Savior of the Nations, Come

Mary and Joseph kneel at the crib of the infant Christ in this detail of an icon from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. 

Savior of the nations, come,
virgin’s Son, make here Thy home!
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,
that the Lord chose such a birth.

Not by human flesh and blood,
but the Spirit of our God,
was the Word of God made flesh–
woman’s Offspring, pure and fresh.

Wondrous birth! O wondrous Child
Of the Virgin undefiled!
Though by all the world disowned,
still to be in heav’n enthroned.

From the Father forth He came
and returneth to the same,
captive leading death and hell–
high the song of triumph swell!

 Thou the Father’s only Son,
hast o’er sin the vict’ry won.
Boundless shall Thy kingdom be;
when shall we its glories see?

Brightly doth Thy manger shine,
glorious is its light divine.
Let not sin o’ercloud this light;
ever be our faith thus bright.

Praise to God the Father sing,
Praise to God the Son, our King,
Praise to God the Spirit be
Ever and eternally.

This ancient hymn is appointed to be sung each year on this first Sunday of Advent. Composed by Ambrose of Milan (who baptized St Augustine) before 397 AD, the hymn was so important in the medieval church that Martin Luther translated it to German in 1524.  Even the tune is a modification of a medieval chant melody, VENI REDEMPTOR GENTIUM.  Ambrose is careful to maintain an explicit Trinitarian theology throughout the hymn.  The second stanza expounds on Christ’s divinity, “Not by human flesh and blood, By the Spirit of our God, Was the Word of God made flesh—Woman’s Offspring pure and fresh.”  So, although he was born a human like us, he was without sin;  ie., “pure and fresh.”  This stanza seems to allude to John 1 in which Jesus is described as the “Word.”  Further, the fourth stanza emphasizes further Christ’s estrangement of the world as we sing, “From the Father forth He came and returneth to the same, Captive leading death and hell—High the song of triumph swell!”  This stanza captures the eternality of Christ;  existed before His earthly birth and He existed after his death and resurrection.  The final stanza is a doxology, affirming the unity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  All hymns from this time contain a final doxological stanza as a means to counter Arianism, a heresy which maintained that Christ was not truly divine and was merely another created being.

With its didacticism, this hymn is a good example of what constitutes the Lutheran chorale, that unique body of hymnody that developed during the Lutheran reformation. Chorales were sung in the vernacular (ie., German in this case), were sung by the congregation (as opposed to the clergy or choir) and were highly doctrinal. After all, the late medieval times were characterized by great superstitions but very little doctrinal understanding (are twenty-first century people much different?) The chorale texts, whether composed new or reconstructions from the chant repertoire, as this hymn is, were often narrative, and conveyed doctrine almost as a story. One can see that in the narrative account of this hymn—the first stanza prays for the “savior of the nations” to come, the second begins recounting that “not by human flesh and blood. . . was the Word of God made flesh,” the third mentions the “maid found with child,” whose birth begins “His heroic course.” Continuing, the fifth stanza alludes to Christ’s death, for “into hell His road went down, back then to His throne and crown,” which action redeems humanity from our sin, as exemplified in the next stanza which is now directed as a prayer to the Son, “By Your mighty pow’r make whole all our ills of flesh and soul.” We return then to the “manger” which shines in “glory through the night.”

It is always good to give thanks for Ambrose, Augustine, Luther, and the great hymnody they left for us.

At The Name of Jesus

This Sunday is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, often called Christ the King Sunday. The gradual hymn was written by Carolina Marie Noel (1817-1877), the daughter of a Church of England clergyman.  Born in London, she wrote her first verses at age 17.  Although prodigious in the next few years, publishing several dozen poems, at age 20 she ceased writing.  Twenty years later, crippled by ill health, she once again resumed writing poetry, publishing The Name of Jesus and other Verses for the Sick and Lonely, a volume published “with the hope that it might be helpful to invalids,” which Noel had now become.

This hymn text is dense with theological thoughts and profound motifs.  The first stanza summarizes the liturgical theme for the day, “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, ev’ry tongue confess Him King of Glory now.”  This idea reflects Isaiah 45: 23 in which God says, “Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear,” a thought reiterated in Philippians 2: 10, 11, this time in reference to Christ, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the God the Father.”  The juxtaposition of these two passages illustrates the continuity of the Old and New Testaments;  whereas the idea of a Trinitarian God is relatively unknown to the ancient Hebrews, the Philippians passage serves to clarify the honor and worship God—and specifically God through Christ—is to be given.

Noel continues her Trinitarian explication of Christ’s nature as she continues, “’Tis the Father’s pleasure We should call Him Lord who from the beginning was the mighty Word,” a passage which echoes the medieval hymn, Corde natus ex parentis, “Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the world’s began to be, He is alpha and omega, He the Source, the Ending.”  Both are theological paraphrases of the prologue to John’s gospel as follows:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.”  The original Greek reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word.”  (Italics mine.)  In the ultimate of Trinitarian justification, this “Word” (logos, meaning Christ) was one with (ie., “being of one substance”) with God.  God is worshipped, then, as creator, as Noel writes, “At His voice creation sprang at once to sight.”  The natural tendency of the creature to its creator is one of awe and reverence, a theme typical of Christ the King Sunday.

Noel contrasts the Trinity’s omnipotence with Christ’s becoming human.  The first few lines of John’s gospel foreshadow that gospel’s emphasis upon Christ’s divinity and power.  Yet, Christians also know that Christ was “humbled for a season, to receive a name from the lips of sinners unto whom He came.”  Christ was a “suffering servant,” an emphasis present in Mark’s gospel, for example.  Noel continues explication upon Christ’s human nature, “Faithfully He bore it spotless to the last, brought it back victorious when from death He passed,” and our response is to give “Glory then to Jesus, Who, the Prince of light, to a world of darkness brought the gift of sight.”  Noel has taken the singer from the primordial origins of the universe created through God’s omnipotence through Christ’s State of Humiliation (exemplified in the Incarnation and death) once again to His power and omnipotence as he conquers death.

The coming weeks of Advent should not be a time of sentimental wandering in which we simply prepare to welcome some cute baby in a manger.  In Christ’s divinity, He has taken on humanity, finding fulfillment in the historical events of Holy Week.  In Christ’s humanity, He has retained His divinity to the extent that He was raised from the dead.  In Christ’s becoming human, then, He has opened the way for all humanity to be reached by God.



The God of Abram Praise

This hymn was conceived by Thomas Olivers (1725-1799), born at Tregynon, Montgomeryshire, Wales.  Orphaned at age four, he lived with various family members until finally apprenticed to a shoemaker as a teenager. His dissoluteness eventually resulted in his expulsion from town, and he wandered about until one day, in Bristol, he occasioned upon the great evangelist, George Whitefield.  Whitefield’s sermon on Zechariah 3: 2, “Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?” apparently gave Olivers pause to consider his own life, resulting in his conversion to evangelical Christianity.  (In this case, Methodism.) Olivers returned to his hometown, made amends and became a member of the Methodist Society.  (Remember, Wales has more real, unapologetic, enthusiastic Methodists per capita than most Methodist churches in Dallas.)

John Wesley commissioned Olivers as an itinerant preacher, a duty which he faithfully discharged for 22 years until he was appointed editor of the Arminian Magazine in 1775.  Wesley dismissed him in 1789 because “. . . the errata were insufferable and pieces were inserted in the magazine without his knowledge.”  (Apparently Wesley failed to read the part of Olivers’ resume which stated, “Uneducated.”)  Olivers spent the rest of his life in London where, for some reason, he is buried with John Wesley behind Wesley’s Chapel.  (The large obelisk marking their mutual grave is now overshadowed by a glass office building;  however, this same obelisk, due to its inaccessibility, has provided a lunching-place for the anonymous writer of music notes on more than one occasion.)

Allegedly, Olivers was walking the streets of London when he came across the great synagogue.  As service was going on, he heard the famous cantor Leoni intone a haunting melody to the words Yigdal Elohim hay (“Exalted be the living God.”)  So moved, he borrowed the melody and composed a set of Christian hymn stanzas loosely based on the Yigdal—a Jewish hymn of 13 stanzas composed by Daniel ben Judah, a Roman Jewish judge who lived in the early 15th century.  The original Hebrew first stanza and tune are as follows:

Olivers’ hymn is surprisingly Jewish in character.  Of its nine stanzas, only three specifically mention Christ (stanza 3:  “And He shall save me to the end through Jesus’ blood”;  stanza 7:  “The Prince of Peace on Zion’s height”;  and stanza 9 which is doxological.) Having written no other extant hymn, Olivers’ hymn offers a brief glimpse of the Jewish liturgy, albeit in a New Testament context.

The Great Synagogue in London, built in 1722 and destroyed in 1941 as a result of German bombing, served as the gathering place for British Jews for two centuries. Cantor Myer Lyon, also known as “Michael Leoni,” supposedly inspired this tune.

For All the Saints

In Revelation 7 we read that, standing before the Apostle John was “. . . a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. . . . and they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’”  This innumerable throng represents the whole Christian Church on earth—past, present and, given our time frame now, future.  These are the faithful martyrs of Rome, whose bodies lie in the catacombs.  They are the reformers of the Middle Ages before Luther who, like Wycliff and Hus, were burned at the stake for daring to counter the corruption of the Church.  They are the faithful Christians today who live in China or Africa and find themselves practicing their faith secretly so as to avoid death at the hands of secular or religious authorities.  They are also those Christians who have lived their whole lives comfortably—the righteous of all ages who are unnamed and unremembered by history.

William How’s (1823-1897) hymn encompasses the idea of the “communion of saints” as it dwells upon the “saints who from their labours rest.”  How refers to the Old Testament prophets and patriarchs who “Before the world confessed,” as we read in Hebrews 11.  Howe sets the second stanza in the past tense, noting that God “Wast their rock, their fortress, and their might, Thou, Lord, their captain, in the well-fought fight.”  The strength that was theirs is now ours, even as “. . . we feebly struggle, they in glory shine.  Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.”

Victorian hymns such as this one are by nature nostalgic in that they always look to the past with surety and to the future with trepidation.  After all, this was the national ethos of Britain at the time—it was no longer the empire on which the sun never set, but was losing its colonies and having to share superpower status with other nations for the first time at least since Napoleon’s defeat.  Though certainly not universal, we Americans can be characterized as optimistic, forward-looking and always ready to tread new ground.  We conquered our own continent a century ago and our influence is world-wide, for better or for worse.  There is seemingly little we cannot accomplish if we simply strive hard enough, or so the thought goes.  Such thinking does not lend itself to hymnody such as How’s text—we are not particularly comfortable being reminded of our mortality. . . such is an admission that we are not infallible nor omnipotent, either as a society or as individuals.  We would rather sing safe and innocuous music about God in the abstract or about our feelings toward God or one another—certainly nothing that would remind us of our impending death.  But How does not shirk from the reality of the world when he reminds us in stanza 5, “And when the fight is fierce the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms are strong.”  Our life brings us strife, but death brings us hope and rest, as he continues, “The golden evening brightens in the west;  soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;  sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.”  What poetry this is!  Most of us think of the evening as darkening, but here Howe ironically says it brightens, as if our transient life is but the beginning of something greater.  To those in this brightening light “cometh rest,” again using light and dark imagery in the opposite sense to which we are used—we then rest in the light.  And indeed How continues in stanza seven speaking of this new “day” which is breaking, “The saints triumphant rise in bright array;  the King of Glory passes on His way.”  Here we are reminded not only of the King of Glory who a week before His death was lauded by the crowd with hosannas, but also of the King of Glory who will be born in a manger and for whom we prepare in Advent.

Just as Christ was resurrected, we, too, will rise again on the last day to experience the communion of all the saints, all who have lived by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.

A Mighty Fortress

Today is the Sunday closest to 31 October, the date on which, in 1517, Luther began the Reformation by nailing the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther wrote this text in 1529 and early in his career as a reformer.  Based on Psalm 46, (“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. . . the Lord Almighty is with us;  the God of Jacob is our fortress”) this text exhibits a stability in the solid assurance in the gospel of Christ.

First, note its poetic and musical form.  The first phrase (“A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon”) is the same musically as the second phrase—we call this the A section.  With the next phrase a new melody is introduced (“The old evil foe now means deadly woe. . .”), which we will call the B section.  The final phrase (“On earth is not his equal”) is short, not long enough to have its own designation, but it might simply be called a coda.  (Meaning “ending.”)  This AAB/coda form was known in medieval music as the Bar form and was quite common in folk music.  A misunderstanding of this term has resulted in that heresy being spread that “Luther used bar tunes in worship.”  Such nonsense!  Luther sets this hymn in a C major tonality (and, unlike us, he had more than simply two modes, major or minor, from which to choose), typically the key of happiness and assurance.  The last phrase is simply a descending C major scale, a typically-Lutherian motif which is also evidenced in the final phrase of “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.”

The fact that he could not think up a better ending to his hymns perhaps demonstrates Luther’s amateur status as a musician.  He was said to have been a good singer and played the lute (a stringed instrument) and flute.  He commissioned some of the best musicians of the day to compose music for liturgical use, so important did he find hymnody and music to be in the liturgy. Here is his original tune:

What is the meter?  Unlike such standard march hits as “Onward Christian Soldiers” which displays a martial and predictable strong/weak pattern, or the waltz-like “Come, Holy Ghost, in Love,” whose triple-time bars are marked by a strong downbeat and a weak two and three, Luther’s melody alternates between duple and triple meter.  In essense, every quarter note (the black ones) is weak and every half note (the white ones) are strong;  the point of the black notes is to move straight to the long values, which seem to want to dwell even longer in time. But this is not the version we sing today:

Here is evident a familiar time signature—4/4.  We know that this tune has a predictable strong/weak/strong/weak pattern, never deviating from meausure to measure.  This music perhaps gives us more stability and grandeur—it can be sung at a slow stately tempo—but it lacks the energy and vitality of Luther’s original tune.  How did this change come about?

A modern hymnologist, Joseph Herl, proposed in his recent book, Worship Wars in Sixteenth Century Lutheranism, that the hymns of the early Reformation, including Luther’s, were not immediately sung with enthusiasm by the average person in the pew.  After all, they were not used to the idea of congregational singing, and Luther was a very conservative reformer in terms of the liturgy.  He wanted to abolish the heretical elements of the mass whilst still leaving what gave people comfort.  Demanding that they sing new and difficult music while at the same time pointing out heresies in their long-held belief system was a political and social mistake that Herl says Luther was too smart to make.  Yet, Luther definitely believed in congregational singing, and he wanted people to learn these hymns, but such didn’t happen for many decades in some places.  In fact, Herl notes that early Lutherans really only sang the Nicene Creed every Sunday.  Hence, many of these hymns would have been sung by a choir which has rehearsed and practiced them.  A seasoned and experienced choir with hours to practice a week can easily sing “A Mighty Fortress” with the crispness and rhythmic vitality Luther intended.  But, as the years progressed and Lutherans not only became comfortable singing in church but became ravenous about it, it is natural that this music would lose some of its intrinsic rhythmic character.   What happens when one gets a congregation of several hundred singing Luther’s original “A Mighty Fortress?”  Very naturally, the tempo tends to slow and the long and short values will naturally tend to even out.  This type of performance practice eventually led to most of the early Lutheran hymns becoming less rhythmic, eventually finding an official Lutheran imprimatur with the evened-out rhythms finding their way into most hymnals by the 18th century.  (Herl’s thesis is not universally accepted, and Christopher Boyd Brown’s new book, Singing the Gospel:  Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation argues pretty much the opposite—that common people sang these hymns with alacrity and from the beginning, although even he does not argue that they would have been sung liturgically in corporate worship.)

Either way, this hymn conveys the solidity and assurances of God’s promises.