The Book of Psalms (ca. 1000 B.C.) was the hymnal of the Jewish people in biblical times and remains so today. Christians, too, have sung and prayed the Psalter since the first century. Not only does each Sunday and feast day have a designated Psalm to be chanted between the Old Testament and Epistle readings, but several liturgies that are used regularly throughout the church year feature the Psalms. For example, the Office of Matins (dating back to the early medieval period) sets Psalm 95 to music, chanted by pastor and congregants alike.
Known as the Venite (literally, “Come!” in Latin), Psalm 95 begins:
O come, let us sing to the Lord:
Let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving
and make a joyful noise to Him with psalms.
The phrase “come before His presence” refers to a corporate gathering in the sanctuary, around the altar, from which God’s Word will be read and preached. At this altar, the Lord’s Supper also is administered.
The Hebrew word translated “sing” is not the usual Hebrew word that denotes singing in general. Rather, it is a more specific term that means singing out or shouting for joy. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament regards the basic meaning to be “call out shrilly, rejoice” and suggests for Psalm 95 in particular a translation of “proclaim jubilantly.”
The Hebrew word translated “make a joyful noise” means “rejoice, cheer, shout in triumph.” Some Old Testament contexts convey the notion of raising a battle cry or blowing a trumpet in jubilation. In Psalm 95, God’s people boisterously exclaim their praise and thanksgiving to God. Silent worship is not their kind of ritual. Among Christians, Lutherans in particular have developed a rich tradition of both choral and congregational singing, meriting the moniker “the singing church.”
Recent executive orders by various American governors have declared it unlawful for a congregation to gather in person. Even when phased reopening orders have permitted gathering (in reduced numbers and with social distancing), sometimes congregational singing has been prohibited. In Minnesota, the current policy is only slightly more lenient, with guidelines urging that at most one designated cantor should sing, but only when wearing a face mask and remaining at double the standard social distance (that is, 12 feet away).
In effect, the governor has censored congregations from performing an age-old ritual known as the Venite; the Office of Matins is now beyond the pale of public decency. Even the cantor, if he were to perform what should be a corporate ritual as a soloist, cannot do so in fidelity to the meaning of the lyrics: singing out, shouting for joy—muzzled behind a mask?