Lord, Enthroned in Heavenly Splendor

This tune, BRYN CALFARIA, is Welsh and means “Mt Calvary.”  It is related to those other Welsh tunes, such as the one associated with “Thy Strong Word” (also powerfully in the minor key) or the happily major one, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer” in addition to “Immortal, Invisible” or HYFRYDOL, often associated with “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”  Composed by William Owen around 1886 for the Welsh hymn, “Gwaed y groes sy’n cody fynny,” the original text dealt with Jesus’ sacrificial love evidenced on the cross.  Anecdotal evidenced suggests that this hymn is so popular in Wales that it is used in times of both national tragedy and exultation.  The tune is strong and, whilst unfamiliar to some, has been called by hymnologist Erik Routley “a piece of real Celtic rock.”  The text we sing to the tune today, “Lord Enthroned,” was written by George Bourne which he published in his Post-Communion Hymns of 1874.

The strength of the melody conveys the majesty of the opening words, “Lord, enthroned in heav’nly splendor, first begotten from the dead.”  This language recalls the second article of the Nicene Creed when we profess that Christ is “begotten of the Father before all eternity.”  However, in this instance the thought is juxtaposed with his death on Calvary, contrasting incarnationally Christ’s eternity with the very real human death he suffered.  The stanza concludes exclaiming, “Jesus, true and living bread!”  We recall the Old Testament lesson from I Kings in which Elijah seeks shelter under a tree, eventually to be provided both food and water by an angel of the Lord.  This foreshadows Christ in the New Testament when, in the gospel this morning, Jesus declares, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”  In the words of the fourth stanza, Christ is the “Life-imparting, heav’nly manna, stricken rock with streaming side,” alluding to Moses drawing water from the side of the rock, providing sustenance for the Hebrews.  Christ’s blood is our spiritual sustenance, redeeming us from death.

The general tenor of this hymn is Christocentric.  The text focuses on what Christ has done and continues to do for us.  We do not spend any time poetically pontificating on all the manifold things we do to serve Him.  We do not even sing of our joy in Him, except perhaps in the litany of alleluias.  We certainly do not recount all the emotions we feel about such matters.  All have a place in our devotional life, but this hymn’s Christology points away from ourselves and to Christ and what He has done. This hymn points us straight to Christ from which all our service, good works, and even pious feelings (which of themselves are normally harmless) do proceed.

This objectivity of the text, coupled with the sturdiness of the tune, difficult as it might be to sing the first time, testifies not only to Christ’s incarnation and death, but to his resurrection and omnipotence.

 

When I Survey

Isaac Watts, (c) Hackney Museum, Chalmers Bequest

This favourite hymn comes from Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the great English Dissenting hymnwriter who gave the English-speaking Church its first non-psalm-based hymnody. “When I Survey” was first published in Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707)—the first hymnal (not psalm translations) published in the English language. This hymnal, a copy of which the writer of music notes owns, eventually influenced the Church of England to adopt “hymns of human composure,” as Watts called them, resulting in the great burgeoning of English hymnody in the nineteenth century.

In this great hymn, Watts distills the vast cosmos down to a heartfelt realization of the Saviour’s suffering and death.  Consider the following excerpt from “Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, and the Evolution of 18th-Century English Congregational Song,” written by the writer of music notes:

According to Bernard Lord Manning, Watts expresses a vastness and universality of faith in his hymns. To Watts, time and space cannot limit God, for “Nature with open volume stands” as a testimony for Christ’s love, and it may involve “Millions of years my wond’ring eyes shall o’er thy beauties rove, and endless ages, Ill adore the glories of thy love.”   The Christian’s response to this universality is one of utter futility, for “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small.”  Although Watts certainly produced profoundly personal texts, they are not so much introspective. These hymns always assume an understanding of the Christian in community—both with God and with neighbor. These hymns may begin personally, but they proceed to remove the thoughts from oneself onto the greatness of God beyond (“survey”—a word frequently used in Watts—best sums up this teleological effect.) Charles Wesley employs plenty of grandeur—the heavenly, herald angels may sing “Glory to the newborn King,” in which all the nations will “joyful rise,” but Wesley brings this cosmic scope down to the heart of every believer, who implores this same Christ to “fix in us a humble home. . . formed in each believing heart.”  Whereas Watts is expansive, Charles Wesley is deep.  [As Wesley writes:] “Depth of mercy!  Can there be mercy still reserved for me?  Can my God His wrath forbear?  Me, the chief of sinners, spare?  I have spilt his precious blood, trampled on the Son of God, filled with pangs unspeakable!  I, who yet am not in hell!”   © Methodist History (Vol XLII, No 4, July 2004)

Watts’ hymnody frequently employs this word “survey.”  One may survey the landscape, or the horizon, or their lawn.  One’s eyes represent the point at which the visual surveying radiates outward, as in an arc or cone.  The act of surveying always proceeds directionally from the lesser (the individual) to the greater (the landscape, for example.) Watts’ mind comprehended the universality of theology—the word “survey” appears in many of his hymns and can be likened to a person standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, taking in a spatially-vast and aesthetically-wondrous vista beyond the realm of human control or understanding.  Watts approaches theology like this—he stands at the border of the cosmos trying to comprehend the vastness of God’s being and actions, realizing humanity’s wisdom is God’s own foolishness (“My richest gain I count but loss. . .”)  The world, to Watts, is comprised of “vain things that charm me most,” which he then will “sacrifice them to His blood.”

Watts’ third stanza paints a crucifix in verbal imagery—“His head, His hands, His feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down,” echoing Gerhardt’s evocative “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”  Watts’ final stanza again places the singer of the precipice of eternity—even if the “whole realm of nature mine, That were a tribute far too small,” reminding us of Holy Week, as only a Calvinist like Watts can, of our own inability to redeem ourselves.  Understanding that makes the events of Easter morning evidence profound, not cheap, grace.

 

 

Psalmody

Whilst the practice of singing psalms in worship is ancient both in Hebrew and Christian tradition, it behooves us to consider exactly why such a practice is important or meaningful. The word “psalm” comes from the Hebrew word “tehillim,” meaning “praises,” and we know that the psalms were originally sung.  In fact, should you wish to flip through your Bible you will find many of them prefaced with either “a song,” or possibly “a psalm” or “a prayer,” or even less familiar Hebrew terms such as “maskil” (Psalm 89) or “gittith” (Psalm 84) or “miktam” (Psalm 58.)  Many psalms are expressly labeled “for the director of music,” or give even more precise liturgical instructions such as those found prefacing Psalm 60, “For the director of music.  To the tune of “The Lily of the Covenant.” A miktam of David.  For teaching.  When he fought Aram Naharaim and Aram Zobah, and when Joab returned and struck down twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.” It is commonly supposed that David wrote most of the psalms, but many are attributed to other writers, such as Asaph, Ethan, Heman, and even Solomon.  Further, the psalms were not only sung, but probably were accompanied frequently by the simple string or wind instruments of the time, as we read in the prefaces to Psalm 4 (“with string instruments”) or Psalm 5 (“for flutes.”)  Since the ancient Hebrews did not notate their music, we have no way of knowing what melodies they might have used or how specifically they might have been accompanied.  No doubt they would have sounded quite foreign to our ears, as they would not have employed the Western musical modes (such as major and minor) but probably would have been more reminiscent of modern Middle Eastern music (and, considering that all music evolves and changes, one can be quite certain it would have sounded different than even that.)  The psalms are truly the “hymnal of the Bible,” containing a compendium of personal expressions for petitions, prayers, praises and even laments.  Yet, they were almost certainly used in Temple worship, as suggested by the frequently-encountered title of “for the director of music.”  The skilled Hebrew music director, just like his counterpart thousands of years later, would know which psalms to employ at which portion of the liturgy.

The Early Church, freed from the Old Covenant though it was, did not forsake the singing of psalms, and it is likely those early Christians (who, in fact, were mostly Jewish converts) sang psalms liturgically and exclusively.  Not until several centuries into the growth of the Church do extra-biblical hymns become commonplace.  (The earliest hymn whose author is known is “Shepherd of Tender Youth” by Clement of Alexandria, c. 200 AD.)  Through the Middle Ages and the development of the Roman Catholic Church psalms were sung and chanted by the great schola of mendicants.

With the Reformation, psalm singing took a different turn.  Luther continued to chant the psalms as he continued to chant the Epistle and Gospel lessons every Sunday.  His famous “A Mighty Fortress” is a paraphrase of Psalm 46—certainly an extra-biblical liberty which would not have been taken by more conservative theologians of prior centuries.  Huldrich Zwingli, the reformer from Zürich, forbade all singing in church, even of the psalms, finding the very act of singing to evoke humanity’s carnal nature;  meanwhile, in Geneva, Calvinism embraced psalm singing both at home and in church, producing the Genevan Psalter (1539, but many editions were published subsequently.)  This wealth of Genevan compositional activity both limited to and inspired by the psalms resulted in many tunes which have become second nature to us, including the famous Doxology, “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow,” whose tune name is OLD HUNDREDTH, a reference to the versified psalm for which it was intended.

Isaac Watts Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719) brought to English speakers settings of the psalms more elegantly set for personal and corporate singing (“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is from Watts’ volume and is a setting of Psalm 90: 1-5.)  Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century (and, in fact, even into the twentieth century in many denominations), psalm singing was the normative liturgical practice, whether one was a New England Anglican or a New England Puritan (whose Calvinist background stressed psalm-singing.)  Our American heritage is replete with musical settings of the psalms!

Therefore, this practice of singing psalms in the liturgy is both an ancient Hebrew and Early Church practice as well as an American practice.  David, Solomon, Jesus, the Apostles, King George III, as well as George Washington, John Bunyan, Queen Elizabeth the First and Cotton Mather were all edified by the singing of psalms.  Is there a reason why we moderns cannot likewise be edified the same way?

We do not know the musical style of the ancient Hebrews, but we can surmise that the melody was solely a vehicle for the text, as is all chant.  Therefore, our style of psalm singing is one that allows the text to proclaim God’s Word.  Nothing needs to be paraphrased in order to fit a certain tune’s meter (as was the case with all of Watts’ hymns) and the text can speak for itself.  There is no human editor who alters the text in order to make it more palatable to our sensitive ears.  We are able to use the same thoughts and expressions to offer our praise, prayers, and thanks to God as King David did when he wrote them, inspired as he was by the Holy Spirit.

 

Holy God, We Praise Thy Name

This famous hymn is one of the few hymns that both Protestants and Catholics call one of their favorites.  It was sung as President Kennedy’s casket was carried out of the church after his funeral in 1963.

The famous Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, a devout Catholic, ordered this hymn to be published in 1774; the author of the text is unknown, although it is based loosely on the historic Te Deum, an ancient hymn found in many ancient liturgies.  The Te Deum, as well as this paraphrase we sing today, recall the praise which God will be given on the last days and through eternity.  The saints, angels, martyrs, and the rest of us, will all give God glory forever!

Yet, the writer of music notes cannot help but observe how much abuse the word “praise” receives today.  As one sings this hymn, it is good to note how specifically this praise is directed.  It is not ambiguous and it is more than an emotion; rather, praise is inexorably linked to the Triune God, whose nature this hymn does not shy from exploring.  We sing that the “cherubim and seraphim, in unceasing chorus praising,” reflecting the first verses of Isaiah’s vision (chapter 6) and throughout Revelation, for we know that the angels constantly praise God.  But not just the angels, but the apostles and prophets and white-robed martyrs, and that great “cloud of witness” (Hebrews 12: 1) also join in this praise.  In our narcissistic society, even Christians have a difficult time understanding that their own lives and concerns, whilst important, are not as historically-earth shattering as we sometimes may feel.  Generations of nameless prophets and martyrs have suffered and died before us, so it is important on this day to remember that we are only a part of this “apostolic train.”

In the fourth and fifth stanzas, we learn specifically about the God we praise.  We do not praise some white-bearded grandfather in the sky;  rather, we praise the “King of Glory, Christ;  Son of God, yet born of Mary.  For us sinners sacrificed, as to death a Tributary, first to break the bars of death, Thou hast opened heaven to faith.”  This is a credal statement that echoes the Nicene Creed, whilst the final stanza is a doxology to the Triune God, “Three we name Thee;   though in essence only one, undivided God we claim Thee and adoring bend the knee while we own the mystery.”  Even the doxology clearly elucidates Trinitarian doctrine.  This text comes from the 4th century with its manifold Christological controversies. . . Arius had said that Christ was not eternal, but created and therefore implied a denial of the Trinity.  These early Latin hymns tended always to explain Christian doctrine as clearly as possible. . . to these early generations, praise was inexorably linked with doctrine;  only recently have we come to equate praise with a nebulous feeling only.  Yet, how much more important is it in this post-Christian age to use every opportunity possible to explain Christian doctrine?  Why should the hymns we sing be any less substantive? After all, modern American society is just as theologically-illiterate as the early Roman.  On this Feast Day of St John the Baptist, we can learn to see beyond our own myopic concerns to see the host of saints which preceded us and will follow us, undoubtedly.  And their manner of praise does have much to teach our modern generation.

Thy Strong Word

This hymn is of relatively recent origin, the text having been composed by Martin Franzmann in 1954 for Concordia Seminary in St Louis, MO.

Franzmann, a lifelong member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, taught exegetical theology at several institutions in the US before his ordination in 1969. He subsequently moved to Cambridge, England, where he served as a professor in a theological college. He died in 1976 at the age of 69.

This hymn text reminds us again of God’s commands to us and of the supremacy of His Word.  This hymn reminds us of God the Father’s omnipotence: God’s word “did cleave the darkness” and spoke Creation into being! Both “light” and the “ordered seasons” are part of God’s domain of which this text reminds us. Franzmann’s second stanza laments those who “dwelt in darkness, dark as night and deep as death,” a darkness through which “broke the light of Thy salvation, breathed Thine own life-breathing breath.” Here Franzmann captures the stark reality of sin and death as well as life and salvation in a manner reminiscent of Luther, for whom the light and dark dichotomy was always suggestive of the great battle between Christ, “the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected” and the nefarious “world’s prince,” a metaphor for the reality of Satan. The scriptures illustrate the theological reality of such an image when Jesus says in Matthew 5:

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Salt was a valuable commodity in the ancient world, with wages occasionally being paid in salt instead of currency (ie., the word “salary” is derived from “salt.”) It was valuable as a preservative, for taste, and even for pickling. (In Elizabethan times, a dinner guest of social importance was placed closer to the salt shaker [cellar] than one of lesser importance, who was not “worth his salt.”) Without a proper amount of salt, our bodies would not be able to function. Without salt, the world would grind to a halt, just as it would without Christians whose spiritual life is enlightened through Word and Sacrament. It is Christ’s light which informs our lives as Christians as we meet together to worship, to hear and to study His Word, and to receive the sacrament. We don’t become metaphorically saltier and more enlightened by sitting at home Sunday mornings watching television preachers nor by making up excuses why not to participate in the life of our congregation. The fourth stanza points us to a Christological foundation: “From the cross Thy wisdom shineth breaketh forth in conquering might; from the cross forever beameth all Thy bright redeeming light,” paraphrasing Paul who writes in I Cor. 18 that “. . . the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

This famous tune, known in Welsh as “Ton-Y-Botel,” literally means “tune in a bottle,” for it was said that a bottle washing up on the Welsh coast in the 19th-century contained this unexplained and tuneful melody.  Perhaps that explains why Wales has produced so many lovely tunes over the years. . .