Saturday, May 28, 2011

Built on a Rock

Praise for the Lord #82

Words: Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, 1837; translated by Carl Doving, 1909
Music: KIRKEN, Ludvig M. Lindeman, 1840

Nikolai Grundtvig (1783-1872) is perhaps the most prominent Danish thinker next to Kierkegaard, and had a great impact on religious thought in that nation, as well as being a democratic reformer and promoter of public education. A child of the Romantic era in arts and literature, he accused the Lutheran state church of having become a rationalist abstraction, and argued instead for the historicity of the church as the revealed, miraculous body of Christ. Unable to maintain a pastorate because of his views, he was nonetheless made a bishop--without a diocese--and remained a prominent if controversial voice in his generation.

Grundtvig was also an important historian, and did some of the earliest scholarly work on the Norse eddas (the great repositories of pagan Scandinavian history and mythology), as well as an important translation of Beowulf that advanced the study of the Anglo-Saxon language. From his own poetry, however, he is best remembered as a hymn-writer. His Sang-vaerk til den danske kirke ("Vocal works for the Danish church"), a five-volume collection published between 1837 and 1881, is considered one of the greatest contributions to Scandinavian hymnody.(Britannica)

Grundtvig's desire to reconnect to the living church founded by Jesus Christ, and his faith that Christ's church is ever present if we will seek to enter it, inspires this beautiful hymn. Surprisingly, this hymn was not included in Elmer Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church (the starting point for Praise for the Lord), even though Jorgenson, the son of Danish immigrants to the United States, could hardly have been unaware of Grundtvig. The translator of this text, Carl Døving (1867-1937), was a Norwegian immigrant to the U.S. who pastored Lutheran churches in New York and Chicago. He is best known, however, as a translator of Scandinavian hymns.("Døving")

Stanza 1:
Built on a rock the church doth stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land,
Bells still are chiming and calling;
Calling the young and old to rest,
Calling the souls of men distressed,
Longing for life everlasting.

The pathos of Grundtvig's description is peculiarly modern; this is not only an oppression of the church from without, but also by the far more deadly enemy of apathy. Grundtvig had rebelled against the 18th-century Englightenment's tendency toward a dry rationalism that removed God from daily life; but he lived to see that when the 19th century turned away from rationalism, it was not turning in the direction of God. The distant, depersonalized "God" of rationalism was replaced with an imminent but even more depersonalized "God" experienced through nature, mysticism, even paganism, and always on the terms of subjective experience. The decline Grundtvig saw continued, of course, into the secularism and postmodernism of the 20th century. Having turned this way and that looking for an answer (that is, an answer other than the God of the Bible), much of the "Christian West" has now stopped looking at all.

But as Grundtvig points out, the church as it really is--the kingdom that "is not of this world"(John 18:36)--is alive and well, because it is built on a Rock. Many hymnals give the title of this hymn as "Built on the Rock," though we need no such specificity; "For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ."(1 Corinthians 3:11)

The quality of a building's foundation does not guarantee its future longevity, but it certainly can guarantee its failure! The famed "leaning tower" of Pisa is perhaps the most renowned engineering failure of this sort. Likewise, any church built on merely human wisdom is bound to be as flawed as its originators. But God had in mind a church. Paul told the Ephesians,
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that He has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Ephesians 3:8-11)
The church is part of a "mystery hidden for ages," through which "the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known." The church is part of the "eternal purpose" of God; it was not an accident or an afterthought.

The foundation of that church is eternal, because the foundation is Christ Himself: "Behold, I am laying in Zion a Stone of stumbling, and a Rock of offense; and whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame."(Romans 9:33, cf. Isaiah 8:14) Christ's church exists because of this fact, as famously stated in Matthew chapter 16:
[Jesus] said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it."(Matthew 16:15-18)
The true church rests first on the fact of Christ's divinity, and then on obedience to His authority and His teachings: "Everyone then who hears these words of Mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock."(Matthew 7:24) The true church of Jesus Christ acknowledges the authoritative word of God, and is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone."(Ephesians 2:20)

Scripture shows us that the building up of a local congregation of Christ's church must follow these principles as well. In 1 Corinthians chapter 3, Paul discusses the process by which the congregation in Corinth was planted: "According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it."(v.10) Did Paul lay another foundation in addition to what Jesus said in Matthew 16? No, for in the very next verse he asserts, "For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ." Paul was the first, however, to preach the gospel of Christ in that city. And as he indicates in verse 10, others built up the church in Corinth on that same foundation.

Paul warns at the end of verse 10, however, "Let each one take care how he builds upon it." It is possible for a church (in the local, temporal sense) to start on the right foundation and later go wrong. Some in modern times have even pulled the foundation out from under themselves, denying the basic doctrine of Christ's divine work. "But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: 'The Lord knows those who are His.'"(2 Timothy 2:19) Just as a church can go wrong, it can also get back right; wherever followers of Christ clear away the flawed construction, and start over again from the correct foundation, they may build up Christ's church in that place.

Jesus said at the end of the famous passage in Matthew 16, "And the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." Death and hell could not prevail against its founding, because Jesus rose from the grave having completed His work of redemption. Death and hell could not prevail against it when its enemies sought to wipe out the infant church in its cradle at Jerusalem; in fact, God turned the church's greatest persecutor, Saul, into its greatest evangelist, Paul.(Acts chapters 8-9, cf. chapters 22, 26) Death and hell will never prevent its revival; though it seems to disappear in one place or time, it will appear again in another. And death and hell can never touch those millions of saints in the church triumphant, waiting in paradise for the final gathering in of their brothers and sisters still on this earth, and those still to come.

Stanza 2:
Not in our temples made with hands
God, the Almighty, is dwelling;
High in the heavens His temple stands,
All earthly temples excelling;
Yet He who dwells in heaven above
Deigns to abide with us in love,
Making our bodies His temple.

Grundtvig takes another tack from his opening lines about "crumbling spires;" the loss of a physical edifice does not matter, because the church was never about the building. As a young man Grundtvig likely witnessed the destruction of Copenhagen's medieval Church of Our Lady, during a British naval bombardment in the Napoleonic Wars; this might in fact be the source of his imagery.(Wikipedia) But the greater part of his controversial message concerned what he saw as the crumbling edifice of the state church, a work of human hands that was equally subject to decay and eventual death. By contrast Grundtvig points to the fact that "Christ is the Head of the church, His body, and is Himself its Savior."(Ephesians 5:23) It is a kingdom "not of this world,"(John 18:36) both in physical location and also in its source of authority. It is built by Christ Himself and guided by His Spirit, and is not meant to be governed by the traditions or philosophies of His subjects.

Solomon understood, at the dedication of his great temple, that God does not need our advice in building His house: "But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built!"(2 Chronicles 6:18) Likewise, one of the great lessons for us from the excruciatingly detailed and repetitive descriptions of the construction of the earlier tabernacle, which take up much of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, is that God's house was to be built God's way; He didn't ask for the advice and improvements of the Israelites.

Paul echoed this fact in his sermon in Athens:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.(Acts 17:24-25)
If this was the case for physical temples, why would it be any more true of a church today "made by man?" But God appointed His Son "as Head over all things to the church."(Ephesians 1:22) It is His church we must strive to be, not consisting in buildings, traditions, councils, conferences, or any other work of human origin, but instead being "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in Whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord."(Ephesians 2:20-21)

Paul goes on to say that, "In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit."(Ephesians 2:22) The beautiful truth of God's indwelling Spirit in His church and in the lives of Christians is introduced in the final line of the second stanza, and is the subject of the third:

Stanza 3:
We are God's house of living stones,
Built for His own habitation;
He fills our hearts, His humble thrones,
Granting us life and salvation;
Were two or three to seek His face,
He in their midst would show His grace,
Blessings upon them bestowing.

Grundtvig is no doubt referring to 1 Peter 2:5, "You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." Paul develops this idea further, in two corollary passages in his first letter to the Corinthians, bringing home the practical importance of this teaching:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.(3:16-17)

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, Whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.(6:19-20)
The English Standard Version notes that in the first passage, the Greek pronoun rendered "you" is distinctly plural ("y'all" in Southern U.S. English). This passage follows Paul's discussion already mentioned, in which he speaks of Christ as the only foundation of the church (v.11), and warns of the necessity to build carefully (v.10). It is enough that we are told to obey; but now we see the great reason behind the warning--we in the church are the dwelling place of the Spirit of God.

Consider the holiness with which the Hebrew temple was regarded. What would have been the fate of the Israelite who dared to deface the temple, or even to speak ill of it? And yet, how often do Christians speak ill of the church, "despising the church of God,"(1 Corinthians 11:22) and act in ways that are divisive and destructive to the faith of others? "Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her,"(Ephesians 5:25) and will we dare disrespect His bride? "So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church."(1 Corinthians 14:12)

Consider as well, that there were times in the history of the Hebrew temple when it fell into disrepair, or even worse, into misuse. King Hezekiah came to the throne at the end of a period of neglect, and on his orders the Levites "consecrated themselves and went in as the king had commanded, by the words of the Lord, to cleanse the house of the Lord."(2 Chronicles 29:15) The young king Josiah had to undo the idolatry of his father Amon, who had perverted the worship of the temple; in 2 Kings 23 we read of his determined efforts to take everything out of the temple that did not belong there.

Jesus followed the same practice when He drove the merchants out of the temple who had set up shop there, fulfilling the prophecy, "Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up."(John 2:17, cf. Ps. 69:9) Is His living body, the church, any less holy than the physical temple of the Hebrews? If we seek to be a part of His church, is it not likewise proper to follow His example, and the examples of two of the best kings of Judah, in clearing out anything that does not belong there "by the words of the Lord?"(2 Chronicles 29:15)

But though Paul calls the church as a whole a temple of God, in the second great passage on this subject, Ephesians 6, he informs us that we are also temples of the Holy Spirit individually. Just as the conduct of the church should be holy and fitting for His indwelling, so our individual lives should be fit for His presence. Just as Hezekiah and Josiah cleaned out anything unwholesome or idolatrous from the temple in Jerusalem, just as Jesus drove out the moneychangers who perverted the temple from its holy purpose, so we should clean out sin from our lives, confessing it and repenting of it, being determined to keep the body and mind a pure and holy dwelling place for our Creator's presence.

Stanza 4:
Yet in this house, an earthly frame,
Jesus the children is blessing;
Hither we come to praise His Name,
Faith in our Savior confessing;
Jesus to us His Spirit sent,
Making with us His covenant,
Granting His children the kingdom.

In his classic satire The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis gives this imagined advice from a senior devil to a junior devil on the practical matter of winning back a soul who has been lost to the "Enemy" and begun attending church:
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. . . .

Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like 'the body of Christ' and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really containes. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy's side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.
It is hard for us to see, Sunday by Sunday, that what we are striving to be is really something of eternal importance, both to ourselves and to others. Perhaps if we in the United States had to meet in secret, if we had to walk for miles to attend a worship service, if we lived in such an utterly secular society that our faith was a constant source of ridicule and ostracism--and there are brothers and sisters in many parts of the world in just such situations--we might realize the actual beauty and worth of the church.

If we are in Christ, we are in His body; so if we are in Christ, we are in His church. We can no more be "in Christ" without being in "the church, which is His body" than I could say that I have a finger that is mine, but is not and has never been connected to my body. And what wonderful blessings are found "in Christ!" This is the thought of this final stanza--that God "blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing,"(Ephesians 1:3) an extravagance of blessings that includes:

  • Redemption (Rom. 3:24)
  • Grace (1 Cor. 1:4)
  • Forgiveness (Eph. 4:32)
  • Reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19)
  • Salvation (2 Timothy 2:10)

  • New creation (2 Cor. 5:17)
  • Freedom (Rom. 8:2)
  • Sanctification (1 Cor. 1:2)
  • Victory (2 Cor. 2:14)
  • Eternal glory (1 Pet. 5:14)

And these are just some of what Scripture promises we will receive. Paul assured the church in Philippi, "My God will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus."(Philippians 4:19) But these promises are to those who are in Christ, and thus in His body, the church.

Grundtvig mentions here the chief avenue through which these blessings continue to flow to Christ's church, that is, through the Spirit of God that dwells within this "living temple."(1 Corinthians 3:16) Paul expanded on this theme in the second half of his letter to the church in Ephesus:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call--one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.(Ephesians 4:1-6)
The Spirit lives within the church, and is the guarantor of the new covenant, "by Whom you were sealed for the day of redemption."(Ephesians 4:30) "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit."(1 Corinthians 12:13) It was God's will thus to bring together all His new creation into one kingdom under His Son, as this hymn notes in its closing line. "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."(Colossians 1:13) "Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe."(Hebrews 12:28)

About the music:

Ludvig M. Lindeman (1812-1887) was the most prominent member of a veritable dynasty of Norwegian musicians. His father, Ole Lindeman (1769-1857), was organist for the Church of Our Lady in Trondheim, and edited the first major collection of Norwegian chorales. Two of Ludvig's brothers were also church organists. Ludvig's son, Peter (1850-1930), co-founded the Christiania Conservatory with his father, and later directed the Oslo Conservatory. His grandson, Trygve (1896-1979), directed the Oslo Conservatory until 1969.

Ludvig was also primarily an organist, and participated in the 1871 dedication of the new organ at the Royal Albert Hall. But though most of his music career was spent in church music, he had an avid interest in the folk music of his country. As Bartok would later do in Hungary, and Grainger in England, Lindeman tramped through the hills and valleys of Norway collecting the music of the people. Though he displayed the unfortunate 19th-century characteristic of "correcting" and "improving" the results, no doubt much of this might otherwise have been lost as the folk traditions began to disappear in the 20th century.(Grinde)

This particular tune was written for the 1840 Christ­elige Psalm­er published by Wexel in Oslo.("Built") The melody is not minor, but actually Dorian mode, a close cousin. (If you play a scale on the piano starting on D, but play only white notes, that's Dorian. It's a common scale in European-based folk styles, from the Tudor-era "Greensleeves" right down to the theme from Gilligan's Island.) Technically the Dorian scale on D differs from the natural minor scale on D in that it has a B-natural instead of a B-flat; but in actual practice, the "melodic minor" form of the minor scale would often raise the B-flat and C pitches when going up to the tonic, and the Dorian scale often uses a C-sharp to make a strong cadence.

The biggest "Dorian" feature of this melody is in the second phrase, when the melody runs A, B-natural, C, A, F, G, E, D. In D minor this would have been a B-flat, and it strikes the ear a little funny at first. The melody actually never uses B-flat at all, but the other appearances of the B-natural are more woven into the harmonic progressions, and just seem like logical necessities of writing harmony in a minor key. Other examples of Dorian mode in Praise for the Lord include the American folk hymn, "What Wondrous Love is This," and the Lutheran chorale, "Jesus, Priceless Treasure." Lindeman really does a commendable job of harmonizing this modal tune in a very singable fashion.


"Grundtvig, N.F.S." Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., 32 v. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2002, v.5, p.523.

"Carl Døving." Cyberhymnal.

"Church of Our Lady (Copenhagen)." Wikipedia.

Grinde, Nils. "Lindeman." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, 20 v. New York: MacMillan, 1980, v.11, pp.1-2.

"Built on the Rock." Cyberhymnal.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Brief Life is Here Our Portion

Praise for the Lord #81

Words: Bernard of Cluny, c. 1140; trans. John Mason Neale, 1849
Music: ST. ALPHEGE, Henry J. Gauntlett, 1852

Bernard of Cluny (fl. mid-12th century) was also known as Bernard of Morlaix, a village of Brittany in northwestern France. He was a Benedictine monk who was at the great abbey of Cluny during the middle of the 12th century, where he wrote his major work, De contemptu mundi ("On contempt of this world," also sometimes identified by its opening line, "Hora novissima"). This is a significant Latin poem, of nearly 3,000 lines; the entire Latin text is available through Wikisource, but I have not found a complete English translation online. Bernard rails against the worldliness of his day, and is equally stern in his rebukes of the laity and the clergy, even criticizing some highly placed church officials. In a time that saw growth in trade and urbanization across Europe, he called on his fellows to remember "the transitory nature of all material things and the permanence of spiritual values."(Comaskey)

Bernard's poem came under the eye of John Mason Neale, one of the most infuential English translators of ancient and medieval Christian hymns (discussed at more length in my post on the hymn "All Glory, Laud, and Honor"). He first translated the short selection published by Dean Trench in his Sacred Latin Poetry, a mere 95 lines out of the original, and considerably altered. Trench's arrangement began with the line, "Hic breve vivitur," from which Neale made his first translation of the current hymn, "Brief life is here our portion."

His appetite whetted, Neale published a translation of a longer section (218 lines of the original), more in keeping with the original order of the material. This was published as The Rhythm of Bernard de Morlaix, Monk of Cluny, on the Celestial Country in 1858. It was also included in the second edition of Neale's Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences. From this translation out of Bernard's much more lengthy poem have come several hymns, the most lasting of which have been "Jerusalem the Golden" (begins p. 81 in this edition of Neale's book) and the hymn under discussion, which begins on p. 76. The four-stanza version of this hymn, found in Praise for the Lord, cherry-picks from a fairly lengthy section. Stanza 1 is at the top of page 76; stanza 2 is at the top of 77; stanza 3 is the next-to-last quatrain on p. 78, with some alteration of the first two lines; and stanza 4 is at the top of p. 79. Other versions of this hymn have included as many as twelve stanzas, and the selection of stanzas differs widely.(Julian)

Neale took considerable liberty in translation, admitting that,
I have here deviated from my ordinary rule of adopting the measure of the original--because our language, if it could be tortured to any distant resemblance of its rhythm, would utterly fail to give any idea of the majestic sweetness which invests it in Latin.(Neale, 69)
The meter of the original is complex and quite captivating, with an internal rhyme in each line that exploits the rhythmic vitality of the language, as well as its regularity in word endings (Don't try this in English!):

Hic breve vivitur, hic breve plangitur, hic breve fletur.
Non breve vivere, non breve plangere, retribuetur.

The above two lines, from which come the first stanza of our hymn, are just one pair out of nearly 3,000, and show the considerable skill of Bernard; Neale's translation, on the other hand, shows the wise discretion of a skilled translator.

Stanza 1:
Brief life is here our portion;
Brief sorrow, short-lived care:
The life that knows no ending,
The tearless life is there.

This stanza is translated from book 1, lines 167-168, of Bernard's original:

Hic breve vivitur, hic breve plangitur, hic breve fletur.
Non breve vivere, non breve plangere, retribuetur.

In a rough, fairly literal translation this is:

Here briefly we live, here briefly we grieve, here briefly we weep.
Not briefly to live, not briefly to grieve, that will be the repayment.

My Latin skills are rusty, but hopefully this helps to convey some of the sense of the original, and also to highlight Neale's skill in paraphrasing it in singable verse.

Job, who had good reason to know, said, "Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble."(14:1) In fact the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Testament is unanimous in this observation:
For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?(Ecclesiastes 6:12)

As for man, his days are like grass;
He flourishes like a flower of the field;
For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.(Psalm 103:15-16)
Psalm 90, attributed to Moses, makes the same observation along with some practical advice:
The years of our life are seventy,
Or even by reason of strength eighty;
Yet their span is but toil and trouble;
They are soon gone, and we fly away.

. . . So teach us to number our days
That we may get a heart of wisdom.(v. 10,12)
There is surely more than enough evidence that our time is short, and we have nothing to gain by avoiding the fact. But Psalm 90 contrasts this idea with another, equally powerful truth:
Before the mountains were brought forth,
Or ever You had formed the earth and the world,
From everlasting to everlasting You are God.

. . . For a thousand years in Your sight
Are but as yesterday when it is past,
Or as a watch in the night.(v. 2,4)
That last verse, contrary to the recently disproved proclamations of those who would use it as a secret decoder ring to determine the end of the world, asserts instead that God's relationship to time is, well, not like ours. We perceive only one moment at a time, and whether it seems to go by slowly or quickly, time to us is a one-way street; God stands above and beyond this. The serene peace of His presence is not ruffled by the mad rush of time in this world; He is the One whose name is simply, "I AM."(Exodus 3:14)

Bernard encourages us to try, however feebly it may be, to grasp a bit of God's perspective. Whatever happens to us in this life, for good or ill, it is over quickly. And thus whatever suffering we face for the sake of Jesus, it will someday pale in comparison to the peace and joy that wait for us.

Jesus spoke of eternal life over and over again, calling us to look up from the bustle of daily life and try to glimpse that far horizon:
Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.(John 4:14)

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.(John 5:24)

Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.(John 6:27)

For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.(John 6:40)

I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.(John 10:28)
But He was equally persistent in teaching that we must accept the cost of discipleship, whatever it might be, and that we should put it in the eternal perspective:
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for My sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.(Mark 10:29-30)

Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.(John 12:25)
When we are little children, we have a hard time keeping short-term and long-term issues in perspective. We want what we want NOW, and why on earth would we have to WAIT, much less have to endure something unpleasant in the meantime? We who are adults understand, of course, that the child lacks the maturity and perspective to weigh the relative value of things.

Now, when it comes to our perspective on this life and eternity, we are also little children. But we can all reach toward that wisdom that the apostle Paul had learned, and expressed in review of the hardships of his life:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed . . .

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.(2 Corinthians 4:8,17-5:1)
Stanza 2:
And now we fight the battle,
But then shall wear the crown
Of full, and everlasting,
And passionless renown.

This is from book 1, lines 183-184:

Sunt modo proelia, postmodo praemia, qualia? plena,
Plena refectio nullaque passio, nullaque poena.

Roughly translated as:

Now there are battles, afterwards rewards, of what kind? Full,
Full restoration without suffering, without pain.

Neale's choice of the word "passionless" is of course a cognate to the Latin wording of Bernard, but is unfortunate given the changes in the meaning of the word "passion" over the centuries. In Bernard's Latin it clearly means "suffering," as we still use it in speaking of Christ's Passion. This was the meaning it had in its first adoption into English, but over the centuries a secondary meaning arose to include any strong, overwhelming emotion. In Neale's era the older meaning was still primary; it is the first definition given, for example, in the first edition (1909) of the Oxford English Dictionary. Certainly in the context of a hymn, Neale's original readers would have taken "passionless" as he intended, "free from suffering."

But in the century-and-a-half since his time, the secondary meaning has become primary, and the earlier meaning has all but disappeared except as a specific theological term for Christ's suffering. The word is used now either in the context of a strong zeal for something, or more specifically in speaking of emotional or physical desire for another person. This stanza now has an unfortunate hitch created by the change in meaning; describing heaven as "passionless" implies something entirely different to the modern reader than what Bernard or Neale intended! But back to the text.

In this stanza Bernard may have had in mind, as Neale certainly did, Paul's haunting farewell words in 2 Timothy 4, verses 6-8:
For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing.
Here Paul references one of his favorite allegories, the footraces, for which the victor would receive a laurel; but perhaps he also intends the more serious use of the laurel wreath in the Roman military and civic tradition of granting a "triumph" ceremony to a victorious general.

Paul made much of the fact that earthly crowns were perishable: "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable."(1 Corinthians 9:25) The actual material of the laurel wreath would wither and fade rather quickly; and in the same way, the famous athlete or general of one day is often forgotten the next. Jesus introduced yet another contrast when He told the church at Smyrna, "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life." The laurel wreath of the athlete was of no intrinsic value, and had to be defended again and again, ultimately to be lost to the next big star. The laurel wreath of the Roman general was a precarious honor; such adoration from the masses was not always conducive, as Julius Caesar found out, to one's long-term well-being. But the "crown of life" is an honor and reward of substantial, enduring value--everlasting life in the joys of our Lord.

With this in view, we turn our attention back to the present. Paul warned Timothy, "Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called. . ."(1 Timothy 6:12) It is not a fight against "flesh and blood,"(Ephesians 6:12) but instead, looking at the context of 1 Timothy 6:12, it is a fight against compromising the doctrine of Christ (v. 3,14) and against materialism and worldliness (v. 8-10). (Sound familiar?) "Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm."(Ephesians 6:13)

Stanza 3:
The morning shall awaken,
The shadows shall decay,
And each true-hearted servant
Shall shine as doth the day.

This from is book 1, lines 227-228:

Mane videbitur, umbra fugabitur, ordo patebit,
Mane nitens erit, et bona qui gerit ille nitebit.

Translated as:

In the morning it will be seen, the shadows will flee, the order [of things] will be laid open,
In the morning it will be shining, and the goodness of him who endures, that will shine forth.

In Plato's allegory of the cave (Republic, book 7), a group of prisoners, chained in place and forced to face the same direction, have never seen any images except the shadows on the wall cast by the firelight coming from behind them. When one man escapes and returns to tell them of the aboveground world, they refuse to believe him; they cannot conceive of anything more "real" than the shadowy figures they have always known.

It is hard for us to grasp that what we can perceive with our senses is not all that exists. (For some it does, sadly, prove impossible.) But the Scriptures show us that God has been leading us, little by little, toward an understanding of His reality. The physical elements of ancient Hebrew worship were "a copy and shadow of the heavenly things."(Hebrews 8:5) God's law itself was "but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities."(Hebrews 10:1) "The substance belongs to Christ,"(Colossians 2:17) and His revelation of the next level of understanding caused confusion and outright malice. (Remember how Pilate misunderstood the nature of Christ's kingship?)

And by no means do we understand it all yet. "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is."(1 John 3:2) I am not entirely sure what that means, but I know it is something good! When that day comes, the shadows will be taken away, the light will shine clearly, and we will understand.

Along with that revealing of God's reality is the uncovering of our true selves. "Many who are first will be last, and the last first,"(Matthew 19:30) and I have no doubt there will be some big surprises on Judgment Day! There is a particularly moving scene in chapter 12 of The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis's parable of heaven and hell, that illustrates this. It begins with the narrator's description of a great heavenly procession:
Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.

I cannot now remember whether she was naked or clothed. If she were naked, then it must have been the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy which produces in my memory the illusion of a great and shining train that followed her across the happy grass. If she were clothed, then the illusion of nakedness is doubtless due to the clarity with which her inmost spirit shone through the clothes. . . . But I have forgotten. And only partly do I remember the unbearable beauty of her face.

"Is it? . . . is it?" I whispered to my guide.

"Not at all," said he. "It's someone ye'll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green."

"She seems to be . . . well, a person of particular importance?"

"Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things."(Lewis, 106-107)
In the unfolding of the chapter, it is revealed that Sarah Smith was a poor and simple housewife on Earth, the longsuffering spouse of a selfish and bullying husband, who nonetheless spread love and kindness to every child with whom she had contact; they were the spirits dancing before her in the procession. When God reveals us as we are, what will others see?

Stanza 4:
There God, our King and Portion,
In fullness of His grace,
Shall we behold forever,
And worship face to face.

The final stanza here is from book 1, lines 231-232:

Pars mea, Rex meus, in proprio Deus ipse decore
Visus amabitur, atque videbitur auctor in ore.

I roughly translate this as:

My Portion, my King, in the very glory befitting God,
By sight will ever be adored, and the Creator will be seen face to face.

"Auctor" is literally "Author," and carries with it the idea of "Originator." The expression "in ore" means literally "by the mouth," but is a figure of speech (part representing the whole) for being face to face, with the implication that the parties now have the opportunity to converse.(Smith & Hall, 280)

There are many things we sing about in our hymns concerning heaven; the beauty of the place, the lack of earthly sorrows, and the reunion with the saints being high on the list.Perhaps we focus on these because they are closer to the earthly joys that we can understand. But greater and higher than all of them is the privilege to be in the presence of Almighty God. It has always been beyond our ability; "No one has ever seen God."(John 1:18) Even though "the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend,"(Exodus 33:11) there was still a necessary distance between the fallen mortal and the holy immortal:
Moses said, "Please show me your glory."

And He said, "I will make all My goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you My Name 'The Lord.' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," He said, "you cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live."

And the Lord said, "Behold, there is a place by Me where you shall stand on the rock, and while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen."(Exodus 33:18-23)
We are promised a time, however, when this will change: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known."(1 Corinthians 13:12) What will it be like, to stand face to face before Him? When the day comes, some definitely will not like it, "calling to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who is seated on the throne . . .'"(Revelation 6:16) But if we seek to know Him and do His will in this life, if we seek to worship Him and honor Him, will it not be the greatest joy of all?
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?" I said to him, "Sir, you know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. "Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence."(Revelation 7:9-15)
About the music:

Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876) was a precociously talented musician who made his mark quickly within church music circles in 19th-century England. When his father became the new curate at Olney (coincidentally, the same position held by hymn-writer John Newton a few decades earlier), young Henry persuaded him to allow him to serve as church organist--at age nine! But on reaching young manhood, Henry was sent away to study law, considered a more respectable profession than music. (I have often wondered how people come to this conclusion.)

After setting up practice in London with his brother, however, Henry wandered from the path of moral safety offered by the legal profession. In the great city he had musical opportunities undreamed of; he studied with Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), son of Charles Wesley and one of the most prominent English composers of the Classical era, and actually had an offer to become assistant to Thomas Attwood (1765-1838), a pupil of Mozart who served as organist at St. Paul's Cathedral. He chose instead to serve as organist at St. Olave in Southwark, and became one of the most respected organists in the city, particularly noted for his innovative work in the design of the instrument, and had the highest compliment paid to his playing when Felix Mendelssohn recruited him for the 1846 premiere of the oratorio Elijah.(Cyberhymnal)

Gauntlett was quite prolific in the area of practical church music, though only a small percentage of his hymn tunes are still widely used. Best known of these is "IRBY," the traditional tune for the Christmas hymn "Once in royal David's city." Praise for the Lord also has Gauntlett's tune "ST. ALBINUS" set to Brian Wren's hymn on the Transfiguration, "Jesus on the mountain peak" (#930), and his harmonization of the "STUTTGART" tune by Christian Witt, sung to the text "God is love: His mercy brightens" by John Bowring.


Comaskey, B. J. "Bernard of Cluny." The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 18 v. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967-1989, v.2, 338-339.

Julian, John. "Hora novissima." A Dictionary of Hymnology. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892.

Neale, John Mason. Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences. 2nd ed. London: Joseph Masters, 1863.

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Great Divorce. New York: MacMillan, 1946.

Smith, William, and Theophilus D. Hall. A Copious and Critical English-Latin Dictionary. New York: American Book Company, 1871.

"Henry John Gauntlett." Cyberhymnal.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Beneath the Cross of Jesus

Praise for the Lord #80

Words: Elizabeth C. Clephane, c. 1869
Music: ST. CHRISTOPHER, Frederick C. Maker, 1881

Elizabeth Cecelia Clephane was born in Edinburgh in 1830, the daughter of the Sheriff of County Fife. She died at the untimely age of 39 in the town of Melrose on the Scottish-English border, and upon her death her hymns--all eight of them--were published under the title "Breathings on the Border" in the Family Illustrated magazine. The editor introduced them as follows:
These lines express the experiences, the hopes, and the longings of a young Christian lately released. Written on the very edge of this life, with the better land fully in the view of faith, they seem to us footsteps printed on the sands of Time, where these sands touch the ocean of Eternity. These footprints of one whom the Good Shepherd led through the wilderness into rest, may, with God's blessing, contribute to comfort and direct succeeding pilgrims.(Julian, 238ff.)
It is sobering to think of a life cut off so short, and leaving such a small handful of works behind; in fact, only two of Clephane's hymns have ever been sung much at all. But in these two she accomplished more, and touched more lives for good, than many people do in a full threescore and ten. Her other well-known hymn is "The Ninety and Nine," a song that in its day brought many thousands to their knees in repentance. "Beneath the Cross of Jesus" is a thoughtful contemplation of the meaning of the cross in our lives, and has been a rewarding text to study.

Stanza 1:
Beneath the cross of Jesus,
I fain would take my stand,
The shadow of a mighty rock
Within a weary land,
A home within the wilderness,
A rest upon the way,
From the burning of the noontide heat,
And the burden of the day.

Clephane uses an interesting constellation of metaphors for the cross: it is "shade," "home," "rest," "shelter," and "refuge." These images are made more certain by the phrase "a mighty rock within a weary land," probably referring to the miraculous provision of water during the Exodus, which Paul reveals was the work of Christ.(1 Corinthians 10:14) The second stanza refers to Jacob's journey through the wilderness and his camp at Bethel, where he unexpectedly (unexpectedly to Jacob, that is) encountered God.(Genesis 28)

The world outside this refuge is a "weary land," a "wilderness" of "burning . . . heat" and "burdens." It is not a home, but a "way" through which we are passing. Taken all together, I believe her intent was to portray this life as a dangerous journey, full of spiritual hardship and weariness, from which the cross is our surest refuge.

It should not be hard to prove the first point; just read Ecclesiastes and see if you do not find yourself nodding in agreement. Of the many profound passages in that treatise, perhaps this best sums up the point: "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun."(1:9) We will go on killing and mistreating each other; we will go on rushing toward early graves through worrying after material things that are just as perishable as ourselves; we will lift ourselves up in pride at our accomplishments, not realizing that a generation or two from now few if any will remember us accurately (if at all).

But in what way is the cross a "safe and happy shelter" by comparison? Wasn't it also a scene of pointless violence and tragedy? Violent and tragic, yes; pointless, no. Far from it; Paul says that "to us who are being saved it is the power of God."(1 Corinthians 1:18) It has the power to reconcile a sinful world to God,(Ephesians 2:16) putting away the sins made manifest by God's laws.(Colossians 2:14) Through it we can escape the weary futility of this world and have "peace by the blood of His cross."(Colossians 1:20)

Stanza 2:
O safe and happy shelter,
O refuge tried and sweet,
O trysting place where heaven's love
And heaven's justice meet!
As to the holy patriarch
That wondrous dream was giv'n,
So seems my Savior's cross to me,
A ladder up to heav'n.

Miss Clephane must have been thinking of Psalm 85:10-11,
Steadfast love and faithfulness meet;
Righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs up from the ground,
And righteousness looks down from the sky.
This passage comes from one of the Psalms of the Sons of Korah, an interesting coincidence (if you believe in such things). The Korahites were likely descended from the same Korah who led an ill-fated coup against Moses in Numbers 16; but though he and his followers met a dramatic and sudden end, Numbers 26:11 points out that "the sons of Korah did not die." Interesting indeed that the Psalms of the Sons of Korah so often touch on the need for reconciliation with God, and our hopelessness without Him.

The nature of the Atonement has called forth the best efforts of generations of theologians, and I see a good deal of truth in many of the theories put forth, as far as they go. But I suspect that at the bottom of it, we may not be capable of fully understanding the Atonement; we might have to be God to do so. What Scripture reveals plainly, however, we can rest upon with certainty. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever."(Deuteronomy 29:29)

All we who have reached a state of moral accountability have sinned. "Who can say, 'I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?'"(Proverbs 20:9) Paul asserts flatly in Romans 3:23, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." The result of sin is death, "for the wages of sin is death."(Romans 6:23) It is not just a physical death, but something far worse--a spiritual death that separates us from God. Paul reminded the Christians in Ephesus, "you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked."(Ephesians 2:1-2) Though there are often other more visible consequences to sins, this spiritual death is the most serious result, because unless it is undone it will be eternal.

We are utterly without power to fix this problem on our own. "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin."(Romans 3:20) Even the system of sin offerings God gave to the Israelites was without effect, "for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins."(Hebrews 10:4) Nor will it be through "works done by us in righteousness,"(Titus 3:5) as though we can make up for sin through our own efforts. When it comes to our sins, we have no bootstraps by which to pull ourselves up. And God's holiness cannot tolerate sin; "You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness."(Habakkuk 1:15)

But "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."(John 3:16) He is "not wishing that any should perish."(2 Peter 3:9) How does the infinitely just God fulfill the desire of His infinite love? "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed."(1 Peter 2:24) It was Jesus "whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins."(Romans 3:25) I don't claim to understand it fully, but I believe this much is clearly taught. It is on the cross that "heaven's love and heaven's justice meet." It is here that "righteousness and peace kiss each other."

Miss Clephane then turns to the somewhat odd yet thoroughly applicable story of Jacob's vision of the ladder reaching into heaven. We refer to it as "Jacob's ladder," but of course it was God's ladder. It reached from earth to heaven; it was revealed at a time and in a manner of God's choosing; and it completely changed Jacob's relationship to God. Jesus Himself referred to this incident, and connected it to His work of reconciliation: "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."(John 1:51)

Like the ladder Jacob saw, the cross of Christ reached from a sinful earth to the Holy of Holies in the presence of God.(Hebrews 10:19) It was the instrument through which God chose "to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross."(Colossians 1:20) The distance to be crossed is not one of space, but is instead a far greater gulf--the distance between sinfulness and holiness. Outside of Christ, that divide is impossible to cross; and after this lifetime, during which God's grace is extended, that gulf will be fixed forever.(Luke 16:26) But if we obey His gospel now, through Christ's sacrifice we can cross over to God's grace:
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him.(Colossians 1:21-22)
Like the ladder Jacob saw, this access to God's grace was revealed according to God's plan and at His choosing. We cannot ascend to heaven;(John 3:13) in fact we know from the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) the inevitable result of man's attempts to raise himself to reach God. The cross was something only God could do for us, and that He did at His pleasure. Jesus could say what only God could say: "I am the way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me."(John 14:6)

And just as Jacob laid his head to rest with no thought of seeing such a vision, but said in the morning, "Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it,"(Genesis 28:16) human wisdom could never have conceived of how God would bring about salvation through Christ. Would anyone have imagined that an instrument of shame and torture would become the hope of humanity's salvation? But God did,
making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.(Ephesians 1:9-10)
Jacob, prior to his vision of the ladder, does not seem a particularly godly man. Even after this experience, he had a long way to go; but this event marked a change in his life, the point at which he understood that he had a personal relationship with God. At the cross our lives are forever changed; we are not finished with our journey, but we are on the right road, the only road, that leads us home.

Stanza 3:
Upon that cross of Jesus,
Mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One
Who suffered there for me;
And from my smitten heart, with tears,
Two wonders I confess:
The wonders of His glorious love,
And my own worthlessness.

This stanza has always bothered me, and perhaps it has bothered you for the same reason. In fact I have often omitted it. Its emotional impact is terribly strong; but is what it says true, and fairly stated? The problem, of course, is the last line. Just how "worthless" are we to think ourselves?

We can certainly set aside for now the feel-good "I'm OK, you're OK" philosophy of the 1970s, as well as the "self-esteem" dogma of later decades. As bad as it is to feel worthless, it is no answer to turn everything to morally relativistic goo and say that all shame is wrong. When people do something wrong, I should hope they do feel guilt about it; the fact that you can feel ashamed of your behavior means that you have within you the desire to become better than you have been.

There is sense of "worthiness" to which we are expected to attain: a relative appropriateness of behavior, if not perfection. Paul frequently adjures us to "walk in a manner worthy" of our calling,(Ephesians 4:1) of the gospel,(Philippians 1:27) and of the Lord Himself.(Colossians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:12) Jesus even said of some of the faithful Christians in Sardis, "they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy."(Revelation 3:4)

But what is the proper way to speak of our worth, when we take it out of the human sphere and contemplate the holiness of God? There is certainly another sense in which our worth has to be considered as negligible:
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.(Romans 3:12, cf. Psalm 14:1-3)

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.(Isaiah 64:6)
When we try to consider the infinite attributes of God, we fail. We read what is revealed in nature and in the Scriptures, we can discuss them, but probably can't really grasp them beyond a limited degree. The same is true of understanding the distance between our holiness and God's holiness. The great Restoration Movement preacher John W. McGarvey said,
I wonder if any of us has ever realized what it is to commit sin. I believe that I would esteem above every other gift that could be bestowed upon me as a preacher, the power to adequately conceive what sin is, and to adequately set it before the people. A number of times in my ministrations, I have prepared sermons designed to set forth the enormity of sin; but I have every time felt that I made a failure. I found, I thought, two causes of the failure: first, a want of realization in my own soul of the enormity of it; and second, inability to gather up such words and such figures of speech, as would, with anything like adequacy, set it forth before my hearers.(McGarvey, 16-17)
I think McGarvey has it exactly right; our resistance to the idea of moral "worthlessness" before God is partly due to our desire to have a jury of our peers, rather than the Judge who "shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His truth."(Psalm 96:3) On some level we must certainly recognize that we have no worthiness within us that could make God obligated to save us.

Yet at the same time, we can see that we have an inestimable worth, far beyond any that we could attribute to ourselves: "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."(Romans 5:8) If you ever doubt your worth, consider what God was willing to suffer to save you. He certainly thinks you are worth saving--He took on the suffering of the cross, an event ever-present to His infinite mind, to provide you a way back to Him.

So here I must part ways with Miss Clephane's language. Yes, I defend Isaac Watts's reference to me as a "worm" in "Alas! And did my Savior bleed?" But that is simply a declaration of my mortality and inferiority, as a human being, before the I AM. It is a state, also, that was dignified through being shared with us by Jesus Christ: "But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people."(Psalm 22:6) To call myself worthless, however, except in relation to God's infinite worth, runs counter to the simple logic of Psalm 8:
When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have set in place,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
And crowned him with glory and honor.(3-5)
The love and blessing of God is my dignity and worth.

Stanza 4:
I take, O cross, thy shadow
For my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than
The sunshine of His face;
Content to let the world go by,
To know no gain nor loss,
My sinful self my only shame,
My glory all the cross!

I once thought this stanza seemed to say that the author desires a cloistered life, wrapped up in the love of God and untouched by the world outside. There is always that tension within the Christian, because contact with the world outside of Christ is often trying and even tempting; but we have no right to withdraw from the world to which Jesus told us to bring the good news of His love.

As I learned more about Elizabeth Clephane's life, however, I think I judged her too quickly. She seems to have been a quiet, withdrawn person by nature, who overcame her shyness only with great effort. Though she never married and had children of her own, she was devoted to teaching the local children about the Bible. She was nicknamed "the Sunbeam" by her neighbors, who appreciated her pure and sunny disposition. She and her sisters, though not wealthy, were noted for their charitable works in the community. And her hymns, though few in number, have reached out across the world to touch the lives of untold numbers of followers of Christ.(Bingham) She had done what she could.(Mark 14:8)

I believe instead that Clephane was referring to Paul's language to the Philippians:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.(3:7-8)
And also his similar statement to the Galatians:
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.(6:14)
Paul was certainly not "checking out" from his duty to the world. Rather, he was indicating that all the other things of this life no longer held any sway over him, because his eyes were fixed exclusively on that one point in time when earth and heaven met on the cross of Christ.

About the music:

Frederick Charles Maker (1844-1927) was an organist and choir conductor in Bristol. He lived and worked through the height of the Victorian era and, like many an composer of the era, remained in its lingering post-Romantic echoes well into the twentieth century. Maker is known for several hymn tunes, the most popular of which are the one under discussion, and the very similar "REST," the well-known setting of the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind."("Maker")

This is a favorite example of mine for demonstrating the characteristics of the Victorian hymn tune. It is wonderfully schmaltzy, and rich with examples of the melodic and harmonic language of the Romantic era of classical music.

  • On the last two beats of the first full measure ("cross of" in stanza 1), there is a fully diminished seventh: E-natural, G-natural, B-flat, D-flat. Though diminished 7th chords "normally" have a leading-tone function into the following chord (e.g. an Edim7 to F minor), this is what I jokingly call a "dysfunctional 7th," because it has no such relationship; in fact it holds two common tones with the chords on either side, and really seems just a chromatic decoration that does not affect the progress of the harmony. A more textbook name for this is a "common-tone diminished 7th." Very common in barbershop harmony as well!
  • From the tonic D-flat chord on "stand" (stanza 1) to the pickup chord of the next phrase ("The") is a chromatic 3rd relationship. The D-flat chord is followed by an F7, two chords that do not naturally exist in the same key. The note F is common between them and smooths over the change from A-flat to A-natural, which takes us outside the original D-flat key.
  • The second verse pair, (Stanza 1: "The shadow of a mighty Rock / Within a weary land") modulates quite smoothly to B-flat minor. On the final three chords of this section there is a really rich harmony and its resolution (Stanza 1: "wea- ry land"). The chord E-natural, G-flat, D-flat, B-flat is an "augmented 6th chord;" the augmented sixth is the E-natural to G-flat interval, here between the soprano and bass. With the D-flat added, it is a type specifically named the "German augmented 6th" (Don't ask, nobody knows why it is called that.) The augmented 6th is very dissonant and wants to resolve out to an octave, which it does on "land," resolving to F in each voice. I remember hearing this hymn as a kid and thinking, "Wow, that's a really funky harmony." It is. (Note to true music theory geeks: the composer avoided the usual parallel 5ths problem with the German A6 by dropping the D-flat out just before resolving.)
  • The F major chord at the end of the second verse pair ("land") is a half-cadence in the new key of B-flat minor, implying a return to B-flat; but the next chord is another chromatic 3rd relationship, shifting from F major to D-flat major.
  • The composer gets extra style points for the descending melody in the soprano during the preceding section, mirrored by the chromatically ascending bass line. This really builds the tension up to the augmented 6th chord and half cadence.
  • The melody has a couple of dramatic moments all by itself; the upward leap of a minor 6th beginning the second verse pair (1st stanza "The shad-"), and an even more extreme leap in the corresponding spot beginning the final pair of lines (1st stanza "From the burn-"). The latter is an upward leap of a tritone (diminished 4th), from G-flat to C; something most theory books would teach you not to do, or at least not without really knowing what you are doing. To make it even more intense, the C at the top of this leap is the leading tone of the key. In this case, the downward pull of the expected resolution of the tritone is stronger than the upward pull of the leading tone, but it is still an unusual moment in the melody and harmony.

Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology. New York: Scribner's Sons, 1892.

McGarvey, John W. "Sin and its Consequences." Sermons Delivered in Louisville, Kentucky. Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing, n.d., pp. 16-27.

Bingham, Jennie M. "The Ninety and Nine." The Cambrian, 15/6 (July 1895), 276ff.

"Frederick Charles Maker." Cyberhymnal.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Hymn Surgery"
by Jessie Brown Pounds

The editorial alteration of hymn texts is a longstanding source of confusion, irritation, and sometimes amusement. For example, I had the honor of leading congregational singing of the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of every blessing” at a wedding. For those who do not know, the Churches of Christ in this country have inherited a significantly altered version of the text, in which the first stanza reads,

O Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise!
Teach me ever to adore Thee!
May I still Thy goodness prove,
While the hope of endless glory
Fills my heart with joy and love.

The better known version, found in the majority of hymnals, is:

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise!
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above!
Praise the Mount! I'm fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love!

(Dr. Harold Fletcher of Oklahoma Christian University has suggested that the alteration was the doing of Restoration Movement leader Alexander Campbell, who was probably uncomfortable with the “flaming tongues” line; whether on doctrinal or aesthetic grounds is uncertain.)

The bride chose to use the version familiar to herself and her family, and had it printed in the program. But as I suspected, the groom's family knew the other; and at the rehearsal, when we came to the midpoint of that first stanza, the scene resembled what it must have been like when God confused the languages of the builders of Babel. Fortunately, with the addition of a politely worded call to attend to the lyrics in the program, things went smoothly enough at the wedding itself.

In the 1921 volume of Memorial Selections by Jessie Hunter Brown Pounds, a posthumous miscellany, there is an essay titled “Hymn surgery.” The date of writing is undetermined. In this piece, Pounds compares editing hymns to the practice of surgery: sometimes necessary, but only to be undertaken circumspectly. (Read the full text of the essay here:

Her theme is stated as follows: “By what right, we are asked, does one lay irreverent hands upon the work of a master, cutting out a line or a stanza here and altering a word or a phrase there? Has a dead-and-gone author no rights which posterity, as represented by the editors of hymn-books, is bound to respect?”(91-92) She addresses the topic under three main headings.

“One reason is that most hymns, especially old hymns, are too long for congregational use.”(92) A quick look at an 1804 Methodist hymnal shows that probably half of the hymns have six or more stanzas, and a few have more than ten. If one counts the “doubled” eight-line stanzas twice, about two-thirds of the hymns have the equivalent of six or more stanzas. But Methodist hymnals of a century later--the turn of the last century--had already made the transition to 4- and 5-stanza hymns, and the 6-stanza hymn is more the exception than the rule. (Primitive Methodist hymnals were an exception, and tended to retain more stanzas.)

In another example, Pounds mentions the editing of a poem--a text not necessarily intended to be sung, or to be sung in its entirety. “Miss Hankey's ‘Tell me the old, old story’ had thirty stanzas, written at intervals during years of invalidism, and naturally lacking in the unity necessary for a hymn until there had been a very careful process of elimination.”(92) This is a classic example of a usable hymn being extracted from an otherwise impractical work.

Another is "The sands of time are sinking," by Ann Cousin. This is a beautiful poem in its 19-stanza entirety, but the personal and geographical references make some stanzas less useful for a hymn, which must speak to many people, places, and times. And sometimes a different selection of stanzas might be made by two different editors, rather by accident than by design. A related factor here is the appearance of different versions of a translated work, and sometimes the mixing of two different translations of the same hymn. The “Beautiful Savior” stanza sometimes found as the fourth stanza of the hymn “Fairest Lord Jesus” is actually an alternate translation of the first stanza.

Pounds anticipates one possible objection to the editorial selection of stanzas:
It may be asked why the entire hymn is not published and ministers allowed to make the necessary choice of stanzas most suited to the occasion. The answer will be found in your own experience. If you know how the average minister treats the hymn-book you can judge whether or not his selections would be more wisely made than those of the much-maligned editor.(92-93)
This raises a point that both interests and concerns me. Is the presence of a large number of stanzas simply off-putting to modern singers? A careful selection of certain stanzas can put a different spin on a hymn, sometimes to very useful effect. (I have to thank brother Dan Collins, an elder of the Wingate Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee, for impressing this point on me through his thoughtful preparation of his song services.) I would almost always rather have more stanzas available, and simply choose the ones I wish to lead. There is an excellent stanza to Robert Grant's hymn, “O worship the King,” for example, that I have never seen in the hymnals of the Churches of Christ:

O tell of His might, O sing of His grace,
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space,
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm!

Very Scriptural (cf. Psalm 18), majestic, and thought-provoking. I would rather have it!

The second reason Pounds gives for the editing of hymns is sometimes a matter of literary taste, but also enters the realm of doctrine:
Another reason for elimination is the fact that good hymns often contain execrable stanzas. We often hear the judgment expressed that “When I survey the wondrous cross” is the noblest hymn in the language. Surely we should love it less rather than more if this stanza, with its crude figures and its obvious rhymes, were included...(93)
She then quotes the often-omitted third stanza,

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o'er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Perhaps “crude” is in the ear of the beholder. Pounds may have shared the squeamishness of some modern liberals who are shocked and offended at the “blood” and “violence” in our hymns and in our theology. But Jesus died a brutal death, and His blood did flow down His side--thank God!--just as described in this stanza. Watts visualizes the blood of Christ covering His body as a contrasting, holy counterpart to the purple robe that He had earlier been made to wear in scorn and mockery. The second half of the stanza refers to two important passages in salvation theology:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.(Romans 6:3-4)
Paul returns to this theme in Colossians, beginning in the second chapter: “With Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world . . .”(Colossians 2:20) He then expands on its practical application:
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.(Colossians 3:2-3,5)
Watts is reminding us that, just as Jesus died, so we must die to sin and no longer live in it. His death forever changed our lives, re-orienting our view of existence and our relationship to this passing physical world. “Then I am dead to all the globe / And all the globe is dead to me.”

In light of this strong point, it seems a little petty to criticize Watts’s less-than-Shakespearean poetry. “Robe” and “globe” rhyme, but “globe” is somehow out of place; we know he means “world” in the spiritual sense of “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” but it calls up an image of geography and the schoolroom instead. I would prefer a little edit here, replacing “globe” with “world.” It breaks the rhyme, but it is the rhyme of the 1st and 3rd lines, leaving the more prominent 2nd- and 4th-line rhyme intact. It would disrupt the rhyme scheme of the hymn as a whole, but it might be worth it to have a clearer and more direct expression of what Watts obviously meant. Still, even if I have to sing “globe,” I think the stanza is a keeper.

Pounds's final point touches an interesting question of our religious traditions and cultures. “The third reason for hymn surgery is that language and its content changes. There is the same reason for revising our hymns that there is for revising a translation of the Scriptures.”(93) She was speaking from the context of a momentous era in Bible translation--the first major new translation of the English Bible, the “English” Revised Version, came out in 1880, followed by its cousin, the “American Standard Version,” in 1901.

As much as I love the beautiful style and reverent handling of Scripture found in the King James Version, I am thankful that we have other English translations. I am thankful for the sake of the majority of English readers who have difficulty reading the language of 400 years ago, because it is more important that they hear the gospel than that they gain an appreciation for the King James Version’s eloquent style. I am thankful for my own sake, because I can read faithful, careful translations that take into account the discoveries we have made in four centuries of textual and historical studies.

But at the same time, I am sorry for those who have not been blessed to know the strong, powerful language of the King James Version. Even those who do not accept the Bible as God's word, have to admit that this translation has been a touchstone of the development of our language and culture. For the same reason I resist the idea of passing over a great old hymn just because its language is antique. If it is part of our heritage, and if it is high in quality, we are the poorer for its loss. There are many fine hymns in this category, including many of Watts’s, who for all his faults is still rightly called the “father of English hymnody.”

But what about careful editing and modernizing of language? It has happened already; sometimes the versions of hymns that we consider sacrosanct are actually edited a bit from their originals. I have mixed feelings about this. If changing out “Thee” and “Thou” for “You” makes a great old hymn acceptable to a new generation of worshipers, I am glad; I wish they could instead expand their cultural horizons instead, but if the style and more importantly the content of the hymn are still intact, it is all for the good.

Where is the threshold on antiquated language? When I first encountered the following stanza of “O sacred head now wounded,” I was in a quandary as a songleader:

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

The congregation would be fine with “Thou,” “hast,” “Thine,” “Lo,” “‘Tis,” and “Thy,” but “vouchsafe?” I had to look that one up myself, and I was fairly sure that it would be a real distraction in an otherwise excellent stanza. Since we were singing from PowerPoint, I did a quick edit to the slideshow and changed the last line to, “Look on me with Thy favor, and grant to me Thy grace.” Not exactly Shakespeare, but within the author’s intent and less distracting.

Pounds next introduces an interesting argument that sounds a bit condescending until you think about it:
The hymn-writer and the poet can not be put upon the same footing. The hymn-writer makes no claim to original thought. He simply expresses, in the best literary form at his command, the religious feelings possible to the body of Christian worshippers.(93)
Perhaps Pounds was looking down her nose a bit at the general quality of hymn texts, but I cannot help but agree with her main point.

We also sing very few hymn tunes and arrangements by the great Classical composers, for much the same reasons. The few tunes we have from Mozart and Beethoven are generally not church music as such, but are adapted from secular music. The chorale arrangements of Bach, and to some extent those of Mendelssohn, are definitely church music, but the harmonizations were meant to be sung by a choir and are difficult for congregational singing. The same is true of the arrangements by Vaughan Williams. (This doesn’t mean we can’t try, and we are the better for it if we can learn some of these!) Most of the successful hymn tunes are by relatively obscure writers who were willing to write in the self-limiting form of the congregational hymn, within the abilities of the average untrained singer.

To some extent the same must hold true for the texts. Though reading literacy is much higher than musical literacy, the difficulties of the text must not rise so high that they become a frustration or distraction to the congregation. (Here is another reason that the songleader needs to know the congregation well.) And for songwriters of today, it seems obvious that we would not want to deliberately use obscure or obsolete language, or to mimic the poetic styles of the past. Strong, plain language can get the point across--just read the Gettysburg Address in comparison to other speeches of its time!

Another variety of “hymn surgery” that deserves mention, but that perhaps was not such an issue in Pounds’s circle, is the editing of texts for doctrinal reasons. An example that may be observed in Praise for the Lord is #351, “Jesus is coming soon.” Here the entire 2nd stanza is omitted, which runs thus:

Love of so many cold, losing their homes of gold,
This in God’s word is told, evils abound.
When these signs come to pass, nearing the end at last,
It will come very fast, trumpets will sound.

Not that this is a great loss to English poetry if it is omitted, but it is worth discussing why. Churches of Christ for the most part (though not universally) do not believe that God left us a cosmic puzzle to sort out in predicting the end times; rather, we fasten on to the clear command of our Lord to “watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”(Matthew 25:13) We believe He will return, but we do not know when; and since none of us knows “what the day will bring forth,”(Proverbs 27:1) we do not know if we will go to meet Him first anyway! Thus the Lord’s command in Matthew 25 is eminently practical. Don’t obsess over obscure and contradictory theories; accept that any day may be your last, and certainly one day will be your last, and be ready.

Some congregations eschew this song completely, therefore, because of its fairly obvious premillennial overtones. Many will sing it, however, simply omitting the more overt “end times” third stanza. The editors of Praise for the Lord felt strongly enough about it that they simply omitted the stanza.

A more complex and surprising textual oddity is the ending of the first and last stanzas of Reginald Heber’s hymn “Holy, holy holy!” It is universally known with the ending, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” but one may be surprised to find that among the Churches of Christ many sing it with the words, “God over all, and blest eternally.” My nephew, who was not raised among Churches of Christ, was rather surprised at this alteration and once asked jokingly, “We are Trinitarian, aren’t we?” (We are.)

The original “blessed Trinity” text has been found in many mainstream hymnals among Churches of Christ, including the influential Christian Hymns series from Gospel Advocate (in no. 2 and no. 3 only; the hymn was not yet included in the first edition). It is also used in Sacred Selections, the editor of which was extraordinarily particular about the Scripturalness of song texts. I have found it in a few of Will Slater’s publications as well.

The altered text is found, however, in the most influential hymnal of all among Churches of Christ in the United States, Great Songs of the Church by Elmer Jorgenson. I have no doubt that the influence of Great Songs is the reason that this version of the text was used in the Howard Publishing hymnals such as Songs of the Church and Songs of Faith and Praise. Great Songs was the starting point for Praise for the Lord, so there is no surprise here either. The altered version also occurs in some Firm Foundation hymnals such as Majestic Hymnal.

But where did this version originate? In The Faith We Affirm: Basic Beliefs of the Disciples of Christ (Chalice Press, 1979), p. 52, Ronald Osburn claims that Alexander Campbell, one of the most prominent Restoration Movement leaders, originated this alteration in his own influential hymnals. Supposedly he was uncomfortable with the term “Trinity,” because it does not appear in the Bible, and holding to the principle of “calling Bible things by Bible names,” he simply avoided the word.

But according to John Wiegand, editor of Praise for the Lord, the altered lyrics came into use through the Fillmore Brothers publishing house in Cincinnati, who took the hymn from a Unitarian Hymnal without even knowing that the lyrics had been changed to agree with that viewpoint. Whichever origin is true, the traditional Trinitarian view is the norm in Churches of Christ, and I have seen no evidence that the use of the altered hymn is by design.

Two of the most striking examples of doctrinal alterations have happened to hymns by the same author, Frederick W. Faber (1814-1863). Faber was one of the Oxford Movement Anglicans who followed John Henry Newman into the Catholic fellowship, and his very beautiful hymns often reflect his changed theology. “Faith of Our Fathers,” for example, contained a stanza that does not appear in Protestant hymnals, for obvious reasons:

Faith of our fathers! Mary's prayers
Shall win our country back to thee
And through the truth that comes from God
England shall indeed be free.
Faith of our fathers! Holy Faith!
We will be true to Thee till death.

And if we follow Pounds's metaphor of “hymn surgery,” the Faber/Flowerdew hymn “Father of Mercies” is a veritable Frankenstein's monster! Faber's original hymn began in this way:

Mother of mercies, day by day
My love for thee grows more and more;
Thy gifts are strewn upon my way,
Like sands upon the great sea-shore.

The succeeding stanzas are devoted to an impassioned defense of the veneration of Mary. But non-Catholic hymnal editors found this opening stanza just too good to pass up. With the change of a word it was made a hymn to the Father, then matched up with two other stanzas from a hymn by Alice Flowerdew. It's a strange way to write poetry, and quite an affront to Faber's intent. But it made a great hymn, one that is a favorite of many people I know.

Jessie Pounds concludes saying,
Where a hymn has real value and beauty, and where it has become endeared to the church through the associations of generations, it is undoubtedly better that it should be slightly and wisely altered than that it should pass forever. . . . It seems reasonable to believe that most writers of hymns would prefer to have their work go on living and serving, even though, that this may be, a minor operation is sometimes necessary.(93)
I agree, but if we can extend the surgery metaphor just once more, let the hymnal editor remember: “First, do no harm.”

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bread of the World

Praise for the Lord #79

Words: Reginald Heber, c. 1825
Music: John S. B. Hodges, 1868

Reginald Heber (1783-1826) was a poet of considerable talent from a young age; during his education at Oxford he wrote the poem "Palestine," which won the Newdigate Prize, and received a warm reception from Sir Walter Scott at a private reading in his rooms--not a small accomplishment for a 19-year-old. Upon finishing his studies in theology, Heber was appointed vicar of Hodnet, in Shropshire, in 1807, where he remained for sixteen years. It is believed that all of his hymn-writing occurred during this period, but as the Anglican church did not adopt congregational hymn-singing on a regular basis during his lifetime, he did not live to see the impact his work would have.(Julian, 503)

Though a few of his hymns were published in journals before his death, the world would come to know his works through a posthumous collection, Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year. Published in 1827, this was the culmination of his own work and his adaptation of the hymns of others in an effort to coordinate hymns, Scripture readings, and sermons. John Julian gives him high praise in this remark: "The greatest evidence of Heber's popularity as a hymn-writer, and his refined taste as a compiler, is found in the fact that the total contents of his MS. collection . . . are in common use in Great Britain and America at this time."(Julian, 503-504)

Though this is less true a century later, few hymns match the lasting popularity of "Holy, holy, holy!," and some of his others are still well-known, such as "The Son of God goes forth to war" and "From Greenland's icy mountains." This latter song revealed a deep interest in missionary work that grew through the quiet years Heber spent in Hodnet. In 1823 he was offered the bishopric of the Anglican See of Calcutta, where he served until his untimely death, three years later, at the age of 43.(Julian, 503)

"Bread of the world" appears in Heber's collection, not in connection with a specific day of the church year, but in a section of miscellaneous hymns for special occasions. It bears the heading, "Before the Sacrament."

Stanza 1:
Bread of the world, in mercy broken,
Wine of the soul, in mercy shed,
By whom the words of life were spoken,
And in whose death our sins are dead.

Heber seems to be referencing the following passage from John, in which Jesus uses imagery so visceral that it is still shocking even in our jaded age.
"I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh."

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever."(John 6:48-58)
"Bread and wine" is a common figure in the Old Testament for the daily necessities of food and drink. Ecclesiastes 9:7 uses this expression: "Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart..." But it also frequently appeared in spiritual contexts--Melchizedek, the earliest priestly figure in the Bible, "brought out bread and wine" in his blessing of Abraham.(Genesis 14:18) The connection of "bread and wine" to "body and blood" draws closer in the initiation of the Passover, the "Feast of Unleavened Bread."(Exodus 12) The first occasion of this observance was accompanied by the blood of lambs painted on the doorposts and lintels as a mark of God's protection.

But Jesus' statement was still shocking. What could He mean by saying His body is food, and His blood is drink? What could He mean by promising, through them, the blessing of eternal life? And how on earth could He expect people to eat His flesh and drink His blood?

In explanation, He first compares Himself to the manna that fed the Israelites in the wilderness. Jesus is superior to that bread, because the generation that received the manna in the wilderness died in disobedience. Though it was miraculous bread from heaven, it fed only the body; they were spiritually unchanged. But the bread of Jesus' body feeds the soul; its sacrifice on Calvary brings us eternal life.

Hebrews 9:13-14 makes a similar comparison regarding the blood of Christ:
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Thus the effectiveness and superiority of the body and blood of Christ as spiritual food and drink is established; but how do we actually consume it? If it is spiritual, we must understand (as many of Christ's original hearers failed to do) that it is consumed spiritually. We first receive it when we receive Him into our hearts by obeying His gospel: "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit."(1Cr 12:13) Here the body and blood, food and drink, are in us and we in them, just as Jesus promised in John 15:4, "Abide in Me, and I in you." This figure is made visible through the holy symbols of the communion table: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?"(1 Corinthians 10:16)

But how do we continue to feast on this heavenly food and drink? If I may be permitted a sharp turn from the sublime to the mundane, we use a similar figure today when we say that sports fans "eat, drink, sleep, and breathe" the team that they follow. They are talking about the subject all the time; they speak of the atheletes as though they are personal acquaintances, and are endlessly speculating on their prospects. They are far better acquainted with the business dealings of the team than with the state of the national economy, and consider them more important.

They are excited days before a game and may be elated or despondent, depending on the outcome, for days afterward. The fan will dress in ceremonial garb celebrating the chosen team, even if watching the game at home alone. Do not attempt to contact these people while they are watching a game, unless it is about the game; and even then, wait until a commercial break. They are puzzled that others could be doing something else while the game is on, and that they are not aware of its importance. They support a massive industry of broadcast and print commentary on their favorite sport, which is followed with far greater consistency than are world events.

Now, our walk with Christ is a very different sort of thing--deeper and more meaningful, and therefore less outwardly showy. (I am not suggesting, for example, that we should wear "Team Jesus" baseball caps, wristbands, etc.) But the comparison is worth thinking about. Is Christ and His cause foremost in our minds? Do we find ourselves thinking about Him and talking about Him as a matter of habit? Do we clear our schedules in order to come worship Him? Do our friends know that there is no point in calling us or trying to make other plans with us on Sunday morning? Are we eager for any opportunity to read or hear more about Him? Do we rejoice at the progress of Christ's church, and weep at its losses?

Heber closes this stanza with a thoughtful contrast of life and death, both in the hands of Jesus. He spoke the "words of life," as Peter so wonderfully stated after many disciples had turned away: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."(John 6:68) These words, of course, are one way in which Jesus gives us spiritual life; for "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."(Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4)

Jesus is also the master over death (2 Timothy 1:10, Hebrews 2:14) and gives us victory over both spiritual and physical death, as is so beautifully illustrated in Romans chapter 6:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. . . . So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.(3-6, 11)
Stanza 2:
Look on the heart by sorrow broken,
Look on the tears by sinners shed,
And be Thy feast to us the token,
That by Thy grace our souls are fed.

After the thoughtful analysis of the elements of the Lord's Supper in stanza 1, Heber turns toward our personal relationship to this event in the form of a penitential appeal. The first two lines seem perhaps inspired by David's great psalms of penitence:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.(Psalm 51:17)

Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer.(Psalm 6:8-9)
When confronted with the holiness of Jesus' life and the perfect love shown in His death, how else can we respond? "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away;"(Isaiah 64:6) "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."(Romans 3:23)

But the body and blood of Christ remind us that our sinfulness is not the end of the story. Romans chapter 5 tells it simply enough:
But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.(v.20)

But God commends His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.(v.8-9)

For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.(v.6)

Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by Whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.(v.1-2)
We can never forget the tragedy of the price that was paid through this body and blood, but let us also rejoice, in deep, solemn, abiding joy, that what was death to Him is life to us.

About the music:

It was no accident that John Sebastian Bach Hodges (1830-1915) became a professional musician. Who would name a child that? Another musician, his father, Edward Hodges. The elder Hodges (1796-1867) was a prominent organist and church music composer in his native Bristol, and progressed so far in his studies that he received a doctorate in music from Cambridge. He later emigrated to Toronto, then to New York City, where he was the first organist of Trinity Church (he had the organ built to his specifications). He is perhaps most widely known, however, for his arrangement of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" which is set to the lyrics "Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee" in Praise for the Lord.("Edward Hodges")

His son, though burdened with the name "John Sebastian Bach," did not seem to resent the assumption that he would follow in his father's footsteps. Though he was ordained an Episcopal minister and spent the majority of his career as rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Baltimore, he made his mark in church music as well. He contributed this and a few other hymn tunes that passed into common use, including the once-popular Christmas carols, "Hark! What sounds are sweetly stealing?" and "Sing! Sing for Christmas!" But of more lasting influence was his editorship of the Book of Common Praise (Baltimore, 1868), one of several different works under that title that provided music to accompany the congregation's Book of Common Prayer.("J.S.B. Hodges")


Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology. New York: Scribner, 1892.

"Edward Hodges." Cyberhymnal.

"John Sebastian Bach Hodges." Cyberhymnal.