Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Art thou weary?

Praise for the Lord #47

Words: Stephen the Sabaite, c. 800; trans. John Mason Neale, 1862
Music: Henry W. Baker, 1868; harmonized by William Monk, 1868

Stephen the Sabaite (725-794) was born in Palestine, and being orphaned at the age of nine followed his uncle Zechariah into the monastery of Mar Sabas.(Lamoureaux,8) Reaching adulthood, Stephen chose the monastic life and followed his natural scholarly bent. He was known to spend the weekdays in study in his cell under a vow of silence, speaking to others only on weekends. He was particularly noted for his encouragement to those struggling in their faith.(Lamoureaux,12) As a man who loved solitude, he nonetheless divided his time in later years between his brethren in different areas of Palestine, alternating with months spent alone in the wilderness.(Lamoureaux,18)

One of the chief distinctions between the liturgies of East and West is that the early liturgies of Catholicism underwent a process of unification and standardization from the time of Pope Gregory (from whom the term "Gregorian chant") through the era of Charlemagne, then a further redaction by the Council of Trent in the 16th century. The Orthodox churches, however, having no such single central authority, continued to add to their heritage of worship music with many overlapping layers of practices from different times and place and much regional variation. During the 19th century English hymnologists began to tap into this rich vein of poetry, one of the chief among them being John Mason Neale (1818-1866), discussed more fully in the post on All Glory, Laud, and Honor. Neale's translation "Art thou weary?" is loosely inspired by Stephen's Kopon te kai kamaton, as tended to be his practice. Neale's work, on the other hand, has the advantage of his deep understanding and appreciation of the style of the medieval Orthodox hymnists.(Wellesz,176n.)

This hymn, whether from the hand of Stephen or Neale, poses and answers a series of questions between faith and doubt in the mind of a believer:

Stanza 1:
Art thou weary, art thou languid,
Art thou sore distressed?
“Come to Me,” saith One, “and coming,
Be at rest.”

The first stanza is inspired by Christ's statement of invitation:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)

On the face of it, this statement might seem to be at odds with some of Christ's other comments on the price of following Him. Take for example His "limited commission" to the apostles in Matthew chapter 18:

"Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles...(v.16-18)

"Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name's sake...(v.21-22)

"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me."(v.34-38)

This is tough, no-nonsense language about the challenges and opposition a Christian must expect to face. But interspersed within the very same passage we find some of Christ's most comforting and uplifting promises as well.

"When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour...(v.19)

"But the one who endures to the end will be saved...(v.22b)

"So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known...(v.26)

"And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven...(v.28-32)

Here is the reality, in capsule form, from our Savior's own lips. The Christian life is tough--but it has blessings, as well, that cannot be felt or understood by those who chose the other path in life.

Stanza 2:
Hath He marks to lead me to Him,
If He be my Guide?
In His feet and hands are wound-prints
And His side.

What do we look for in a leader? No one (in his right mind) would attempt a mountain climb without the guidance of an experienced climber who will go first and pick out the safe way. Even professional sea captains know they must turn over their ships to a "harbor pilot" who will come aboard and bring the ships to dock, because the harbor pilot's practiced eye knows every current, every turn, and every distance by long familiarity.

Jesus' qualifications are self-evident; He is the only One who could say, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; and no one comes to the Father, except through Me."(John 14:6) He is our "forerunner" into the presence of God.(Hebrews 6:20) And whereas the master of those on the "broad road"(Matthew 7:13) whips and drives and ultimately consumes his charges, those who would try to walk the "narrow, difficult way" have instead a Leader who encourages and comforts us, all the more so because He has traveled the worst of the road Himself.(Hebrews 4:15)

The following two stanzas are omitted from Praise for the Lord:

Hath He diadem, as monarch,
That His brow adorns?
Yes, a crown in very surety,
But of thorns.

If I find Him, if I follow,
What His guerdon here?
Many a sorrow, many a labor,
Many a tear.

The first of these continues the thought of stanza 2, that Jesus deserves our trust in His promise; but here His authority, rather than experience, is debated. The mark of His command is a crown unlike any other. The crowns of earthly royalty are made of gold and jewels, usually given by their subjects or captured from their enemies, and represents the splendor, wealth, and majesty of the monarch. The thorny crown of Christ is made of the hateful sins of those He came to save, forced upon Him by enemies and the spite of His own people, and represents the suffering and shame He came to bear on behalf of those who did not accept Him.

The second of these omitted verses addresses again the question of what our lot will be if we accept His invitation. (The "guerdon" is a "reward".) The answer is true and frank--but it is only part of the truth. The rest is found in the next stanza:

Stanza 3:
If I still hold closely to Him,
What hath He at last?
Sorrow vanquished, labor ended,
Jordan passed.

In the second and third chapters of the Revelation, Jesus spoke directly to the beleaguered churches of Asia Minor, both to correct and to encourage. He concluded His address to each with a promise of reward to those who "overcome" the trials of this life:

"To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God...(2:7)

"He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death...(2:11)

"To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat...(2:17)

"He who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations ... and I will give him the morning star...(2:26-27)

"He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels...(3:5)

"He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name...(3:12)

"To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne."(3:21)

The victory will not come all at once--many battles will be fought, and some lost--but He has assured us that we can ultimately "overcome" the world, because He already has: "In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world."(John 16:33)

Stanza 4:
If I ask Him to receive me,
Will He say me nay?
Not till earth and not till Heaven
Pass away.

In Revelation 3:20, Jesus states, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me." The unadorned present tense of the Greek verb krouĊ is profoundly reassuring: He "knocks". He was knocking then, is knocking now, and will continue to knock as long as this world lasts. Couple this to the little Greek word tis in the next sentence--a gloriously indefinite pronoun that, standing alone, declares the invitation open to "anyone".(Lexicon/Concordance) But preceding this is another powerful little Greek word, ean--the mighty conjunction, "if". If we hear His voice over the din of this world and our own desires. If we open the door through obedience to all that He commands.

The following stanza was originally the conclusion, omitted in Praise for the Lord:

Finding, following, keeping, struggling,
Is He sure to bless?
Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs,
Answer, Yes!

The wonderful news is that even though Christ will not force the door open into our hearts, many who have gone before have shown us wonderful examples of surrendering to His invitation and walking the difficult road with Him to eternal life.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.(Hebrews 12:1)

About the music: Sir Henry Williams Baker (1821-1877) was one of the founders behind the famed Anglican hymnal, Hymns Ancient & Modern. The Church of England did not officially endorse it, this hymnal so overshadowed its competition that it became the de facto hymnal of Anglicans around the world for generations. First appearing in 1861, it still survives in the "2000 edition" and is without doubt one of the most influential hymnals in the English language. Baker was the first chairman of the committee that produced Hymns Ancient & Modern, and his moderating influence probably kept it from falling prey to the "worship wars" then ensuing between the traditionalist supporters of the Watts/Wesley genre and the diversifying influence of the Oxford Movement.

Baker himself wrote relatively little music; but the harmonization of this tune comes from one of the most influential music editors of the era, William Monk (1823-1889). Monk's ability to accurately gauge what the average parish congregation and choir could handle musically was invaluable to the selection of tunes for Hymns Ancient & Modern. (Music editorship in a hymnal is often underappreciated--many a great hymn text would have passed into oblivion had it not been for a wise pairing of text and tune.) Though Monk was not regarded as a great composer by his peers, he certainly had a shining moment with his timeless music for "Abide with me".

The almost childlike simplicity of this tune is created through the repetition of 1-measure ideas in the melody. The first three measures are essentially sequences of the same simple idea: repeated notes with a descending note at the conclusion, and the second half of the tune employs a 1-measure sequence of the 5th measure to the 6th measure (the notes rise and fall in exactly the same pattern in measure 6, only starting on a different pitch). The harmony parts are relatively simple as well (for this style of hymn). The bass and tenor move around the scale by step, or by leaping to notes within the tonic chord of the key (DO, MI, SOL). The alto is practically immobilized on a D throughout. This was the style Monk knew would work: simple, logical, and singable. A MIDI file of this tune is available at


Lamoureaux, John C., trans. The life of Stephen of Mar Sabas. Louvain: Peeters Publishers, 1999.

Wellesz, Egon. A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1949.

Lexicon/Concordance for Revelation 3:20.

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