Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People

John Calvin

This hymn heralds Adventide just as John the Baptist heralded the coming Christ.  Taken nearly verbatim from Isaiah 40: 1-5, this text urges us to “prepare the way for the Lord;  make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”  Let us speak first of the tune.

This writer of must maintain strict anonymity because of his unpopularity with organists who treat real hymnody as though it was a chore, the value to be found only in the pain endured having to get to the end.  The writer of music notes has heard this tune played many times slowly, lugubriously, and quite dully, as though every bit of life had been sucked out of both the music and the singers.  This tune, though, demands a different treatment.

The composer, Louis Bourgeois, was the chief musician for John Calvin’s Genevan Psalter of 1551, from which this tune came, originally set to Psalm 42.  Although Calvin is known for his austerity, for he advocated the singing of psalms only rather than “hymns of human composure;” this tune is dance-like, in the style of a Renaissance dance.  It alternates between duple and triple meter, and the tempo is anything but slow.

Bourgeois was entrusted with writing, selecting and arranging all the music for the Calvinist psalters, and he was highly regarded by the citizens of Geneva particularly for his teaching music and theology to children.  Like many church musicians, he was known to make “unauthorized” changes in the music occasionally, and the city council sent him to jail for a day in 1551 for such changes!

The text comes from Johannes Olearius (1611-1684), written for St John the Baptist’s feast day on 24 June.  Olearius was born and raised in Halle, Germany, from whence many fine Lutheran hymnwriters hail, but studied in Wittenberg where he also served on the faculty of the university.  As a writer of poetry, he published Geistliche Singe-Kunst, published in the Lutheran city of Leipzig in 1671.  Notice the rich biblical imagery in this hymn—it is taken directly from Isaiah 40 but never directly mentions Christ (who is never mentioned in Isaiah, of course.)  However, it is clear through the editorially-capitalized “Him” to whom this hymn is addressed, and for whom we prepare.  This is a hymn of preparation.  It does not tell us all we need to know of the Christian faith, just as John the Baptist did not tell the “full story” of Christ—John merely prepared the way so that Christ could reveal Himself fully.  The Advent season consistently anticipates the Incarnation, but Advent is still clearly rooted in the Old Testament in which the Hebrews do not know the full truth of the Messiah.  We moderns do know the rest of the story, so we seem to want to skip Advent and sing those beloved Christmas carols right away.  There is nothing wrong with that, but there is also much advantage to hearing these Old Testament messianic prophecies so prevalent in our lectionary throughout Advent.   For in so doing, and in trying to recreate the anticipation of those ancient Hebrews, we ourselves can appreciate more fully the gift that was Christ’s Incarnation.

My Song is Love Unknown

This famous hymn 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 English government had declared that every minister sign a document declaring their allegiance to the Book of Common Prayer.  Many clergy could not in good conscience sign this document, and they, among which was Crossman himself, 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, pledged fealty to the Church of England, and became one of the King’s chaplains! In 1683, he became dean of Bristol Cathedral, where he is buried.

Notice that this hymn text captures the thoughts and feelings of the historical events surrounding Christ’s life. 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 Barabbas is echoes 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.” Appropriate words as we commence celebrate Christ the King Sunday and prepare to enter the festival portion of the liturgical year.


Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn was born into a Jewish family in the Hanseatic and musically-rich city of Hamburg in 1809. His father, a banker, renounced his Jewish faith and took the surname “Bartholdy,” later saying “There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucious.” Likely this decision was as much as social and political one as much as spiritual, for Felix was raised without religion until his baptism in the Reformed Church at age seven. Mendelssohn himself continued to use that surname, however, sometimes referring to himself as “Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy,” a name which one will still see on occasion.

Mendelssohn became known as a prolific and inspired composer of concertos, symphonies, chamber music, piano pieces, vocal works, and even oratorios and sacred music. The tune we associate with the text “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was taken from one of his oratorios (an oratorio being similar to an opera but with sacred themes.) Although of German background, Mendelssohn made ten trips to England in his lifetime, and his popularity in the English-speaking world only grew throughout the Victorian era, although he would die prematurely in 1847. His choral works, for example, were set to English texts as much as they were to German, such was his popularity in England. To Mendelssohn can also be credited the rediscovery of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose St Matthew Passion Mendelssohn conducted in 1829—the first time since the great composer’s death. Bach’s music had largely been forgotten, already being seen as outdated during Bach’s lifetime. But Mendelssohn succeeded in reviving Bach’s works—and he did so with one of the great sacred passions. In our modern secular age, historians and musicians happily forget that so much of the world’s music has been composed to God’s glory and for the purposes of His Church.

Today’s prelude is from one of Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas. Four out of the six sonatas utilize German chorale tunes, and Mendelssohn frequently employed Lutheran chorales in his choral works and even in his symphonies (consider the “Reformation” Symphony which so famously quotes “A Mighty Fortress.”) The sonata you will hear this morning utilizes Martin Luther’s hymn tune, “Aus Tiefer Noth,” or “Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee,” a setting of Psalm 130. The choir sings Mendelssohn’s sacred motet “Above All Praise and Majesty,” a traditional anthem for the Feast of the Ascension which was last Thursday. The communion voluntary is the final, quiet movement from Mendelssohn’s third sonata, the first part of which is played as the opening voluntary. The closing voluntary is another festive, triumphant organ piece of Mendelssohn.

The Church continues to give thanks for the sacred music of Bach, Mendelssohn, and the many composers whose faith permeated their lives and music.

In Thee is Gladness

This quintessential Easter hymn encompasses the joy of Easter morning, a joy which continues this Second Sunday of Easter, just as we celebrate the risen Christ every Sunday morning. We reiterate Easter joy by singing, “Since He is ours, we fear no powers, not of earth nor sin nor death.” The text is replete with the scriptural imagery of the Easter season. The poetry comes from Johann Lindemann (1549-1631) who was born in the cradle of the Reformation, Thuringia. In the 1570s he began a career as a Kantor in the German town of Gotha (“Kantor” is the old Lutheran term for “music director,” but encompassed much more—from organist, choir director, singer, the Kantor generally coordinated the congregation’s, and community’s sacred singing. This is not to be confused with a cantor as found in the modern day Catholic Church, who too often resemble pop stars, or cantors in the Jewish synagogue, who are simply singers.) Lindemann actually composed this particular text for this tune, which was a bit of a rarity in the day. The tune was contemporary, having been composed by Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi, an Italian priest who was born in 1556 and worked most of his life in Mantua. Gastoldi composed a number of light, dance-like pieces called balletti. These secular pieces lent themselves well to sacred words, and when Lindemann published a collection of his hymns in 1598 in Erfurt, he included two tunes from Gastoldi, including the one we sing this morning set to this text.

The practice of taking an existing secular melody and adding sacred words is an age-old practice called contrafactum. The tune of the communion hymn “O Food to Pilgrim’s Given” is such an example, having originally been composed in the late 15th-century by Heinrich Isaak but associated with the secular text “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen.” (“Innsbruck, I’m leaving you now”). Later, this became “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen” (world), and eventually many other sacred texts were sung to that old secular tune. Here the circumstance might have been somewhat different because the tune was contemporary and probably would not have been known by anyone in northern Germany (remember, this was the time before copyright law and composers and text-writers were free to use each other’s works without financial burden.) In many instances, such appropriations would help a composers tune (or a poet’s text) spread beyond narrow geographic boundaries. Here Lindemann takes a secular tune he would have known as a church musician aware of the latest music from Italy, and creates sacred words for liturgical use.  This tune has been in use in Lutheran hymnals without break back to the seventeenth century. Bach has an organ setting of the tune which conveys the joy of the text and the season.


Holy Week and Liturgical Anamnesis

Egeria, a fifth-century woman who recorded one of the earliest accounts of Christian Holy Week observances.

Despite what contemporary “enlightened” theologizers might suggest, the church year was not developed overnight by some bored hermit in the Egyptian desert with nothing else to do but ponder the locusts and honey in his cave.  The church year developed soon after Jesus’ own ministry, when His disciples and followers wished to reenact, and therefore to teach Christians as well as neophytes, the essential doctrines of the Church.  Although sermons and lectures were part of it, the early Church realized that many people learn more through doing.  The Church in Jerusalem quickly started to revere the historical sites of Holy Week.  From the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane to the hill of Golgotha, this particular Church was well-suited to relive the highlights of Jesus’ ministry.

A Christian woman named Egeria (writing from 404-417) maintained a series of journals which recounted her pilgrimages to holy sites, one of the most interesting being her description of being in Jerusalem during Pascha (Holy Week.)  In her description of the week’s events (which the writer of music notes cannot summarize nor condense, but which can be found on, Egeria describes systematically in exacting detail how the faithful reenact the events of holy week in their worship.  For example, on the Sunday before Easter, they gather at the Mount of Olives to “sing hymns and antiphonies appropriate to the day and place, as are the readings.”  Shortly thereafter, “that place in the Gospel is read where infants with palms and branches ran to the Lord saying, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.’  Immediately the bishop rises with all of the people and they walk before the bishop singing hymns. . . And whatever children in this place, even those not able to walk, are carried on their parent’s shoulders, all holding branches, some of palm, some of olive;  thus the bishop is led in the same way the Lord once was.”  On Thursday, the congregation regathers in the Garden of Gethsemane to hold the vigil the Apostles were unable to keep.  Of this Egeria writes, “. . . there a hymn is sung, prayer is made, and the bishop offers the Oblation and serves communion to everyone. . . and the place in the Gospel is read where the Lord was arrested.  While this passage is being read, there is such moaning and groaning with weeping among the people that they can be heard by all the people of the city.”  Imagine what a witness this must have been!  This continues all night, just as Jesus passed His last night on earth.

The next morning, the people meet at “Sion to pray at the column where the Lord was whipped.”  Shortly thereafter, they gather at Golgotha, which now has a church built upon it, and where is housed parts of the true cross.  (Which, Egeria tells us, is heavily guarded because “someone once bit off and stole some of the holy cross.”)  From noon to three, readings about the Passion are interspersed with prayers until the ninth hour (3pm) at which time “the passage in the Gospel of John is read, where He delivers up His spirit.”  The crowd then disperses until evening, after which time they gather at the Anastasis, or the Church of the Resurrection.  “And when they have come there, the passage in the gospel is read where Joseph asks Pilate for the body of the Lord, that he might place it in a new tomb. . . through the whole night hymns and antiphons are sung until morning.”  Saturday morning arrives where the “Paschal vigil is observed,” again spending the day and night in prayer, scripture and singing, although Egeria observes that confirmands would be baptized on this Holy Saturday.  The celebration of Easter culminates, apparently, at midnight, after the vigil service has been dismissed and the people process to the Church of the Resurrection (supposedly built over the Holy Sepulchre) at which time the resurrection gospel is read and the bishop celebrates Holy Communion.

In their reenactment of Christ’s last days, the Christian pilgrims are not only learning about Christ’s life, but they are participating in the sacraments (baptism was only offered on Holy Saturday and Pentecost) and learning application through sermons and hymns.  This was a multi-faceted approach toward catechesis, or the learning of the fundamentals of the faith.  Importantly, the pilgrims probably experienced the emotions associated with each location—the triumphant palm waving, the feeling of betrayal in the Garden, the sorrow and horror at Golgotha.  This is not some dry lesson from a book, nor an entertaining show.  Although Egeria does not note the fact, it seems that all these people—pilgrims plus those Christians living in Jerusalem—must essentially devote an entire week to these proceedings. . . not a small feat in an age in which the necessities of daily life were more difficult to obtain.  Egeria does allow that some people keep the pilgrimage more than others, who presumably would be distracted by mundane tasks;  however, “No one demands that anyone do anything, but all do as they can.  No one is praised who does more, nor is the one who does less blamed.  For such is the custom here.”  In other words, these are traditions which are evangelical. . . they teach the faith not only to the Christians but are a great witness to the unbeliever, and none of it is viewed as being essential to salvation.  These traditions are simply the best way available to imbue the truths of Christianity within the human heart.

So it is with us. We began Palm Sunday processing from the garden with palm branches, but the service ended somberly, singing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”  We regathered on Thursday to meditate on the Lord’s mandatum novum—to “love one another,” as exemplified on the night He instituted Holy Communion.  The betrayal of that Thursday was also evidenced in the sadness of the stripping of the altar. A watch was kept overnight. On Friday, we somberly read of Jesus’ death on the cross, lamenting our sin which cause this. At Easter Vigil on Saturday we gather in candlelight, reading texts from the Old Testament, meditating on Christ passing “from death to life,” culminating in the return of the Gloria in Excelsis and a full celebration of the resurrection, which continues the next morning. We celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection with churches all over the world, most of whom participate in hymns, readings, teaching, and Holy Communion.  In this way, we are made one in Christ, whether it is our unity with the Invisible Church in the present age, or the Church Universal of centuries past.  We do not reenact this Paschal festival for our own amusement or boredom;  this anamnesis–or remembering the past by reliving it–is possibly the most important tool through which one is enabled to live out the gospel on a daily basis as one sanctified in the blood of the Lamb.