It’s one of those “orphan” verses in the Bible. You know, the kind that sit by themselves, alone, isolated—usually because what comes before or after grabs our attention. In fact, it might be one of those verses that someone unfamiliar with the Bible would notice before a regular Bible reader because regular readers tend to read in the deep grooves they’ve carved out over the years.
The verse is Matthew 26:30, “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
That’s it. Just a simple statement about something Jesus and His disciples did immediately after He instituted the Lord’s Supper and right before He went to Gethsemane. But like a lot of simple statements, there’s quite a story behind it. Some of it we know, some of it we don’t.
Jesus had just celebrated the Passover with His disciples. But it wasn’t a typical Passover observance. In the middle of it, He spoke of His departure and how one of His disciples would betray Him. Then He talked about eating His body, drinking His blood and celebrating it anew in the kingdom of God. Although these words must have sounded quite strange to the disciples, they are familiar and to us. In fact, they are holy ground and we have often stood upon these very words prior to our own participation in the Supper
After this, and before Gethsemane, Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn. It wasn’t unusual to sing in connection with the Passover (or any of the feasts), but it’s still striking to me that Jesus chose to sing with his disciples. I’m sure some of it has to do with the fact that I can’t imagine a dozen guys today in any situation (much less the one Jesus was in), breaking out in song. In the manner of James 5:13, there wasn’t anything to sing about. For Jesus (and to a lesser degree the disciples), it was a sober occasion. His arrest, the defection of His disciples, the cross — all of it was in close proximity now, all of it was about to become very real.
So He sang.
We’re not told what the song was. Most scholars think He sang one of the psalms from the Hallel (Psalms 113-118). These six psalms were commonly recited, chanted, of sung by Jewish believers at the Passover and other feasts. If this is indeed what He sang, it’s significant that He identified so strongly with His countrymen (at this time) that He took up their anthem of praise to God. But since it is called a hymn rather than a psalm (see Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19), maybe it was something else He sang. Maybe it was something near and dear to His heart, something He had sang many times before—something that helped Him to think thoughts and experience emotions that brought Him comfort and strength. Maybe it was a song Mary had sang to Him when He was younger. All we really know is that in this incredible moment in time, He chose to sing.
And what a poignant moment it was, twelve men lifting their voices together to God. They didn’t have a closing prayer after the Passover and institution of the Supper, but they had a closing song. It was their final song together.
All of this makes me think about the importance of song and the power of singing together. Singing is one of those things that everyone does, but no one can explain exactly why. It’s hardwired into us, it’s part of our spiritual DNA. There’s something about the combination of words and music, meaning and melody, intellect and emotion, which inherently resonates within us. It is a powerful and vital instrument of inspiration, expression, and celebration. We cannot live without music and Jesus did not want to die without it.
O holy night!