Singing Scripture in the liturgy

Frances Novillo, a liturgical musician, explains the background to, and importance of, singing Scripture in the liturgy.

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By Frances Novillo

Singing a text helps commit it to memory (the process is explained in Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs), so singing at Mass helps Catholics take Scripture to heart.  This itself enacts a Scripture verse, Deuteronomy 30:14, which Paul refers back to when encouraging the Romans to deepen and express their faith in Christ, reminding them that Moses said:

“The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:8-9, New International Version

The liturgy is a collective expression of Catholic faith, aptly rendered in song.  When prayer is heartfelt, it may break out as song, for example, when Mary sang the Magnificat in response to hearing she would be the mother of our Lord.  Passages from the Bible commonly feature in liturgy to enable Catholics to sing our heartfelt faith.

Songs sung by angels in the Old and New Testaments form part of every Sunday Mass – the Holy, Holy, Holy (Sanctus) derives from a description of angels singing in heaven (Isaiah 6:3), and the Gloria begins with words sung by angels proclaiming the birth of Jesus to the shepherds outside Bethlehem (Luke 2:14). 

The book of Psalms is the Bible’s original hymn-book, and reading a Psalm is merely reading song lyrics – significant aspects of mood and meaning are lost in a spoken delivery – so the Responsorial Psalm in the Liturgy of the Word at Mass should be sung.  St John Chrysostom said that:

Even if you are poor, even if you are too poor to buy books, even if you have books but have no time to read, at least remember the psalm refrains that you have sung, not once, twice, or three times, but so often, and you will gain great consolation from them.  See what an immense treasure the Psalm refrains open to us! (St John Chysostom, Commentary on the Psalms, quoted in Lucien Deiss, Visions of Liturgy and Music for a New Century, Liturgical Press, 1996)

Antiphons set for singing at the entrance of Mass and communion may be replaced by hymns (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 48 & 87) but omitting the Antiphons denies the congregation Scripture verses set for that Mass, so it is worth considering singing them, even simply once or twice preceding the hymns.  The Antiphons are printed in congregational participation aids such as the Redemptorist Mass sheets and McCrimmons’ Parish Mass Book, so in churches where these are used, congregations can join in singing the Antiphons easily.  Free musical settings of the Antiphons are available from www.bearmusic.info and musical adaptations by Christopher Walker and the Collegeville Composers are available to buy from www.ocp.org and the Psallite collection from www.litpress.org respectively. 

A Scripture verse forms part of every Gospel Acclamation, and example verses are often included with musical settings, for example, the popular Celtic Alleluia, and C J Olding’s Acclamations available from www.wheatsheafmusic.co.uk  However, any verse given in the Lectionary for the Gospel Acclamation can be chanted to fit whichever Alleluia precedes and succeeds it; using the same simple tune for the verse every Sunday helps congregations to join in singing.

The Agnus Dei, said just after the Sign of Peace at Mass, echoes the words of John the Baptist when he first saw Jesus and said “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).  The prayer also recalls words of the risen Christ bringing peace to his disciples (Luke 24:36 and John 20), as we ask that once again, the Lamb of God will “grant us peace”.

While it is more important to sing the words of the Mass than to add anything extra, many parishes sing hymns during liturgy.  Hymn-singing expresses praise, petition, lament, and thanksgiving, worshipping God and encouraging ourselves and each other in following our faith.  Hymns include Scripture in various ways, for example:

  • setting Bible passages, including Psalms (e.g. Psalm 23 The Lord’s my shepherd / Psalm 100 All people that on earth do dwell), and other passages such as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12 e.g. Stephen Dean’s Blessed are they)
  • versifying Bible passages, distilling their meaning (e.g. the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55 set as Tell out my soul by Timothy Dudley-Smith, or Do not be afraid by Gerard Markland which refers to Isaiah 43:1-4)
  • blending different passages of Scripture, for example, M D Ridge’s To everything there is a season combines Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 with the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-22), Marty Haugen’s Neither death nor life brings together Romans 8:11-38 and Ephesians 1:3-14, and Isaac Watts’ Christified Psalms such as Jesus shall reign (perceiving the Kingship of Christ prophesied in Psalm 72)
  • summarising Bible stories to assist better understanding, particularly the hymns written by Cecil Frances Alexander to explain the Apostles’ Creed including There is a green hill far away reflecting on the Crucifixion, and another example is Praise to the Holiest by John Henry Newman (Romans 5:12-19)
  • reflecting on Scripture through personal experience e.g. Samuel Crossman’s My song is love unknown and Matt Redman’s Blessed be your name
  • reflecting on one or two verses by repetition in a short chant such as Jesus, remember me from the Taize community (Luke 23:42)

Some hymnbooks note the Scripture references relating to each hymn, or have a Scriptural index indicating which Bible verses are referred to in which hymns.  Similarly websites such as www.hymnary.org and www.worshiptogether.com detail the Scripture references in each song they feature. 


Frances Novillo has worked across the UK as a liturgical musician for over 20 years, based in parishes of the Diocese of Westminster, and is now Lead Chaplain for Watford Town Centre Chaplaincy.