Saviour, Again, to Thy Dear Name We Raise

This text was written by John Ellerton (1826-1893), an English country priest who enjoyed not only composing sacred verse (“The Day Thou Gavest, Lord is Ended”) but was a frequent collaborator on that great nineteenth-century English hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861, although this hymn did not appear until the 1868 edition.)

Ellerton closes the first stanza of the original hymn with the lines, “We stand to bless Thee ere our worship cease; Then, lowly kneeling, wait Thy word of peace.” Anglican worship involves the body and all the senses, as reflected in liturgical postures. The second stanza concludes in the original, “Guard Thou the lips from sin, the hearts from shame, That in this house have call’d upon Thy Name.”  This is a prayer for sanctification, and the term “name” is used in a Wesleyan/Hebrew context.  When Jacob struggled with God in Genesis 32, Jacob implored God to tell him His name.  This God would not do, rather choosing to bless him instead.  To the Hebrews, one’s name was not merely a conglomeration of syllables, but it encompassed one’s essence and was completely inseparable from one’s personality;  hence, such attention was paid to Jesus naming before His birth. In Ellerton’s hymn we acknowledge that we have invoked God’s name in worship but, in so doing, we likewise realize we have been in His very presence through Word and sacrament.

The original third stanza (slightly altered in the Episcopal hymn) is uniquely British—“Grant us Thy peace, Lord, through the coming night;  Turn Thou for us its darkness into light;  From harm and danger keep Thy children free, For dark and light are both alike to Thee.”  In the British Isles, where it is known to be sunny for about a week in July and rather gloomy much the rest of the year, the appearance of the sun greatly contrasted with the gloom of darkness, and hymnwriters were continuously making theological comparisons.  (Another Victorian hymn which does this is “Abide with Me.”)

Ellerton here prays for peace “throughout our earthly life, our balm in sorrow, and our stay in strife.”  Ellerton is setting the world in a typical Victorian context.  The world is “very evil,” society is full of “change and decay” (“Abide with me”), but only God remains constant, a “rock and fortress.”  (Ps. 46)  This was not only a theological but a national perspective.  British society was no longer the pinnacle of Western society.  Yet, God still offered his grace and redemption to all.  In the closing words of another Ellerton hymn (“The Day Thou Gavest”), we as Americans might do good to remember the humility of those Victorians of ages past:

So be it, Lord; Thy Throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires, pass away;

Thy Kingdom stands, and grows forever, Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.

John Ellerton

 

Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Robert Robinson

This beloved hymn text was written by Robert Robinson (27 September 1735 – 9 June 1790), an English Dissenting minister who seemed to spend his life searching for truth. He early rejected a belief in infant baptism, which caused some trouble with the Anglicans when he went to study at Cambridge. . . with his twelve unbaptised children. He heard the great evangelist George Whitefield preach in 1757 and briefly became a Methodist, although he soon abandoned that endeavor and formed a Congregationalist church in Norwich, although tiring of that he moved to a Baptist church in Cambridge in 1759 where he remained for the rest of his life. He somehow became mixed up with the Unitarians toward the end of his life, and a scandal erupted wherein his congregation surmised that he didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ. Fortunately, he was able to convince them that he did believe in Christ. Nonetheless, from the perspective of over two centuries hither, this hymnologist can’t help but think Robinson could have used a little more grounding in scripture than in trusting ephemeral feelings.

 

Perhaps that is an unfair accusation to level against Robinson, because he certainly did know his scripture. The second stanza begins, “Here I raise my Ebenezer,” a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12 in which Samuel raises a stone monument saying, “This far has the Lord helped.” Unfortunately, many hymnal settings today change this obscure Old Testament reference to something more palatable, such as “Here I find my greatest treasure, hither, by thy help I’ve come.” This doesn’t leave us asking the question, “What is an Ebenezer?” thereby leading us further into scripture. Robinson’s Calvinism is evident in the third stanza, “Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!” Humanity, then, is sinful and fallen, unable to redeem itself without the work of grace, as we read in Ephesians 2: 8, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one may boast.” Robinson cries out to “Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee: prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love, hear’s my heart, oh, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” These words certainly reflect a belief in the depravity of mankind, which Paul notes in Romans 3: 10, quoting from Psalm 14, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.” Robinson here sets forth this idea that even human will has been corrupted and cannot be redeemed without God’s initial action, or “grace.” This Calvinist theology is steeped in really beautiful poetic language. Think of the poetic contrasts—“tune my heart to sing thy grace! Streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudes praise,” with the realization that our “wandering” hearts must be “fettered” and “bound.” Robinson is consistent in his theological conception that humanity is fallen, and that only the gospel can save.

The Prophet Samuel raising the stone of Ebenezer.

The catchy tune in named NETTLETON after Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844), an American evangelist involved with the Second Great Awakening. Not having much of a track record as a musician, it is possible this tune was composed, compiled, or arranged by John Wyeth, the early nineteenth-century music printer and publisher. Its rugged, triple meter, simple tune, and straightforward AABA musical form allow it to be sung with enthusiasm by even the most recalcitrant singer whose heart, perhaps, needs to be fettered by grace.

 

William C Dix (1837-1898), who wrote this hymn, also wrote “What Child is This” and “As with Gladness, Men of Old.”  He was born in 1837 in Bristol, England, were he grew up to be a formidable businessman and manager of a marine insurance company.  He wrote many hymns and translated others from Greek and Abyssinian sources.  He died in 1898 in Cheddar, England.

The beautiful tune to which we sing it is known as “Hyfrydol,” which is Welsh for “good cheer.”  As with most Welsh tunes, it is lilting, attractive, and almost immediately singable. In the experience of the anonymous writer of music notes, only the most curmudgeonly of church-goers does not enjoy a good Welsh tune, of which there are many in the hymnal.

Let us consider the text:  (Remember, in discussing hymnody and sacred poetry, the words are called the “text” and never “lyrics”!)  The language is highly old-fashioned and poetic.  This was written during the height of the Victorian Era during the second half of the nineteenth-century.  The Victorian English had rediscovered the treasures of the past both in poetry and in ecclesiastical matters. (A walk through suburban London will reveal many beautiful Victorian church buildings all built according to medieval models.)  The language of this hymn was not that which was spoken daily.  From stanza 2 as an address to Christ states:  “Intercessor, friend of sinners, Earth’s redeemer, plead for me, where the songs of all the sinless sweep across the crystal sea.”  This recalls the language of the Book of Revelation, as well as Reginald Heber’s heavenly vision in the second stanza of “Holy, Holy, Holy”:  “All the saints adore Thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea. . .”  During this Epiphany season, as we reflect on Christ’s manifestation to us, the third stanza speaks to us eloquently:  “Alleluia, Born of Mary, Earth the footstool, heav’n Thy throne:  Thou within the veil hast entered, robed in flesh our great High Priest.”  Christ, in order to become human, must be born of Mary;  yet, in so doing, His complete divine radiance cannot fully be known to us!  He became “robed in flesh,” yet this did not counter His divinity.  It was both as God and as a man that Christ’s work as redeemer was complete.   It was essential that he become “robed in flesh” and yet remain divine.  How was this so?  Such is the mystery of the incarnation. The author concludes the hymn with Easter overtones, singing about “Jesus, His the scepter His the throne; Alleluia, His the triumph, His the victory alone; Hark! the songs of holy Zion thunder like a mighty flood; Jesus out of every nation hath redeemed us by His blood.” Every good hymn, whether it deal primarily with Christmas, Easter, Communion, or any of the minor festivals, must point to Easter and to Christ’s salvific work on the cross in saving humanity from sin and remind us that we are “redeemed by His blood.”

 

All Glory be to God on High

This hymn text was written by Nikolaus Decius, born in 1485 and an early convert to Lutheranism.  After graduating from the University of Wittenberg studying Reformation theology, Martin Luther recommended him to become an assistant pastor in Stettin.  Throughout his life he served congregations as pastor as well as cantor, or chief musician.  (It is said he played harp well.) His death date is not known, but Decius must have died sometime after Martin Luther died in 1546 since Luther continually mentioned Decius until the time Luther died.  Presumably, after his own death, Luther would not mention anyone, much less Decius. . .

This text is a paraphrase of the Gloria in excelsis.  A paraphrase takes an idea and expresses it in different words than the original, although the meaning is kept the same.  Instead of the traditional opening text of the Gloria (“Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace goodwill toward men”) Decius writes, “All glory be to God on high and thanks to Him forever! The Gloria continues, “We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we give thanks to Thee,” whilst Decius paraphrases in the second stanza, “We worship You, we trust in You, We give You thanks forever.”  The final stanza devotes praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit respectively.

The tune is original to this text, with Decius having adapted it from a medieval Gloria plainchant.  Notice, though, the meter.  It is in a strict triple meter (3/4) meaning that the first beat/syllable of each measure is strong, whilst the remaining two syllables are weak.  Since dance waltzes are always in triple meter, this hymn has been ascribed the appelation, “Lutheran waltz.”  One might also think of the Christmastide “In dulci jubilo,” or “Good Christian Men Rejoice” which is similarly set in a strong triple meter.  Interestingly, Decius radically altered the character of the music, since medieval plainchant had no musical meter;  rather, its free-flowing character allowed the music to accent the text solely.  The music was completely and solely a vehicle for the text.  In fact, medieval music would avoid any hint of triple meter even when it naturally occurred in the text, for triple meter recalled the secular peasant dances and were inappropriate for divine worship.  Decius and the early Lutheran hymnists did not hold such an aversion to a triple meter and used it to their advantage.  Although this hymn may sound very “hymnlike” to us, it had a familiar sound to the common German peasant of the 16th century.  This was folk music that had grown from their community and it was a style with which they were familiar.  Unfortunately, 21st century Christians increasingly have less of a folk style upon which to draw.  Certainly there is plenty of “familiar” music out there, but it is meant 1) to sell more of itself and 2) melodically is only appropriate for soloists to sing.  Corporations and people who call themselves musicians bestow this music on the unwary populace below.  This is commercial music, not folk music as Decius was utilizing here.  Decius masterfully blended the sacred and the secular to create an enduring expression of hymn of praise to the Holy Trinity.  It is good he was not born 500 years later!

 

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

“Tree of Jesse” Icon

This is one of the most beloved of Advent hymns, and it dates back to the ninth century, to the time of Charlemagne.  Originally in seven stanzas, each stanza addressed Christ by a different name;  we sing four of the most common stanzas:  “Emmanuel,” “Rod of Jesse,” “Day-Spring from on High,” “Key of David,” with the omitted ascriptions being, “Wisdom,” “longed-for King,” “Lord and Leader.”  In some ways, this is a similar technique to the modern praise song “Jesus, Name Above All Names” which also addresses the different names of Jesus.  Let us look at some of these names:

Key of David:  Isaiah 22:22: “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder. When he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.”  In both OT and NT contexts, the key has been the traditional symbol of kingly authority.  Through this “key,” the power of heaven is held or loosed.  In Matt. 16: 19, Jesus states, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven;  whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Rod (or “Root”) of Jesse:  Isaiah 52:13, 15; 53:2: “See, my servant shall prosper…So shall he startle many nations, because of him kings shall stand speechless. …He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot.”  Christ is David’s descendant in that He was both genetically related to David, and He is also inheritor of both the earthly (David’s) and heavenly (God the Father’s) kingdom.

Dayspring from on High:  Isaiah 9:1: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”  Interestingly, “dayspring,” also translated as “rising dawn” or “morning star,” refers to an object which is not so luminescent in itself than it reflects a light greater than itself.  This emphasizes Jesus’ divinity as a reflection of His Heavenly Father and reminds us that Jesus’ does not stand alone but with the Heavenly Father regarding our salvation.

Wisdom from the Most High:  This ascription comes directly from apocryphal (not directly biblical for most Protestants) sources, although Christ as “Wisdom” is referred to in John 1:1.  He is the Logos (“Word”) or Wisdom who is present with God before even the beginning of time.

Emmanuel:  Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”  “Emmanuel” means “God with us.”  Christ has taken on human form so that we might relate to Him.  He is not a stranger to us—He is no god who sits idly back and watches the world from afar.  He was active in it in a very physical and real sense, and we should expect that He is no less involved in the world today.  Christ has become one of us;  but, as the other antiphons remind us, He is still Almighty God!

The mystery of Advent and Christmas is that this Almighty God became manifest in our world for our salvation.  Christianity teaches that Christ is completely God and yet completely human.  How can this be?  The essence of our faith is that Christ somehow accomplished this for our benefit, and it is not necessarily for us to understand.