world, in many musical styles, the reading of the Ten Commandments and other law-like passages from Scripture can be an extremely meaningful act of worship. They are a gift that God has given us to help us live well—an important gift for both seekers and believers. Weekly worship—no matter what style—can help us unwrap that gift.

Q. Why have some churches changed the name of Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday or even “Palm-Passion” Sunday?

A. In an increasing number of congregations, worshipers come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter, but not on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. These worshipers miss any sustained focus on Christ’s suffering and death. They will sing “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” and “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” but not “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”—all the triumphant praise, none of the sober lament and contemplative reflection.

Wise pastoral leaders have recognized this problem and have planned Palm Sunday services that focus on both Christ’s triumphal entry and his suffering and death. Often these services begin with a Palm Sunday procession and then feature Scripture readings and a sermon on Christ’s passion. For an example of this type of service, see The Book of Common Worship (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).

Even in communities where attendance at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services is high, our Palm Sunday services should not exclusively center on praise. For like the praise of those who sang at Jesus’ triumphal entry, our Palm Sunday praise bristles with irony. We all need a healthy dose of “Ride on, ride on in majesty, in lowly pomp ride on to die” along with “Hosanna Loud Hosanna.”

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.