Instruments of God or Man? by Michael Wingert

The following article is part of the series, “Recovering from Genocide,” which investigates the practices that were lost by the Church or have been changed since the mass slaughter of Syriac Orthodox Christians that took place between 1895 and 1917 in Southeast Turkey.

Instruments of God or Man? By Mike Wingert

For many people in the Syriac Orthodox Church today, hearing a piano, organ, or keyboard during the Divine Liturgy (the Sunday Service of the Church) seems quite normal. Many in this present generation may have grown up hearing some type of instrument and not thought twice about its use during the Divine Liturgy. Nevertheless, when we investigate the tradition of the Syriac Orthodox Church, we will discover teachings that may come as a surprise. While many have grown accustomed to the use of the keyboard during the Divine Liturgy, it is a foreign practice not part of our tradition, and more importantly, according to the theology of our Orthodox Christian faith, it is against what we believe.

Many of our parishes throughout the world today have some type of keyboard accompaniment during the Divine Liturgy. In many cases, the individuals who play the keyboard perform this task in order to serve the Church with one of their talents. Let us first give thanks to those who love the LORD God and the Church and volunteer their effort. The Church is very happy to have people who wish to serve her. This article is not meant to discourage any of these individuals, but to educate our faithful on the role of a capella singing/chanting (singing without instruments) vs. hymns accompanied by instruments during the Divine Liturgy. It is through this process of education that we all will grow stronger and empower our future generations of Christians.

One cannot address the idea of music during the Divine Liturgy without first addressing the purpose of the Divine Liturgy itself. Let us first be reminded of the fact that the Divine Liturgy is done to enrapture the senses so that the saints in heaven and those of us on earth worship in unison. The Divine Liturgy is an act aimed and bringing together the space and time of the heavenly kingdom with us in the sacred space of the Church’s gathering for worship as one. Oneness is the most prevalent of all themes in Orthodoxy Christianity, and especially so in the Syriac tradition. This is why our worship on Sunday’s is focused on a meal of oneness—the Holy Qurbono—where we take the body and blood of Christ within us, making us bearers of Christ. With this being the case, anything which distracts one from complete focus and elevating one’s soul up to the heights is something which must not take place during the Divine Liturgy.

When it comes to issues we face today, or any time period, it is important to consider the teachings left to us by the most ancient Christians, whom we sometimes refer to as the Church Fathers. The saints of the Church are very clear when it comes to the use of instruments during the Divine Liturgy. They are completely against this practice. Many fathers from the early days testify that the use of instruments is foreign to the Church, as instrument usage was a feature of pagan worship. The Blessed Augustine writes: “…musical instruments were not used. The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.” (Augustine 354 A.D., describing the singing at Alexandria under Athanasius) From Augustine we learn two things: firstly, instruments were not used, and secondly, we can infer that the prejudices against their use came as a result of the Christians trying to keep the space of worship reserved for holy endeavors.

This in fact, is another major idea in Christianity—setting oneself apart. In the Semitic languages, to which our Syriac tradition belongs, the word “holy” is comprised of three letters: Q-D-Š (thus in Syriac we have the word “Qadish”). This root means to be “set apart.” In our Christian context, we understand this as being set apart from worldly things for Godly purposes. In the context of liturgical worship, anything which distracts the worshipper from complete focus on oneness with God or mixes in worldly pursuits with one’s worship, has no place in the life of a Christian.

Some of those who try to push the usage of man-made instruments in the Church will often cite the Psalms in order to support their wish to hear instrumentation in the Church. It is important to understand the Psalms through the eyes of the early Church. Let us call to mind the purpose and function of the Old Testament in salvation history in order to help us understand these scriptures with the mind of the fathers. The Old Testament is almost entirely the story of the Children of Israel and their role as God’s people. It is a record of the Torah (the “Law”) and the Prophets. While it records the history of the Hebrews, it is also our story—the events which the Hebrews experience over time are the same struggles that we do. The Old Testament teaches us why we need a savior; it functions as a way to warn us of our own future by showing us the past. And so in the appointed time, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God came down and dwelt among us. As part of Christ’s ministry, Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets. Everything the Old Testament foreshadowed and alluded to was completed with Jesus Christ. The ancient Christians understood the Scriptures in this way and this is the key to how Orthodox Christians understand the Scriptures. With that in mind, what do the saints say about these Psalms which mention instruments?

Mor Iwanios the Golden-mouth (St. John Chrysostom) makes a distinction between those things which are lifeless and those to whom God has given life. “David formerly sang songs, also today we sing hymns. He had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre with a different tone indeed but much more in accordance with piety.” St. John makes us aware of what music is in the greater scheme of things: the product of noises working in harmony. The fathers understood that the use of music in the Psalms foreshadows the Christian life. We are to unite the mind and body with Christ. He goes on to state that “there is no need for the cithara, or for stretched strings, or for the plectrum, or for art, or for any instrument; but, if you like, you may yourself become a cithara, mortifying the members of the flesh and making a full harmony of mind and body. For when the flesh no longer lusts against the Spirit, but has submitted to its orders and has been led at length into the best and most admirable path, then will you create a spiritual melody.”

Continuing with similar notions to St. John, Mor Clemis of Alexandria (St. Clement of Alexandria) distinguishes between the use of instruments as worldly items for worldly purposes, while the very life of the human being is to be utilized as an instrument for the work of the Gospel.

“Leave the pipe to the shepherd, the flute to the men who are in fear of gods and intent on their idol worshipping. Such musical instruments must be excluded from our wingless feasts, for they are more suited for beasts and for the class of men that is least capable of reason than for men. The Spirit, to purify the divine liturgy from any such unrestrained revelry chants: ‘Praise Him with sound of trumpet,” for, in fact, at the sound of the trumpet the dead will rise again; praise Him with harp,’ for the tongue is a harp of the Lord; ‘and with the lute. praise Him.’ understanding the mouth as a lute moved by the Spirit as the lute is by the plectrum; ‘praise Him with timbal and choir,’ that is, the Church awaiting the resurrection of the body in the flesh which is its echo; ‘praise Him with strings and organ,’ calling our bodies an organ and its sinews strings, for front them the body derives its Coordinated movement, and when touched by the Spirit, gives forth human sounds; ‘praise Him on high- sounding cymbals,’ which mean the tongue of the mouth which with the movement of the lips, produces words. Then to all mankind He calls out, ‘Let every spirit praise the Lord,’ because He rules over every spirit He has made. In reality, man is an instrument for peace, but these other things, if anyone concerns himself overmuch with them, become instruments of conflict, for inflame the passions. The Etruscans, for example, use the trumpet for war; the Arcadians, the horn; the Sicels, the flute; the Cretans, the lyre; the Lacedemonians, the pipe; the Thracians, the bugle; the Egyptians, the drum; and the Arabs, the cymbal. But as for us, we make use of one instrument alone: only the Word of peace by whom we [pay] homage to God, no longer with ancient harp or trumpet or drum or flute which those trained for war employ.”

Again, St. Clement advocates the concept of the human being coming to the understanding that he/she is an instrument for God:

“Moreover, King David the harpist, whom we mentioned just above, urged us toward the truth and away from idols. So far was he from singing the praises of daemons that they were put to flight by him with the true music; and when Saul was Possessed, David healed him merely by playing the harp. The Lord fashioned man a beautiful, breathing instrument, after His own imaged and assuredly He Himself is an all-harmonious instrument of God, melodious and holy, the wisdom that is above this world, the heavenly Word.”…”He who sprang from David and yet was before him, the Word of God, scorned those lifeless instruments of lyre and cithara. By the power of the Holy Spirit He arranged in harmonious order this great world, yes, and the little world of man too, body and soul together; and on this many-voiced instruments of the universe He makes music to God, and sings to the human instrument. “For thou art my harp and my pipe and my temple.”

The parts of the body are likened to musical instruments. It is through who we are—body and soul, that we worship God. Origen of Alexandria (who later served in Palestine) takes this in a similar direction, explaining to us that the “trumpet is the contemplative mind or the mind by which the teaching of the spirit is embraced. The harp is the busy mind that is quickened by the commands of Christ. The timbrel represents the death of fleshly desire because of honesty itself.” Origen goes on to say that “The stringed instruments suggest the unison of voices of moral excellence and the unity of organ which is the church of God resting on reflective and active minds. The melodious cymbal reflects the active mind affixed on its desire for Christ; the joyous cymbals the purified mind inspired by the salvation of Christ.”

Others such as Mor Basileos Rabo (St. Basil the Great) and our own Syriac materials go on to state similar teachings regarding instruments in the Church. In the Third Century Syriac masterpiece of spirituality called the Kthobo d-Masqotho (“The Book of Steps/Ascents”) we read, “God gave to humanity citherns and lyres, tambourines, timbrels, cymbals, horns, bagpipes, trumpets and everything used for singing, because they were not capable of singing with spiritual citherns and lyres.” The usage of these instruments during the age before Christ, was a reflection of humanity’s ignorance of the truth. Our text goes on to distinguish between how instruments were used in previous times, and how they were dealt with after the coming of Christ:

“Because they did not know the truth, [God] gave them visible instruments so that they might sing with them spiritual music to God, because they did not know [how] to praise his name with their own [bodily] parts, these being the instruments of worship and spiritual song. On account of this, instead of the songs of Satan, [God] gave them spiritual songs by which they might sing along with all that is sung by him and not sin. God, however, forbid that the Upright (person) act in the way that our generation does. For see, the holy ones no longer sing to God with these instruments. How is it that those who receive the body and blood of our savior do not fear to serve secretly secret idols? Do we not understand that while we may have uprooted the idols of our fathers, we have not yet uprooted their laws?”

Instruments are for those who do not understand the way. Now that Christ has come, we know the way. The Christian must uproot worldly things and bring him or herself toward oneness with the LORD. Bar ‘Ebroyo (St. Gregorios Yuhannon Bar ‘Ebroyo) has an entire section of his text, the Ethikon, devoted to the topic of Music; much of this work contains some very harsh language regarding musical instruments and its impact of human beings. In contrasting that worldly music from spiritual music, Bar ‘Ebroyo explains why the Syriac tradition chants in the minor key. “Spiritual musical texts are demur, mournful and causing sadness and afterwards a chaste desire, while the soul washes away with tears the stains of sin.” On the topic of musical instruments, Bar ‘Ebroyo reiterates what has been historically known: “Concerning musical instruments it is to be acknowledged, that the Holy Ghost inspired David, his servant, when he the youngest among his brothers and a boy in the house of his father, so that his hands made a flute and his lingers played the harp harmoniously, as he says. But because they are used nowadays at voluptuous festivals and drinking-bouts, it is not becoming to use them.” By this time, the Roman Church, whose new practices had been made known to the Middle East by the Crusaders, had begun using a pipe organ. Bar ‘Ebroyo addresses this, writing “Perhaps it is no cause of guilt if one rarely makes use of that pipe-organ, which is sometimes found in Roman churches.” From this comment, we can begin to observe the source of instruments which later invaded the Church.

So how did keyboards enter the Church? Organs (and later keyboards) were permitted to be used in the Church in 1930 at a synod presided over by Mor Ignatius Elias III at Dayro d-Mor Mattay in Iraq. In 1930, the current generation of the Church was enduring the impact of the Sayfo—the genocide against Christians in Turkey, whereby up to 2/3 of the Church was slaughtered. With that amount of faithful, many of whom knew the musical traditions of the Church, no longer with that generation, it seemed reasonable to not feel guilt if on rare occasion the organ was used to transmit the Beth Gazo—the Treasury of Syriac Music. It is much easier to print books written in musical notation than it is to orally teach memorization of the tones of the Beth Gazo. Unfortunately, what crept into the Church to be used rarely soon became the norm and eventually spread throughout a large segment of the Church. Today, generations have been raised having forgotten where these instruments came from or why they were initially tolerated.

The impact of the usage of instrumentation during the liturgy has unfortunately had the opposite effect as the original intent. Excessive use of instruments has caused a general loss in participation. Why do we sing and chant? We do this in order to memorize the material we are singing. The words which we worship in every Sunday are rich with spiritual wisdom. They are designed to not only be memorized, but to get stuck in our heads. By having these hymns ringing in our heads throughout the day, we find ourselves able to continually praise God by having the meaning of these prayers be written upon our hearts. When instrumentation gets in the way of this, the Divine Liturgy is then transformed into an act of performance art. Our services are not designed to be performances per se, but to be participatory worship, where every member of the Church is actively engaged in the prayers, united as one and thereby uniting heaven and earth. This loss in participation to man-made machines has in turn caused us to lose our knowledge of the Beth Gazo.

What can be done? Again, it must be reiterated that it is sincerely loved and appreciated when people wish to participate in Church and contribute their talents. For those out there who do play the keyboard, you have the opportunity to learn the Beth Gazo much faster than those who cannot read music. By being able to read the musical notation of the Beth Gazo, you can be an important person in your local church by teaching the congregation the various Qole (tones). This is an extremely important task for which the Church would be very grateful to those who take up the role as instructors. With increased instruction will come increased participation, which in turn will result in increased knowledge of the faith—the original plan for the first 1900 years prior to the organ being introduced into the Church.

The use of instruments since the time of the Genocide has served its purpose. We need not chase after newer Western traditions. The faith and traditions of the Lord, through His apostles, and their successors has proven successful over the ages. The Syriac tradition is worth keeping because it is closest in culture and worldview to that of our Lord and those who knew Him. The insights we can gather from the Syriac perspective are important for not only our Church, but for all Christianity. We are living artifacts of the ancient Church, and it is important for us to preserve the spiritual history of the Church and not let it be lost to time because of the events which led to the mass deaths of the faithful 100 years ago. As you participate in the Sunday service of the Church, imagine yourself as an instrument; fuse together the content of the prayers ringing in your mind, with your body. Let your body and soul together be transformed into a living instrument for the work of God. Just as we call St. Ephraim the Harp of the Holy Spirit because of his chants and not because of any worldly harp, so too may each of us become living instruments who find oneness in God’s communion, praising the LORD continually by who we are and all that we do.

MICHAEL WINGERT comes from the tradition the Syriac Orthodox Church and was the founding editor of magazine Shroro: The Syriac Orthodox Digest. He holds a BA from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, CA and an MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, as well as another MA from UCLA in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Presently, Michael is working on his doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research interests include languages of the Semitic world (Hebrew, Aramaic, etc.) and its periphery, Hebrew and Aramaic biblical tradition, Syriac poetry and literature, ancient Near Eastern liturgical traditions, Near Eastern history, and history of the Syriac Church. He regularly gives lectures throughout the United States on the Syriac language and culture, as well as Orthodox history and tradition.