All Glory, Laud, and Honor

This hymn is one of the oldest in the corpus of Christian hymnody, written most likely by a certain Theodulf of Orleans.  A 16th-century legend records that Theodulf was a bishop imprisoned at Angers in 821 for having conspired against the king.  During his imprisonment, legend has it, he composed this text (originally there were 39 stanzas).  One Palm Sunday, when King Louis the Pious was processing through the town and passing under Theodulf’s cell window, Theodulf is said to have sung this out the window loudly so the king could hear.  Impressed, the king allegedly released him.  This story is probably not true, however, for Theodulph was imprisoned from 818 to his death in 821, and there is no record of that king ever visiting the town.  Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting (if untrue!) story.

This hymn from the beginning has had a long association with being used on Palm Sundays.  There are many medieval records from all over Europe of this being a standard Palm Sunday processional hymn.  Some of these liturgies employed a choir of seven boys to sing the first four stanzas from a “high point” in the church, recalling Theodulph’s singing from his high cell.  Often, this hymn would be sung as the congregation processed around the town; hence, 39 stanzas was not such an ungainly number as we might think today.

The tune is familiar to most of us, and was composed by Melchior Teschner and first published in 1615 to a text called “Farewell, I Gladly Bid Thee” by a Lutheran pastor at the Manger of Christ Church in Fraustadt, Germany.  This text for which the tune was written is meant as a “farewell to the world” and was written by this pastor (Valerius Herberger) during a plague time, in which 2,135 people in his town had died in only a couple of years.  This original text may be found in The Lutheran Hymnal #407.

I cannot help but think of the association between the original text of this tune—as a “farewell to the world” and its relationship to the historical events of Jesus’ life at Palm Sunday.

My Song is Love Unknown

This famous Lenten text was written by Samuel Crossman (1624-1683), an Anglican priest. The Anglican Church at this time sang only psalms, so it is most likely that Crossman intended his text to be read as poetry, not to be sung as a hymn. Crossman ministered successfully in the town of Sudbury, England until 1662. During this year, the Church of England government had declared that every minister sign a document declaring faith in the primal importance of the Book of Common Prayer. Many clergy could not in good conscience sign this document, and they were expelled from the pulpit and from their homes and towns. It is about this time that such “dissenters” (known as “Puritans”) began to emigrate to America.

Crossman later recanted, swore allegiance to the Church of England, and became one of the King’s chaplains! He would become dean of Bristol Cathedral, where he was buried.

Notice that this hymn text captures the thoughts and feelings of the historical events surrounding Holy Week. We recall Christmas and Christ’s incarnation in the second stanza which reminds us that “He came from His blest throne salvation to bestow.” We are reminded of the Palm Sunday crowd in the third stanza: “Sometimes they strew His way and His sweet praises sing; resounding all the day Hosannas to their King. Then “Crucify!” Is all their breath, and for His death they thirst and cry.” In the ultimate of ironies, the crowd’s call for Barrabbas is echoed in the fifth stanza: “A murderer they save, The prince of life they slay. Yet cheerful He to suff’ring goes.” The final stanza, as in many hymns, is directed not to poeticizing the historical Passion narrative, but towards relating the story to the reader/singer. It is, then, our responsibility to respond to Christ’s act of justification and spend all our days in “His sweet praise.”

In the Cross of Christ I Glory

This Lenten text was written by John Bowring (1792-1872), an Englishman who spoke six languages fluently by the time he had graduated from school, and by the end of his life was conversant in 100 more! He translated works from 22 languages, and was a published expert on finance, economics, history, travel, biography, poetry, natural science, religion and slavery. He became so interested in literature and writing poetry that he was forgetting to go to work in the morning (he served as co-editor of a London paper.) Between 1841-49, he served as a Member of Parliament, and soon after worked as a representative of Queen Victoria in Hong Kong and China, where he and his wife were once poisoned (his wife died, he lived.)

Many people may feel discomfort at the unassailable “cross” imagery of this hymn, for they say the emphasis is on the cross rather than on Christ, rather than the events which happened on Easter morning. However, the word “cross” is used as a metaphor (ie., a comparison of two unlike concepts–in this case, receiving life through death) for Christ’s redemptive action on the cross. In the fourth stanza, “Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure/By the Cross are sanctified” does not literally mean we are redeemed by a piece of wood; rather, we are redeemed by the action which Christ accomplishes on the cross and after. Bowring writes, “Never shall the cross forsake me: lo, it glows with peace and joy.” Obviously, the cross as an instrument of torture is anything but peace and joy, and as a wooden construction it provides no comfort. Theological complexities aside, it is Christ who will never forsake and who bring peace and joy. In this Lenten season, that is simply a penitential and meditative way of speaking of Christ’s salvific act of salvation. Many people these days don’t know how to read poetry—much less hymnody! The real meaning of most hymns (as this one demonstrates) is not immediately apparent, but each hymn invites us to ponder the deeper levels of meaning.

Just as I Am

Kenneth Osbeck, in his One-hundred and One Hymn Stories, writes (without hyperbole) of this hymn that, “Without question, this hymn has touched more hearts and influenced more people for Christ than any other song ever written.” This hymn grew in popularity after the sainted Billy Graham’s frequent use of it in his preaching.

The writer was Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871), an Englishwoman whose physical and emotional health was never far from collapse.  (She was an invalid and practically bed-ridden that last 50 years of her life.)  In 1822, the Swiss evangelist Caesar Malan, while counseling Elliott, succeeded in convincing her to “Come as you are, a sinner, to the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.”  For the rest of her life, Elliott always celebrated the day of her “conversion” as her “spiritual birthday.” Miss Elliott wrote this hymn in 1836 and published in The Invalid’s Hymn Book, a collection of 115 of her hymns.  This collection was mean to raise money for a school for the children of poor clergy.  The minister whom this publication benefited (who happened to be Elliott’s brother) stated that, “In the course of a long ministry, I hope to have been permitted to see some fruit of my labors;  but I feel more has been done by a single hymn of my sister’s.”

The text of this hymn is based upon an understanding of John 1: 29, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Christ has always been referred to as the Agnus Dei, the “Lamb of God.”  The New Covenant in His blood replaced the Old Covenant of the Passover lamb (which was really just a foreshadowing “reminder” of what was to come.)   Elliott’s refrain implores, “O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”  We do not come to the Lamb of God because of our sin which has separated us from the love of Christ.  Neither our minds nor our hearts are naturally inclined to come to Christ.  For most of us, Christ comes to us through our baptism.  For those who have converted, it is important to remember that intellectual conversion is not possible without the help of the Holy Spirit.  Elliott seems to realize some aspect of this innate depravity;  the fourth stanza observes that we are “poor, wretched, blind.”  (This recalls Newton’s “Amazing Grace.”)  Although the law condemns us, Christ comes to us as Elliott explores in the fifth stanza, “Just as I am, Thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve, because Thy promise I believe.”  We know that Christ “receives” us, sinful as we are;  nothing we do can earn His acceptance. During this penitential Lenten season, it is good for us to recognize that we come as sinners to the mercy seat of God saying, Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.

Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days

“O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days”  Written by Claudia Hernaman (1838-1898), this hymn is partly based on today’s gospel text from Mark 1, in which Jesus “. . . was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.”  The stark simplicity with which this hymn conveys its message evidences the fact that it was originally published in the Child’s Book of Praise (1884), a collection of Sunday School songs. With this hymn we begin our penitential observance of Lent.

In the Early Church (from Pentecost through the persecutions which ended in the mid-fourth century), Easter was the primary celebration of Christ’s life.  There was no observance of Christmas, Epiphany, Advent or Pentecost.  Easter was seen as the climax and focal point of the year, and it was on Easter Eve the catechumens (those studying for entrance into the Church) were baptized.  Such a major yearly event in the life of the Church required some preparation time, and this was variously set from 6-8 weeks before Easter, and this became Lent.  As late as the 5th century, Lent was still set at eight weeks, but did not include Saturdays (which were Sabbath Days) and Sundays (which are Lord’s Days), but which still allowed forty weekdays of Lent.  We still maintain the tradition of not observing Sundays of Lent, but rather Sundays in Lent.  Therefore, the forty days of Lent do not include the Sundays.

The Early Church Fathers did not choose the number forty randomly; rather, its theological significance had spanned the ages:  the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, Moses was on Mt Sinai for forty days, and Jesus was tempted in the desert for forty days.  In the Early Church, this Lenten time was devoted to study and to devotion and to penitence—certainly there was no celebration involved.  Eventually, canon law was added that forbid the eating of meat during Lent and forbid all be unaccompanied singing in church.  In the Roman Catholic Church, these strictures where only loosened in the 1960s.

“O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days” is faithful to the gospel text from Luke as it recounts the narrative of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness.  The first half of each stanza recounts a fact, the second half of each stanza prays for this fact somehow to be inculcated into our lives.  We sing, “O Lord, throughout these forty days, You prayed and kept the fast,” a factual recounting of the narrative.  But, in the second half we pray, “Inspire repentance for our sin, and free us from our past.”  We likewise pray that God would give us the “nerve, Your skill and trust in God’s eternal Word” that we might likewise successfully counter Satan’s schemes.  The third stanza speaks to the Lenten season when we pray, “So teach us to deny ourselves, since we have known God’s love.”  Our penitence and privations during Lent (should we choose to observe them) are not done from the perspective of the Law, and we know they do nothing to earn our own salvation.  Most religious traditions—particularly those involving denials of some sort—tend to degenerate into legalism.  Yet, they don’t have to.  We can follow the church year which outlines the life of Christ, allowing us to experience the wonder of Advent and Christmas, the hope of Epiphany, the sorrow of Lent and Good Friday, and the resurrection joy of Easter.  Or, we can just celebrate Easter, surrounded with fifty-one Sundays devoted to preaching/singing about topics of interest.  We don’t have to follow the liturgical year for our salvation, but doing so helps us relate to Christ incarnationally—He was a man who experienced the same temptations, sorrows, and joys as we do, and knowing this enriches our own faith. Therefore we pray in the final stanza:

Abide with us, that so, this life of suffering overpast, an Easter of unending joy we may attain at last!