Monday, May 11, 2009

Asleep in Jesus

Praise for the Lord #54

Words: Margaret MacKay, 1832
Music: William B. Bradbury, 1843

This was once a fairly common funeral song, though many of us also know it as the punch line to a time-honored joke about long-winded preachers. I think it deserves another look; the poetry is full of subtle references to Scripture, and presents a thoughtful view of a subject for which we have few hymns today. Margaret MacKay (1802-1887) of Inverness, Scotland was a poet and devotional writer who also wrote a history of the Wycliffe reformation in England.("MacKay") This hymn was first published in the 1832 Christian's Annual; MacKay reprinted it in her own Thoughts Redeemed in 1854. She included the comment that it was inspired by a tombstone in the quiet little churchyard at Pennycross Chapel in Devonshire, England, which was inscribed with the words "Sleeping in Jesus."

Stanza 1:
Asleep in Jesus! Blessed sleep,
From which none ever wakes to weep!
A calm and undisturbed repose,
Unbroken by the last of foes.

It was Jesus who introduced us to the concept of death as a "sleep", when he told the mourners at the house of Jairus that the man's daughter was not dead, but asleep.(Luke 8:52) He said the same when Lazarus died, and the disciples unwittingly demonstrated the meaning of His statement by saying, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover."(John 11:12) If death is a sleep, it means a return to life is expected--a view much at odds with the thinking of the ancient world. The apostles continued the use of this gentle and meaningful euphemism. Paul spoke in 1 Corinthians 15:18 of "those who have fallen asleep in Christ", the closest Biblical source I can find for MacKay's motto.

"In Jesus" is a good place to be, because "in Jesus" is where we find the greatest blessings we could ask:

  • Redemption (Romans 3:24)

  • Death to sin (Romans 6:11)

  • No condemnation (Romans 8:1)

  • Freedom (Romans 8:2)

  • The love of God (Romans 8:39)

  • Eternal life (Romans 6:24)

And if we are "in Jesus", Romans 8:38-39 affirms that nothing, not even death, can take these blessings away against our will. The last line of this stanza shows that MacKay was thinking of the discussion of death and resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15--when she says that our sleep will be "unbroken by the last of foes", she is surely referring to the last verse of this passage:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.(1 Corinthians 15:20-26)

To this last statement we also can relate 1 Corinthians 15:54, "When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.'" Death claims our loved ones, and will claim us as well (if the Lord does not return first); but we know that death's days are numbered.

Stanza 2:
Asleep in Jesus! Oh, how sweet,
To be for such a slumber meet!
With holy confidence to sing,
That death has lost its venomed sting!

Once again MacKay makes an oblique reference to 1 Corinthians 15, this time calling up verses 55-57:

"O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Physical death, separation of the soul from the body, came into the world as a result of sin, but it is spiritual death--separation from the soul from God--that gives physical death its true "sting". If the soul is reconciled with God, physical death is a temporary separation from spiritual family left behind, and a joyful reunion with those gone before. It was this confidence in sins forgiven that allowed Paul to say from his Roman prison cell,

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.(Philippians 1:21-23)

May we all be able to say the same when that hour comes!

Stanza 3:
Asleep in Jesus! Peaceful rest,
Whose waking is supremely blest!
No fear, no woe, shall dim that hour
That manifests the Savior’s power.

Another blessing of coming to that "sleep in Jesus" is the promise that we will wake in a place where "there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away." There God Himself will "wipe away all tears."(Revelation 21:4) True, "fear" and "woe" haunt many of our days in this life, but as Paul said, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God."(Romans 8:18-19)

However wonderful it will be for us, however, the Resurrection is chiefly an hour that will reveal the power and glory of Christ, "when He comes on that day to be glorified in His saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed.(2 Thessalonians 1:10)

Stanza 4:
Asleep in Jesus! Oh, for me
May such a blissful refuge be!
Securely shall my ashes lie
And wait the summons from on high.

"But we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies."(Romans 8:23)

For many it is difficult to accept the resurrection of the physical body; this was one of the things that caused even some in Paul's day to stumble.(Acts 17:32) The most extensive discussion of this is, once again, from 1 Corinthians 15, which was likely the inspiration for this hymn:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.(1 Corinthians 15:51-53)

I cannot read these words without thinking of the wonderful aria in Handel's Messiah based on this passage, "The trumpet shall sound"; and I cannot think of that aria without remembering a classmate of mine from Oklahoma Christian who sang it. Darryl Oliver was a music major, in my wife's graduating class and a year behind me. He died in an auto accident just a year or so after graduation, and leaving a young widow behind. It was the first time I had lost a friend my own age, and the tragedy of a promising young life cut so short made a deep mark on all of us. But I remind myself, Darryl was "in Jesus", and when I hear these words I remember that we all can look forward to this promise--that this mortal will put on immortality.

The original poem, in addition to minor differences of wording and punctuation, also included the following two stanzas:

Asleep in Jesus! time nor space
Debars this precious “hiding place”;
On Indian plains or Lapland snows
Believers find the same respose.

Asleep in Jesus! Far from thee
Thy kindred and their graves may be;
But there is still a blessed sleep,
From which none ever wakes to weep.

The point of these stanzas is that however appealing it may be to think of our final resting place being near loved ones and a familiar homeplace, it need be no worry. MacKay had particular reason to think along these lines--her husband, William MacKay, was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who had been nearly fatally wounded in Salamanca, Spain.(Cyberhymnal, "MacKay"; Light Infantry) Many a fallen comrade lay in a grave far from home, and in marrying an officer, Margaret MacKay knew that her husband could very well be another. It is good to remember that we are in the keeping of a God of whom Jesus said, "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father."(Matthew 10:29)

About the music: William Bradbury is an underestimated figure in American church music, in my opinion a significant transitional figure between the world of Lowell Mason's classicism and the emergence of the 19th-century gospel style. Much of his writing was done for Sunday School collections, where the strictures of "acceptable style" were not so pronounced. He deserves a post of his own, when I can get around to it!

This tune is not particularly remarkable; it is well-crafted and functional, as can be expected from Bradbury. There is a serenity in the frequent repeated notes that suits the text well, and is probably no accident.


"Asleep in Jesus." Cyberhymnal.

"Margaret MacKay." Cyberhymnal.

"Durhams in the Peninsula." English Light Infantry.

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