The Church’s One Foundation

The Church’s One Foundation

Rev. Samuel Stone

Standing squarely within the English Victorian tradition of churchly song, this hymn bears all the hallmarks one would expect from that cultural milieu—a tune which is solid rhythmically but lilting melodically and a text which juxtaposes good and evil, right and wrong, black and white against one another.

Samuel Stone (1839-1900) published this hymn in Lyra Fidelium, a collection of twelve hymns, each devoted to one statement in the Apostles’ Creed, this being associated with number nine, “I believe. . . in the Holy Christian Church.”  Its scriptural precedent is Ephesians 4: 4-6, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism;  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  Samuel Stone had been distressed by some of the heresies that had plagued the Anglican Church in the late 19th century, particularly from a certain South African theologian, John Colenso, who had questioned the historicity of the Old Testament.  Stone’s hymn is meant as an affirmation of the Church Universal, likewise a longing for a Church unified in doctrine and practice, “. . . built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone.”  (Ephesians 2: 20)

Some hymnals have grievously omitted stanza three with its wrenching, vivid imagery:  “Though with a scornful wonder the world sees her oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, Yet saints their watch are keeping;  their cry goes up, ‘How long?’ And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”

Christ has not yet returned, and we still live under the hope of the resurrection and Christ’s return.  This has been promised us, but the promise will only be fulfilled on the Last Day.  The strife experienced in our world today evidence’s that our world is still captive to sin.

We must always continue to fight for proper doctrine–law and gospel preached clearly whereby the Holy Spirit may work as He has promised.  We must continue to promote practices which, whilst they can vary somewhat in style, always promote Word and Sacrament rather than simply entertain us or tickle our latest cultural fancy.  At the same time, we must realize that we cannot solve so many of the problem in the world caused by sin and, indeed, they will be with us until “. . . the consummation of peace forevermore, till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blest, and the great Church victorious shall be the Church at rest.”


Music for the First Sunday in Lent

Lent is a solemn and somber time of the church year, beginning as it did last Wednesday as we remembered that we “are dust and to dust we shall return.” Thus, the liturgy takes on a more penitential character during Lent. We do not sing that festive song of praise, the Gloria in Excelsis, and likewise the doxology is omitted. We will neither speak nor sing “alleluia” in the liturgy or hymns. Instead of an entrance hymn, the Ten Commandments are chanted. This reminds us of the Law of Moses which we cannot keep, but has ultimately been fulfilled in Christ. Nonetheless, do also note that this day is the First Sunday *IN* Lent. Other seasons utilize “of”. . . for example, the “First Sunday of Advent.” Why the difference? In short, each Sunday is a “little Easter” in which Christ’s resurrection is celebrated, the high point of which is the eucharist. This holds true for Lent as it does any other time of the year. It is simply that our resurrection celebration is moderated as we focus on Christ’s Lenten journey, which, hence, informs our own.

The Gradual today is from Psalm 51, that great psalm of penitence in which we pray to God to “create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.” The Cantate Deo choir sang two settings of this text on Ash Wednesday. This morning at 10.30am the children’s choir sings an anthem entitled “Jesus in the Wilderness,” which is inspired by today’s Gospel text in which Jesus was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted for forty days and forty nights.” In preparing this piece, the children learned that the 40 days of Lent is not an arbitrary number; rather, we can recount many times in scripture that the number 40 is significant (40 days of flood, 40 years of wandering in the desert, Moses on Mt Sinai for 40 days, etc.) So, for these forty days we too may decide to fast or give up something (or not–neither doing so nor abstaining will itself make us any holier, but these practices should remind us of what Christ did for us).

The choirs sing the Taize chant, “Jesus Remember Me,” during communion. The children learned that this was implored by the one thief on the cross as a response to the taunts of the other one. We learned that Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

One of the traditional hymns for the First Sunday in Lent is 688, “A Mighty Fortress,” Martin Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46. Written early in his career in 1529, the hymn reflects our Gospel reading. Don’t be lulled into thinking much of this hymn is not about Satan–Luther and the devil seemed to enjoy taunting each other, Luther having spilled much ink under the devil’s torments. Yet, in this hymn Luther gives it back:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing: for still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.

It is easy when we sing this stanza mindlessly to forget that it is the “ancient foe” who seeks to “work us woe” who on earth has no equal. It seems unusual to sing so triumphantly–particularly at the end of a stanza–about the devil. Luther continues in stanza 2:

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing: dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus it is he; Lord Sabaoth his Name, from age to age the same, and he must win the battle.

In this stanza, Luther answers who it is who will counter Satan–Christ Jesus! But notice how long he waits into the hymn to get to Christ! He has to set us up for Christ first. But then, as in a great dialectic, Luther turns his attention back to the devil in stanza 3:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us; we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us; the prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.

The world is filled, then, with great evil, filled with death, as our Old Testament lesson today reminds us. But, our response is not to “tremble,” but to “endure,” because for all his wiles, “one little word shall fell him.” That Word–that Name–is Christ.

Thus sums up our Lenten journey. As in life, it is not easy. We are tempted, tormented, but also have times of success. Neither last, both are transitory. Lent reminds us that only Christ’s love for us is constant, enduring from age to age. The perils of the world do their best, but ultimately all is subject to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

O Wondrous Type, O Vision Fair

This hymn may not be the most familiar–it is only sung once a year, on Transfiguration Sunday. Singing just once a year doesn’t allow a hymn to gain much currency, but it does reinforce the connection between the hymns and the liturgical year. Consider its text, based on the account of the Transfiguration which, among other places, we may read in Matthew 17. This poetic and faithful retelling of the Transfiguration narrative originates from the Sarum Breviary, a late fifteenth-century liturgical volume established from a particular liturgy developed in the 11th century in England, most notably in Salisbury. The Sarum Rite, even though originating several centuries before the Reformation, provided a liturgy unique to the English people, although of course still in Latin. This hymn text provides the first evidence that the Feast of the Transfiguration was being celebrated in England; although it was a common festival on the Continent, it had not yet become established in England. Even though we often think of Latin hymns as objective, perhaps even coldly doctrinaire, consider the warm subjectivity of the final two stanzas:

And faithful hearts are raised on high by this great vision’s mystery,

For which in joyful strains we raise the voice of prayer, the hymn of praise.

O Father, with the eternal Son and Holy Spirit ever one,

We pray Thee, bring us by Thy grace to see Thy glory face to face.

This text does not simply recount a biblical narrative but personalizes it whereby we pray to see “Thy glory face to face,” acknowledging that the fear, wonder, and awe experienced by the disciples was not simply a forgotten historical occurrence. It should be our response when we encounter Christ through Word and Sacrament. Christ is less tangible, that is true, but He is no less real.


As With Gladness, Men of Old

William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898) wrote the hymns “As with Gladness, Men of Old” and “What Child is This.”

The season of Epiphany encompasses the time from January 6 (the end of Christmas) until Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent.  Most people associate this season with the wise men, or the three kings, but this is only a small aspect of all the season entails (One of the most famous Epiphany hymns is “As with Gladness, Men of Old,” which is a narrative of the visit of the wise men.)  The term “epiphany” means “manifestation,” and refers to the visit of the wise men, Jesus’ presentation and teaching in the temple and His gradual growing in stature in the “eyes of God and man.”  Notice that the paraments have become green once more—this green is symbolic of growth (as in plants and nature) and reflects Christ’s growth from the babe in the manger to the young person who astounds the scholars in the synagogue with His knowledge.   Listen to many of the hymns during the ensuing weeks—many deal with “light” and “brightness,” which obviously refers to this “enlightenment” of humankind through the teachings and works of God’s Son.

But it is no coincidence that we associate Epiphany primarily with the three kings.  The Greek (gentile) Church originally related well to the wise men because the wise men were not Hebrews but gentiles, and their reception by Jesus (young as He was) represents God’s embracing of the gentiles as well as the Hebrews.  This was a comforting thought to the Greeks—and to the later Church as well—who certainly did not come from a Hebrew environment and could not claim strictly the promises of God to His “chosen priesthood” in the Old Testament.  Therefore, our Western Church emphasizes (perhaps subconsciously) this “revealing of God” even to the Gentiles.  Many of the oldest hymns we have are Greek and deal with Epiphany.

In the early Church (as the church year was developing during the first couple of centuries), the most important liturgical festival (after Easter) was Epiphany.  Epiphany was so important that a six week period of preparation (Advent) was added to coincide with the six week period of preparation (Lent) for Easter.   When Christmas was added later, this cut off two weeks of Advent, and Advent was then viewed as a preparation for Christmas (which is our current tradition as well.)   Orthodox Christians—Greek, Coptic, Russian, etc.—still celebrate Epiphany as we celebrate Christmas.  To them to this very day, Epiphany is the most important nativity celebration.


Of the Father’s Love Begotten

This famous Christian hymn is also one of the oldest, being almost 1,600 years since the text was written by a Spanish monk, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, circa 400 AD.  The Roman Empire was in decline—the city itself would be ransacked by marauding Vikings ten years later, with the last emperor lasting until 476.  The Church, on the other hand, was growing and gaining converts as had not been seen since the Acts of the Apostles.

Prudentius was educated;  he was a lawyer and judge before he was appointed to a court office by the Emperor Theodosius (who in 379 had made Christianity the “official” religion of the Roman Empire.)  He retired at age 57 and lived in seclusion, writing hymn and poetic texts (in Latin of course) which were to prove influential during the Middle Ages.

The melody is first found in manuscripts from the 12th century, and would have been sung as “plainchant,” or “Gregorian chant” by monks during worship.  Several famous tunes derive from these ancient chants;  “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and “Savior, of the Nations, Come,” are two hymns which have been adapted from plainchant.  Originally, chant was meant to convey text—the words—of a hymn.  There was no recurring meter, such as 4/4 or ¾.  The music was sung freely and unrestrainedly.

This hymn is devoted to Christology, that is, the study of Christ’s nature and mission.  During the 4th century, there were many disagreements as to who Christ was.  One group, led by Arius, maintained that Christ was created by God the Father, so that Christ did indeed have a beginning.  Others, led by Athanasius, countered that Christ existed eternally with the Father and He had no beginning.  (Both were thinking in terms of linear time—which might have been part of the problem.)  The Nicene Creed (325/381 AD) settled the matter (in the West at least) so that Christ was “begotten of the Father before all eternity.  God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made.”  Notice how this hymn echoes such sentiments:  “Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He, Of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see, evermore and evermore.”

At first glance, it might appear that Prudentius was of Arian persuasion;  that is, that he held Christ to have been “begotten.”  However, notice that this stanza refers to Christ’s substance being of the Father, not that He was created in terms of linear time.  “Begotten,” in this context, refers to substance and not to a specific point in time.  Prudentius then proceeds to elevate Christ over time:  He is Alpha and Omega—but He is even longer than that!  Evermore and evermore. . .   Things that “are,” things that “have been” belong to Christ and His Father!

Then, as is typical with anti-Arian hymns of the fourth century, this hymn closes with a doxology affirming the Trinity.  Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are honored and praised equally.  Finally, in case you should wonder, the Holy Spirit never elicited as much controversy as did the Father and the Son.  In many ways, the role and person of the Holy Spirit was so nebulous that people at this time rather ignored the Spirit.