Last Sunday we celebrated the Fifth Sunday of Easter, which is also known as Cantate Sunday. Cantate is a Latin imperative imploring us to “sing.” Why do we call this Sunday by this name? We go to the Introit. The opening words are from Psalm 98:1, “Sing to the LORD a new song.” The Sundays of Easter with their old Latin names most commonly derive their names from the opening words of the Introit.
Having celebrated this past Cantate Sunday, it gave me opportunity to do more reflection on the Introit in our worship. It is often taken for granted or misunderstood. What is the Introit, and why do we have it? Is it just filler for the worship service? Not at all! We see our Introits are for the most part taken from the Psalms, those ancient and sacred songs of Israel which really are the prayer and hymn book of the Bible. Historically, the Introit served similar to an opening hymn as the clergy processed into the church. The Introit was sung, a practice that is very much fallen into disuse. Today our worship has been adapted. We have an opening hymn, and then we have the preparatory service of Confession and Absolution. Then comes the Introit. We retain it, but by and large it no longer fulfills its original purpose as an opening hymn.
It is no wonder the Introit is misunderstood and unappreciated in our day. And since it no longer functions as a hymn, it is no surprise that few congregations sing it. Instead, the Introits are often spoken in monotone without a sense of purpose. This is too bad. When we think of the Psalms, they are meant to be sung. Especially on a Sunday like Cantate, singing is the point! It doesn’t make a lot of sense when the words “Sing to the LORD a new song” are spoken in monotone.
Today I would encourage all congregations today to go back to singing the Introit. Why? For one, it is beautiful when you do so, not to mention the original purpose of the Psalms. But also for our congregations today, it is made easy. The Introits as they come from Lutheran Service Book are pointed in a clear and easy way for people to learn. The chant tones for the Psalms which you find in Lutheran Service Book are also quite easy to learn. With just a little bit of effort with pastor, organist, and congregation working together, a congregation can master singing the Introit in a short time. Here at my parish we have been doing this for a few years now, and we have gotten consistently better at it. It has been a great reward for all of us, singing those sacred words which were written to be sung. If you use Divine Service Setting 3, using tone “C” is especially beautiful, as it compliments the old Gloria Patri from The Lutheran Hymnal which so many congregations are used to singing.
Why make such a big deal of this? Can’t we just speak the thing? I suppose, but congregations which speak the Introit rob themselves of the joy which comes with song. The Psalms especially are building blocks of liturgical worship. When liturgical worship is under attack in our culture, we would do well make full use of the joy liturgical worship has to offer. Spoken Introits can be, well, dull. Let’s not give that impression about our churches and our worship. Be encouraged. Sing. While the Introit may not generally serve as an opening hymn anymore, the Introit still sets the tone of the worship service for those who understand its purpose. The Introit is a piece of the liturgy which compliments the Scripture readings and other hymns which we sing. It is something to be preserved, utilized, and cherished. Just as the ancients even named their Sundays after the opening words of the Introit, we can treasure the Introit in our Lutheran congregations today.
When we know why we do the things we do, our congregations and worship will be stronger for it. The Introit isn’t just a random responsive reading which we do “because we’ve always done it this way.” It has point and purpose, and knowing that can benefit us all, both as individuals and congregations.