Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Thoughts on hymns. . .

One of the distinctive characteristics of Lutheran hymnody is that it is catechetical -- it teaches!  The words are a reflection of God's Word to us, telling the story of the fall, the destruction of sin, the promise through the ages, and its fulfillment in the crucified and risen Jesus.  They do a marvelous job of presenting the Gospel in context and are very careful to make sure that through them we sing Christ.

English hymnody is certainly no match for the great Lutheran chorales in this regard.  It does not need to be.  English hymnody soars in the prayerful form of a response to this Gospel.  Here is one less obvious example, this one by John Wesley:

O Thou who camest from above,
the pure celestial fire to impart
kindle a flame of sacred love
upon the mean altar of my heart.

There let it for thy glory burn
with inextinguishable blaze,
and trembling to its source return,
in humble prayer and fervent praise.

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
to work and speak and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire,
and still stir up thy gift in me.

Ready for all thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat,
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make my sacrifice complete.

Or listen to it here.

Another profound example is the hymn of the day for All Saints and a staple of funerals:

Finally, we might turn to the beloved evening hymn "Abide with Me."

Let's face it.  For some (too many) the only catechesis they get is through hymns and the Divine Service.  While I do not in anyway mean to diminish the value of the liturgy to teach the faith, hymns are more, shall we say, portable.  Any smart Pastor or parish musician will make sure that the bulk of the hymns on Sunday morning teach the faith by giving us opportunity to sing the Word of the Lord He has spoken to us.  But that does not mean that we should not give ample opportunity to sing reflective, prayerful, and responsive texts as well.  It is not a choice but a balance.  While not every Lutheran chorale is singable, not every prayerful text is worthy of being sung and hymns should be chosen with great care, a balance of known and unknown, the predominance of catechetical hymns to tie directly with the pericopes of the day, and a responsive text or two to help us form into prayer for us and the high calling of our daily lives what we have heard and sung in the story of God's act for our redemption through Jesus Christ.


Janis Williams said...

Ah, yes, but the problem today is twofold: We do not easily remember what is not catchy (or is that kitchy?). And too often we do not listen to our own voices singing such wonderful, weighty words...

Tapani Simojoki said...

I couldn't agree more with your argument.

However, I am going to have to post a protest. Wesley's hymn, which you quote, is soaring in two senses: it's lyrical art and the beautiful music to which it is set. However, it doesn't deserve a mention amongst the other two gems referred to here, as it (verse 4 in particular) is one of the more blatant expressions of Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection (Wikipedia summary here). John Wesley took some of the worst aspects of continental pietism and combined it with what would become Anglican evangelicalism—not a happy mixture. This hymn, like many others by Charles Wesley, was written to propagate these ideas. I don't think they deserve to be propagated (for the same reason, another Wesley classic, "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling", has been crucially altered by one word in LSB, and necessarily so).

But, as I said, the argument of what you write here is one that deserves to be heard and repeated, before it's forgotten altogether.