What songs should accompany the celebration of the Lord's Supper? This article looks at the history of the celebration of the Lord's Supper before the Reformation and after the Reformation, with focus on the music accompanying the Lord's Supper. This article argues that songs of joy should resound during this time of the meal, and that liturgy must be structured accordingly.

Source: Diakonia, 1991. 8 pages.

Music With Bread and Wine


Would you like to sing a hymn after the Lord's Supper celebration that contains this line: "What a delicious draught I drank there" (Wat heb ik daar een lekk're teug gedronken)? Or a hymn with this line: "My soul has revelled at God's table" (Mijn ziel heeft aan God's disch gebrast)? They are lines from Lord's Supper hymns circa 1700. It will become clear in the course of this article whether I will make a plea for the inclusion of such songs in our church book.

Are there any Lord's Supper hymns in our Re­formed church book? Or, to put it differently, do the Reformed churches in the Netherlands know Lord's Supper hymns? The "Liedboek voor de Kerken" (the hymnal of the Reformed and Lutheran churches), knows a special category for baptism, confession and Lord's Supper with twenty Lord's Supper hymns. In a book about German Lutheran Lord's Supper hymns, all such hymns written since the Reformation are mentioned. An index of first lines covers twelve pages and the author comes to a total of 1051 hymns.

Such a catalogue of Dutch Lord's Supper hymns has never been compiled, but it is hundred percent sure that it will fall far short of 1000 hymns, if it would ever be compiled.

In addition to Lord's Supper hymns, the Lu­theran tradition possesses a brilliant repertoire of Lord's Supper music which was played during the communion. It is called musica sub communione. Of­ten it is choir and/or organ music, but also other instrumental music (such as Bach's Chaconne for Violin) was written as musica sub communione. That type of music was never composed for Dutch Cal­vinistic churches.

In my article you will hear more about the Lord's Supper and music — music with bread and wine. What is included in "music with bread and wine?" What are the historical backgrounds and what are the theological backgrounds?

I shall deal with these aspects from a historical perspective: pre-Reformation period, the Lutheran tradition — (the church musical tradition par excel­lence), and the Dutch Calvinistic tradition. After that I will address the present situation.


Singing has always had a place in the celebration of the Lord's Supper. In the Passover liturgy, the Hallel had a fixed place: Psalm 113-118, a hymn of praise occasioned by the Exodus from Egypt.

On Biblical and historical grounds we can assume that the Christians sang a great deal in their meetings (e.g. Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16). They sang the songs of the synagogue, the temple and newly composed ones. When they "broke the bread," they undoubtedly sang the Hallel-psalms. Were they not sung at the very institution of the Lord's Supper?

Besides these they probably sang Psalm 145 with its recurrent refrain: "The eyes of all look to thee, and thou divest them their food in due season." The use of Psalm 34 is also very old, especially verse 5: "Those who look to him are radiant," and verse 8: "Taste and see that the Lord is good."

From Acts it appears that the breaking of bread occupied a central place in the meetings (Acts 2:42, 46 and 20:7). Around the celebration of the Lord's Supper (and the preaching), grew a fixed structure. That took several centuries. The result was a worship service which knew of two main elements: the ministry of the Word and the ministry of the sacra­ment, together called the mass. The order of the mass was as follows:

Ministry of the Word🔗

  • Introit (entrance psalm)
  • Kyrie (prayer for mercy)
  • Gloria (praise of God and invocation of Christ)
  • Salutation and Collect
  • Reading and gradual
  • (Sermon)
  • Creed (confession of faith)

Ministry of the Sacrament🔗

  • Offertory (giving of alms and offertory hymn)
  • Preface (prayer of thanksgiving)
  • Sanctus (thrice holy from Isaiah 6)
  • Benedictus
  • Institution story
  • Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, after the kiss of peace or during the communion)
  • Communion hymn
  • Dismissal.


The Reformation brought the mass into discussion. Luther kept the mass structure in his "Formulae Missae" and in his "Deutsche Messe." He purified the mass from its Roman sacrificial character and replaced Latin by German. He replaced several fixed elements with congregational hymns. The two communion hymns, the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, were replaced by German versions. The sacrament part of the service had the following structure:

  • Admonition to the Communicants
  • The words of the institution
  • During the distribution of the elements: the German Sanctus "Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old or O Lord we Praise Thee or Jesus Christ our Blessed Saviour or the German Agnus Dei"
  • The Collect
  • The Aaronic Benediction

When we try to flesh out the concept "music with bread and wine," it can best be done from the Lutheran tradition. This tradition has a rich repertoire of Lord's Supper music. This is no wonder because the Lutheran tra­dition is the church musical tra­dition par excellence. That is so be­cause of the importance and sig­nificance Luther assigned to mu­sic: a theological importance and a theological significance. Music is a gift and handmaid of God, ac­cording to Luther, "a tool of the Holy Spirit" and thus "a weapon in the battle against the devil." God has created the world in such a way that only man can combine music and words and, therefore, music is the spokeswoman and proclaimer of the Gospel.

What form did "music with bread and wine" take in the Lutheran tradition? In the first place, it took the form of hymns, and in the second place, of vocal and instrumental music.

  1. The hymns are the fixed hymns that accom­pany the celebration. The Sanctus became, with Luther, the hymn: Isaiah, the Mighty Seer (a para­phrase of Isaiah 6). The Agnus Dei became the hymn "O Christ, Thou Lamb of God." They were well loved and were sung everywhere. They were also given impressive choral settings by various compos­ers.
  2. In the second place there are the "free" Lord's Supper hymns. Luther stimulated the writing of these as well. In his "Deutsche Messe," he indicated what could be sung during the distribution of the elements. In so doing Luther links up with the custom of the first centuries. The more the church became "Roman," the more communion hymns were replaced by short antiphons1 for choir. In those first centuries, however, the communicants sang in alter­nation with the choir.

    Besides the fixed hymns Sanctus and Agnus Dei, Luther mentions "O Lord we Praise Thee" and "Jesus Christ our Blessed Saviour." In the Babstesches Gesangbook (1545), he mentions Psalm 111 because in that Psalm "God is thanked for his mercies in such beautiful words."

    The choice of both hymns is typical: in "O Lord we praise Thee" praise and thanks are centrally tied to the exclamation "kyrie eleison." "Jesus Christ our Blessed Saviour" is proclamatory in character. The significance of Christ's suffering and resurrection is rendered in terse phrases. This hymn makes use of the "kyrie eleison" as well.

    Both hymns paraphrase the Bible without all sorts of subjective elements. We must remember that the most important goal of the Reformation was that people re­discovered the fact that God saves us through His Word, by faith and by grace. Precisely these matters are brought out in both hymns and in other Lord's Supper hymns of that era. Most hymns tell the story of the institution and of Christ's act of redemption.

    In the seventeenth century Lu­theran Lord's Supper hymns, be­cause of the controversy between Lutherans and Calvinists about the Lord's Supper, are used to battle the opposing party.

    Pietism saw a flood of new Lord's Supper hymns. They were different in character and were aimed at the personal faith experience of the Lord's Supper and the awareness of sin. Also more than before, passion hymns and hymns of penitence were sung. The texts of these old hymns were altered so that they were directed towards the individual and the effect of the Lord's Supper on the soul. For the organ accompaniment, soft, grave stops and harmonies became the rule.

    Joy and thankfulness, elements which originally dominated and arose from the awareness of unwor­thiness, were replaced by inner experience, indi­viduality and piety.
  3. The musica sub communion was closely allied to the Lord's Supper hymns. In the Roman mass liturgy, the musica sub commione had become already for centuries a matter of the choir. This practice was expanded in the Lutheran tradition. The congregation became involved and instrumental music was added. The participation of the congregation was typical for the Reformation. In the case of the Lord's Supper hymn, the congregation actively took part in the Lord's Supper. The people thanked God and through the singing of hymns, the significance of the Supper entered their heart.

    There were several possibilities for music dur­ing the communion:
  • The congregation sang hymns in alternation with the cantorie, the church choir. The cantorie2 sang a few stanzas of the hymn in question in a choir setting. From the many arrangements of Lord's Sup­per hymns from the time of the Reformation, it appears that this type of music was considered to be of great importance.
  • The organ and the instrumental groups could also participate in this so-called alternation practice. In the seventeenth century there was an extensive alternation practice which could turn the Lord's Supper into an impressive, festive event.
  • In the baroque era, besides the musica sub communione based on Lord's Supper hymns and congregational participation, "free music" came into being. This type of music consisted of organ music based on hymns or music for one or a few instruments. On feast days, solo music was much loved (e.g. Bach's Chaconne for solo-violin). Motets (choir settings of Bible texts), were also sung.

We should picture this musica sub communione as follows: Communicants walked to the front of the church to receive the bread and wine and then returned to their seats. During this time the musica sub communione was per­formed.

In general the musica sub communion passed its zenith circa 1700. The cantata makes its entrance and it was sung in connection with the sermon. The sermon became more and more important and pushed the celebration of the Lord's Supper aside. The city of Leipzig was an exception. From 1690 church and Lord's Supper flourished in this city.

In the period of the Enlightenment, the concept of music during the communion completely disappeared. A nineteenth century Church Order states: "The hymn can be dropped during a short commun­ion service for a stillness of the heart can bring about greater piety than a hymn which is often sung with little piety." The old Lord's Supper hymns disappear or were personalized and grave, soft, "sacred" organ music is preferred.

Calvin and the Netherlands🔗

In the Dutch Calvinistic churches musica sub communione was out of the question. Church music in our tradition was restricted to congregational singing and organ accompaniment. Lord's Supper hymns, too, are hardly known in our tradition. Our church book does not have a Lord's Supper section. Our tradition is particularly meagre in this respect. Let's examine that tradition.

Calvin paid much attention to the Lord's Sup­per. He indicated that during the distribution of bread and wine a number of psalms ought to be sung or the reading of Scripture passages which agree with what is expressed in the Lord's Supper, ought to be read. He concretely mentions Psalm 138. He gives several indications for singing after the cel­ebration. It ought to be a song of praise in general or the song of Simeon. He gave a hymn on the Ten Commandments a place in the Lord's Supper serv­ices.

In the Dutch refugee church in London, Psalm 23 and the song of Simeon was sung. In the refugee congregation in the Palatinate, singing and reading took place during the communion as Calvin had recommended. The Lord's Supper celebration of the Palatinate was introduced in the Netherlands by Dathenus. He gives a few instructions for its cel­ebration. During the communion the people should piously sing some psalms or some passages from Scripture should be read.

These facts form the basis for our music practice during the Lord's Supper. I will explain a few matters further.

The Decalogue is Sung🔗

Calvin did not use the Decalogue hymn as a true Lord's Supper hymn but used it in connection with the Lord's Supper. It was sung after the ministry of the Word and before the ministry of the sacrament. The rhyming used was that of Marot which began with the words "Lift up your heart and open your ears" (Leve le coeur, ouvre l'oreille). In it we find the "sursum corda" the "lift up your hearts," an element which was already present in the liturgies of the third century and still can be found in our present form.

Calvin's use of this hymn in the celebration of the Lord's Supper shows how he viewed the Ten Commandments: namely in the framework of the knowledge of sins and misery — self-examination — and in the framework of thankfulness.

The Song of Simeon🔗

Calvin used the Song of Simeon after the celebration as an expression of thankfulness. For us this hymn is almost exclusively used during the Christmas season, but for Calvin it was a Lord's Supper hymn as well. That choice says something about Calvin's view of the Lord's Supper. Simeon had seen God's salvation. In the Lord's Supper we see it more complete than Simeon, for we proclaim His death and resurrection and receive a foretaste of the eternal joy.

The confession that one can now die, points to our attitude towards life. That is how profoundly the Lord's Supper intervenes. That is even more em­phasized if we remember that Calvin was initially in favour of a weekly celebration. The Lord's Supper was not a one-time thing for Calvin but a regularly recurring event from which we must live.

Dutch Tradition🔗

Can we speak of a Dutch tradition? It is remarkable that the instructions for the celebration of the Lord's Supper are rather brief. The instructions are often general in nature: psalms are to be sung. When there is a tradition it is either regional or local and it concerns certain psalms such as 23, 51, 103, 111, 116, the first three stanzas of psalm 63. In a book of meditations of 1617 about the Lord's Supper, Psalm 23, 51, 103 and the Song of Simeon are mentioned as Lord's Supper hymns.

In the village church of Leegkerk (near Hoogkerk in the province of Groningen) hangs a psalm board with the psalms I have mentioned and the Lord's Prayer on it. The board hangs in the choir, the place where the Lord's Supper was celebrated. It concerns the hymns that were sung during the celebration. The psalm numbers were painted on the board and thus could not be changed. This means that there were local congregations that had a certain tradition.

In church books we find indices for psalms and hymns to be sung at certain times, seasons and occasions. These have disappeared from the Re­formed church book of 1986. The choice is completely left up to the minister. Was that done because it is a matter of the "freedom of the office" or because no one paid attention to them anyway?

The directions of Dathenus leaves the choice of psalms and hymns free. As motivation for the read­ing and singing during the Lord's Supper, Micron states "that the acts of the Lord's Supper be not silent." The pronouncement of the Convent of Wesel (1568) is also remarkable: it does not matter whether during the celebration the Scriptures are read or psalms are sung. A view of the hymns during the Lord's Supper was in fact lacking; a view of singing in general also.

Dutch Lord's Supper Hymns🔗

Attempts were made to add to this meagre reper­toire within the framework of the introduction hymns. The first official effort was in the hymnal "Hymni ofte Loff-sangen." Not much is known of this collection of 1615. It was never adopted by the ec­clesiastical assemblies and soon disappeared from the scene.

It contained among others one hymn which, in so many words, was indicated as a Lord's Supper hymn. The first stanza was a call to pray to God, it was followed by four stanzas which retold the in­stitution based on Matthew 26:26, 27, etc. After the pause the call is made to remember this testament of Christ, not to cling to the outward signs, followed by a call for the sanctification of life and a reminder that the Lord's Supper binds us together as members of one body. The hymn is an objective rendition of the essence of the Lord's Supper and makes frequent use of the words from the Form for the Celebration of the Lord's Supper. The hymnal "Hymni ofte Loff-sangen" was intended for ecclesiastical use and this hymn without doubt was written for the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Taking its structure and content into consideration, it probably was intended to be sung after the reading of the form.

We cannot be certain that other Dutch Lord's Supper hymns were written especially for the wor­ship service. Even though the church did not ask for them, Lord's Supper hymns continued to be written. They were published in songbooks for domestic use. I have come across such hymns in various song books of the late seventeenth, eighteenth and nine­teenth century. One aspect dominates in these Lord's Supper hymns. They are intensely subjective and the personal experience of the event stands central. The Lord's Supper concerns the soul and this soul was personally addressed. The hymns are often eschatological/mystical in character. They speak of a great awareness of unworthiness and doubt and speak of a great hesitancy to go to the table. They confirm what we know about the view of the Lord's Supper at that time.


Most of these hymns were written for domestic use and the authors had no ecclesiastical use in mind. A few times the titles of the hymns suggest that the author did think of ecclesiastical use. That is the case with Willem Sluiter, a seventeenth century minister from the "Achterhoek." He clearly intended his hymns for the worship service: "for the use of the Lord's Supper, for or during the Lord's Supper" or some of the superscription of his hymns. It is well-known that Sluiter had the congregation sing before and after the service from various hymnals.

O Christ, Thou Lamb of God🔗

Via the Lord's Supper hymns of Willem Sluiter we come to a special event in the history of Dutch Lord's Supper hymns. In his collection "Psalmen Lofzangen ende Geestelijcke Liedekens" (1661) he quotes in "Memory of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, for or during the Lord's Supper," the first stanza of the German Agnus Dei. Sluiter says: "This first stanza has been quoted on purpose because it is sung by some congregations during the Lord's Supper."

It means that the German Agnus Dei was used during the celebration of the Lord's Supper by various Reformed congregations. That was probably the case in the region in which Sluiter lived. We know for certain that it was sung in the city of Groningen. In the seventeenth century the communicants in the Martini Kerk walked in a long row from the nave to the choir where two ministers distributed the bread and wine. In the meantime the remaining members of the congregation sang "O Christ, Thou Lamb of God." It is not known for certain when this became the custom in Groningen. By 1670 it had disappeared. Then Psalm 23, 51, 103, 111, 116 and the Lord's Prayer were sung.

The custom of singing "O Christ, Thou Lamb of God" came from the Lutheran church, for it concerns the German Agnus Dei which was called a Lord's Supper hymn and ever since had a fixed place in the Lutheran communion services. In the Achterhoek and in Groningen there were definite Lutheran influences. The Lutherans sang during the distribu­tion of bread and wine and the Dutch refugee congregations adopted this custom.

Our Practice🔗

After this historic overview, we have come to our own practice. Those who study the liturgical and church musical aspects of our Lord's Supper celebration encounter problems. Our way of celebration shows a certain impotence. Seeing that church music is a part of the liturgy, that impotence can be found back in the music during the Lord's Supper. I will illustrate that thesis with a number of points.

  • We are accustomed to having more than one table. The number of tables prevents celebration. You partake at one of the tables, but how are you involved with the others. Can one really speak of unity? Every table has become a separate celebration and has its own liturgy. The words of institution, the distribution of bread and wine, the reading of a Bible passage and the singing of one or two stanzas of a particular song.
  • We do not have any true Lord's Supper hymns. What is sung at the tables cannot be recognized as Lord's Supper hymns. That does not mean that ministers do not choose these songs conscientiously, or that the hymns do not fit, but that the singing of psalms, which in principle can be used in all worship services, does not enhance the recognition of psalms as Lord's Supper hymns.
  • We do not know music during the distribution of bread and wine. There is silence. (The only moment in our worship services in which we are silent). During the change of tables we have music. Then the organist plays. The function of organ playing is dubious. In fact, it is no more than background music in order to avoid more silence. The fact that the organist must be finished playing when the table is full affirms this typification. In the meantime this organ playing often causes problems for our organists. What should he do? Play a variation on the psalm sung at the table? That is a good custom. But what if the minister chooses stanzas of the same psalm for all the tables? Does he then play other selections? If yes, which? Songs about Christ's return, the marriage feast of the Lamb? Passion hymns with appropriate registrations?  Or dances so that the people can leave the table with dance steps? Here as well a lack of Lord's Supper hymns is noticeable and one can speak of liturgical and church musical impotence.
  • At the close of the celebration, the only song that has received a place in our Lord's Supper celebration is Psalm 103. It, however, is not sung but read.

From the foregoing an assessment of our "music with bread and wine" has in fact emerged. Why this rather negative assessment?

Music with bread and wine is not adiaphora because church music is not adiaphora. God Himself has instituted church music and always took care that it had a lasting place.

Christians have the mandate to sing; for God is "enthroned on the praises of Israel" (Psalm 22). Also when we further examine the function of singing, the necessity of paying atten­tion to the singing during the Lord's Supper forces it­self upon us. Singing is of­ten considered to be thanksgiving. That is possi­ble but it is too one-sided. For singing is then some­thing that comes from us to God. That aspect is there, but that is certainly not the only one. We do not only address God, but also our­selves, our fellow members of the congregation and the world. We can sing our own words but also God's words. Singing can be adora­tion as well as proclamation. It can be a cry from the depth or a shout of thanks. In singing, God's words enter into our hearts and we address others.

Singing involves also an active participation in the liturgy. We must work for it. It demands action and approval. In singing we are actively busy with God, His Word, ourselves and our neighbour. All these elements (God, His work of salvation in Jesus Christ, the sanctification of our life, and the mutual concern we have for one another), are aspects of the Lord's Supper. For that reason alone the hymn must have a broad place during the Lord's Supper.

But there is more. The Lord's Supper is a feast. It concerns the celebration of the Lord's Supper, the celebration of salvation. In his book, "The Congregation and her Liturgy" Dr. Trimp says,

The Passover was a festive meal in remembrance of God's salvation from Egypt. The Lord's Supper is the fulfillment of it and as the Old Covenant celebrated the Passover with joy, so too the congregation of the New Cov­enant uses the Lord's Supper in an atmosphere of joy. From Acts 2:46 it appears that it concerned a demonstrative joy. And under the New Covenant as well as in the Old Covenant, it is an eschatological joy.

In this expression, joy music has a natural place. Therefore, for that reason also, I plead for more attention to the significance of music with bread and wine.

I plead for the singing of Psalm 103 after the celebra­tion. It is listed under thanksgiving in the form and thanksgiving is pre-­eminently something that is done in the Bible with the help of music; after all Psalm 103 was written as a hymn to be sung.

Besides that a good use of hymns, in this case Lord's Supper hymns, is a sign of riches. In our next hymnbook we should in­clude a section of Lord's Supper hymns. For it we can make use of existing ones such as O Christ, Thou Lamb of God. When we sing it, we stand in an ancient tradition.

One of the functions of fixed hymns is that a certain aspect is again and again put into words. Via this hymn the communicants are again and again led to concentrate on the Lamb of God. They remember the death of the Lord and call on Him for mercy.

Hymns which were written for the Lord's Sup­per and are used during its celebration will eventually be recognized as such. For organists and composers, such a repertoire, recognized by the church members, offers many possibilities. When such choral based music is played, it recalls the text of the hymn. Even though the text is not sung, it is present and brings out one or more aspects of the Lord's Supper. It colours the celebration of the Lord's Supper, the experience of the communicants.

Finally, a musica sub communione can form part of the celebration of the Lord's Supper. We must realize that the repertoire of Lord's Supper music in the Lutheran music tradition came into being in connection with a certain way of celebrating. The Lutheran churches did not celebrate at tables, they stood and went. The communicants gathered either in the choir to receive the bread and wine or came forward pew by pew to receive the signs and then returned to their seats. During that time, in fact one lengthy event, the musica sub communione was per­formed. Congregation, choir, organ and instruments together made music during the communion.

With this manner of Lord's Supper celebration, one can speak of a liturgical unity. The musica sub communion is an important aspect of this. Our celebrations qua form is often not a unity. As soon as we have more than one table, a certain disintegration takes place. When the congregation can attend as a unit, we can speak of a liturgical unity. The music, the musica sub communio, is an essential part of it.

Real musica sub communione, music which origi­nates from the Word and independently can sound this Word, should accent the celebrations. It can fix our minds on the eschatological aspect of the Lord's Supper, the "foretaste" of the eternal joy, but also on the submission and repentance which Christ's sacri­fice demands of us.

From the function of music, the function of singing in particular, it is also possible for us to arrive at something like a sung liturgy for the Lord's Sup­per. We can think, for instance, of a sung 'form' in which we sing to ourselves and to each other what we are about to celebrate.

When we reflect upon the music with bread and wine, we are not busy with a luxury, but with something that comes from the Lord's Supper itself. Church music is not an adiaphora or neutralia, neither is music with bread and wine. In our liturgy we find ourselves between the Old Testament temple serv­ice and the heavenly liturgy, between the Passover and the marriage feast of the Lamb. In Revelation, John shows us the praise and adoration of God and the Lamb in this heavenly liturgy.

If we are to have a foretaste of this heavenly joy, we must let ourselves be taught by this heavenly liturgy. When we say "come let us be happy and rejoice, for the marriage feast of the Lamb is coming," then that, and nothing less, must be the framework for our "music with bread and wine."


  1. ^ A plain song setting of sacred words, sung before and after a psalm or canticle in the Latin church service with a view to emphasizing its significance.
  2. ^ Originally the term cantorei referred to a specific organi­zation designed to meet the musical needs of a church. During the sixteenth century it began to be used in a much broader sense and was applied to various kinds of singing societies, school choirs, and instrumental groups, all of which were to play a fundamental part in the organization and development of the music programme of the newly created Protestant church.

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