Singing with our ancestors in faith

Singing with our ancestors in faith

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Miriam collapsed on the seashore, her 86-year-old legs burning with pain and covered with mud. After seven days of evasive maneuvers on limited rations, she and her people had been trapped between the vast sea in front of them and the emperor’s army behind them.

Then Moses, the rebel general and her baby brother, raised a rod in his right hand and commanded the people forward. He’s crazy, she thought. But she was fearless. She, too, raised her right fist and marched toward the sea. The people, hesitant at first, began to follow. As Miriam reached the water’s edge, a strong east wind divided the sea, forming a wall of water to the left and to the right.

We sing because God saves us

Miriam ran to the middle of the sea, the wind ripping at her hair. She pulled, pushed, pleaded, prayed, and mothered her people across to the other side. Finally, there was only Moses, still standing on the banks, the emperor’s army almost upon him. He ran to her, grabbed his sister’s hand, and dashed to the opposite shore. Now as she lay exhausted in the damp reeds next to her brother, she felt the ground shudder. The fearsome army had followed them into the sea. The horses were so close she could feel the heat of them.

Moses stood, faced the army and again raised his rod. The wind stopped. There was, for only an instant, a shear silence. Then the waves came crashing down on the army. In a panic, the horses, the chariots, and the charioteers tried to escape. But not one of them made it to shore.

Miriam’s heart leapt and her legs followed. She pulled a tambourine from her bag and began to dance. She sang a song of victory:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

All the women and girls joined her long into the night, singing, dancing, and praising God for their liberation.


The first songwriters

Miriam, rebel, prophet, musician, is the first songwriter of our tradition. It is not so much that she had a vocation to music. She had a vocation to praise. In a sense, we sing because Miriam sang. Chosen by God at a very young age, she knew and believed the promise of salvation. Down to this day, Jewish people remember the night she and Moses led them across the sea, and they remember Miriam’s song.

In any worshipping assembly, we have to ask, why sing? Why do we want them to sing? Why should they sing? Click To Tweet

We also remember our night of salvation. Every Easter Vigil, we tell Miriam’s story, and we sing long into the night. Our salvation comes through Jesus, the “new Moses.” Mary, the mother of our salvation and Miriam’s namesake, also sang praise for our liberation:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Why the assembly sings

The U.S. bishops tell us that one reason we sing is because our ancestors sang. From our vast history, they point to just a few praise events: Moses teaching the Israelites to sing God’s praise (Dt 31:19); Deborah and Barak singing of God’s victory (Jgs 4:4–5:31); David and the Israelites signing with all their strength (2 Sm 6:5).

Jesus and his disciples sang as they approached the Mount of Olives (Mt 26:30; Mk 14:26); Paul told his followers to sing to one another and always have a song in their hearts (Eph 5:18-19); Paul followed his own instruction and sang while in prison (Acts 16:25).

In any worshipping assembly, we have to ask, why sing? Why do we want them to sing? Why should they sing? We are here today because when our ancestors were up against the water’s edge, about to be destroyed by the enemy, God saved them. We are here today because we, too, have been at the edge of destruction. And God saved us.

We need to grab some tambourines and start dancing. We need to sing.

See also these related articles:

  1. You are witnesses
  2. Pastoral liturgists are “keepers of the fire”: The third level of liturgical participation
  3. Moving from technique to artistry: Three levels of liturgical participation
  4. How your liturgical ministry changes the world
  5. Do you remember the liturgical revolution of Vatican II?
  6. Liturgical participation: if you’re not doing, you’re not learning
  7. How Madison Avenue is sabotaging our worship
  8. A singing church is symbolic of the divine Trinity
  9. Singing with our ancestors in faith
  10. Music is the sacramental sign of God’s love for us


Image credit: Gleb Kozenko, Unsplash


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