Learning to sing or chant mass parts

I have always served a small church. And for all but one year of my pastoral ministry I have doubled as the musician, which is how I actually began my service for Grace Anglican Church. As a result (by necessity) the selection of music has been part and parcel of liturgical planning. This is sometimes a fair bit of extra work for me, but also can be pretty rewarding for all of us in that the songs we sing usually tie closely with the Scriptures and prayers of the day. In fact, I’ve even started working on a booklet to collect the “best practices” I’ve developed (and learned from others) which will be available for sale sometime in the coming months.

One thing which is common in many Anglican (and Episcopalian) churches which we’ve only dabbled in, however, is the singing or chanting of mass parts. “Mass parts” is a phrase that refers to the parts of the mass, or Communion service, that are traditionally sung or chanted by a choir and/or the congregation. Traditionally there are quite a few of these, but the main ones are:

  1. the Kyrie
  2. the Gloria in excelsis
  3. the Sanctus
  4. the Agnus Dei

In the classical Prayer Book tradition, there is no Kyrie but instead the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) which could have chanted/sung responses, and the Gloria is placed near the end of the liturgy instead of near the beginning. And most of the old Prayer Books had no place for the Agnus Dei, either, come to think of it. But contemporary Prayer Books (and contemporized versions of the classical Prayer Books) restore all four of these to the liturgy one way or another. Every Anglican hymnal these days worth its salt has at least one (if not a handful) of different musical settings for these parts of the liturgy.

The main reason my church never got into these is because we used the 1940 hymnal for years, and then switched to the 2017 hymnal. The former only has the traditional-language texts for the liturgy and the latter has only one setting for the contemporary language that we use 96% of the year. When we had a different music minister for a little while, he brought in a contemporary Gloria and Sanctus, which we appreciated, but I was not able to keep them up when he was gone. In fact, after his departure I quickly became a hymnal-only musician, no longer having the energy to learn and teach contemporary-style worship songs. The demographics of our congregation matched this preference anyway, so it was not an issue one way or the other.

But this past year, coming out of COVID-tide, I’ve started taking these mass parts seriously. It was time to start singing or chanting these parts of the liturgy again. I started at the Easter Vigil this year, introducing the Gloria in excelsis Deo. The contemporary-language set in our new hymnal is the New Plainsong set by David Hurd, first copyrighted in 1981 and featured in the 1980 Episcopal hymnal. It’s not an especially ground-breaking new and exciting set of music, nor is it a re-make of one of the old classics, but it is stately and singable. Since Easter, we’ve sung that Gloria on the major Sundays of the year, but not every Sunday… yet.

Shortly thereafter I introduced the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy), which went over pretty well. We’ve been singing it ever since.

And now that we’re moving our worship indoors for the season I’m about to introduce the Agnus Dei which is nicely similar in sound and contour to the others. After about a month to get used to that, I’ll add the sung Kyrie (just threefold, not ninefold), and then we’ll have all four together for a solemn few Sundays before Advent.

In Advent it is traditional to omit the Gloria, so we will not sing or say it at all for those four weeks until it returns at Christmas. From there I will be free to use or omit some or all of these sung parts to emphasize the tone of the church calendar. We can sing everything on the most celebratory Sundays and other feast days, sing some of them on more ‘normal’ Sundays, or simply just speak them at penitential times. The solemnity of the liturgy style can become a tool in the celebration of the Gospel from week to week, and season to season.

As I was planning this, though, and preparing to type this up, I could just hear in my head the anti-traditionalists, as the ACNA is sometimes a bit infamous for, asking the question “and how will this help the mission of your church and its growth?” To which I will confidently reply that it will neither help nor hinder the missional character of Grace Anglican Church… at least directly. Instead, it will help teach us to worship with reverence, and perhaps to respect the Lord just that little bit more. And, with its periodic use and omission to accentuate the gospel that we proclaim over the course of the year, it may just help people grasp that gospel more nearly to their hearts. In which case, I dare say, we may become a people more apt for the missio Dei.

About the Phos Hilaron

Greek for “gladsome light”, Phos Hilaron is a hymn that was already considered a time-honored tradition over 1,600 years ago.  Functionally, it offers a word of praise while the lamps or candles are lit in a chapel or home for the evening.  Deeper, the lyrics describe the sanctification of time that good liturgy inevitably does: “as we come to the setting of the sun… we sing your praises.”  And yet, God is “worthy at all times to be praised.”  That “happy voices” are appropriate for the worship of God can be a stumbling block – what if the worshiper does not feel happy one day?  The idea of happiness in biblical literature, from which this hymn is certainly derived, is nearly identical with blessedness.  Like Psalm 1:1, “Happy/Blessed is the man…” we also ought to read here – God is worthy to be praised by the voices of God’s blessed people.  We are therefore comforted, also, that even if we do not emotionally feel happy, we know that there is a fundamental happiness, or joy, that we can derive from the blessings of God that we have already received.  This is spelled out with an example in the next line where Jesus is proclaimed as the “Giver of Life”, and celebrated with the final assertion that he is to be glorified “though all the worlds” – that is, saints in heaven and earth alike are united in the worship of the eternal God.

O gladsome light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,*
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,*
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,*
O Son of God, O Giver of Life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.

This anthem was introduced into the Prayer Book tradition in 1979.  Only one translation change has been made in this version: the “gracious light” has become a “gladsome light.”  It is a lamp-lighting hymn drawn from ancient Christian custom (especially in the Byzantine and Ambrosian rites), being referenced as far back as 379AD by St. Basil the Great.  Several metricized versions of this anthem can be found in Anglican hymnals.

The rubrics permit another hymn or Psalm to be used in its place, acknowledging the Western custom of having a variety of Office Hymns according to the season or occasion.

Singing through Hallowtide

Hallowtide is one of the nicknames for the period of time around All Saints’ Day – perhaps most especially from All Hallow’s Eve (October 31st) through the Octave of All Saints’ Day. Indeed, we do kind of need a name for the phenomenon of how modern Prayer Books direct that we should observe All Saints’ Day on the first Sunday in November. Last year we looked at that in a brief write-up here, so this year we’re taking a more devotional tack.

There are two groups of hymns to consider when looking at how to sing our way through Hallowtide: hymns about the Church Triumphant and hymns about the Church Expectant (or At Rest). You may be familiar with the Roman pair of All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day on November 1st and 2nd, honoring the Saints in heaven on the former and praying for the souls in purgatory in the latter. Obviously, the Anglican tradition does not teach the Roman doctrine of purgatory, so we have no need of All Souls Day. But many Anglicans today do observe a Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, looking at the mournful side of death (the other side of the coin in All Saints’ Day where we celebrate victory amidst death). So as we sing through Hallowtide we should consider both of these angles along the way.

Here are the hymns appointed in this Customary’s “daily hymnody” plan, remembering that the hymn numbers refer to Book of Common Praise 2017 or Magnify the Lord:

There are, of course, plenty of other appropriate hymns out there that you could draw in. These are just the ones that I selected from one hymnal for this particular week; there are others are scattered throughout the year on particular saints’ days.

After Hallowtide, you may also wish to consider some national hymns on November 8th through 11th, building towards Remembrance Day (Intl.) / Veteran’s Day (USA).

Customary Update: Communion options!

The Saint Aelfric Customary’s directions through the 2019 Prayer Book’s Communion liturgy is complete now. You can read it in full here.

One note of particular interest are recommendations for Communion Hymns based on the liturgical season, drawing from the lovely collection of thirty-seven (!!!) such hymns in the excellent REC hymnal. There is, of course, a lot of argumentation to be found among Christians concerning music, its accessibility, appropriate styles, and theological and biblical content. The subject of Holy Communion (or any sacrament, really) tends to suffer the most neglect in contemporary music, and sacramentology also tends to be something of a partisan battleground among Anglicans already, so making use of a set of lyrics that describe the Lord’s Supper can indeed be quite valuable for our congregations today.

Another feature that may appear somewhat strange here is the implementation of a little rubric in the 2019 Prayer Book’s liturgy authorizing “a sentence of Scripture at the conclusion of the Communion“, immediately before the Post-Common Prayer. Before the Reformation, each Mass had an appointed Communion Sentence. The 1549 Prayer Book reduced this complexity to a simple list of Sentences for the celebrant to choose from, and exploring that list is particularly interesting as it highlights the Reformation doctrine of faith much more prominently than the exaggerated sacramentalism of late medieval piety. Most subsequent Prayer Books have omitted this little piece of the liturgy, but now that it’s authorized again this Customary has seized the opportunity to restore the 1549 list, with a few additions from prior tradition. Check them out!

St. Mary Magdalene: From her love all fear hath fled

Happy Saint Mary Magdalene Day!  One of our scripture readings at Morning Prayer is special for observing this feast day: Luke 7:36-8:3.  This is an interesting case, so let’s take a closer look.

Like several New Testament characters (most notoriously the various men named James), the identity of Mary Magdalene has undergone some scholarly debate.  She has at times been identified as the same person as Mary of Bethany, though that theory is not in vogue today.  She has also been identified as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears.  I’m not sure how commonly-held this view is today, either, however, our Prayer Book does retain the possibility that this is true.  The evidence, such as it is, can be found in the appointing of Luke 7:36-8:3 as a single lesson on her feast day.

The tail end of chapter 7 of St. Luke’s Gospel tells the story of “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” who brings an alabaster flask of ointment into a pharisee’s house to wash Jesus’ feet with it and her tears and kisses.  An overkill scenario to a sensibility for sure, but it is unmistakably a picture of unadulterated love.  Jesus uses this immediately as an illustration for a parable.  He concludes with a word of gospel: “her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.

Chapter 8 then opens, “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out… and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”  There is no explicit connection between the woman in the previous story and Mary Magdalene here, but the ancient writing style might imply that the previously-unnamed woman is now a named follower of Jesus.  After all, if Mary Magdalene was able to bring expensive perfume to the literal feet of Jesus, she must have been a woman of some means, and likely able to continue providing for him and apostles, as verse 3 describes.  And there are other instances in the New Testament where people refer to themselves very obliquely (like Mark and John), and refer to others by differing names (Nathaniel = Bartholomew, and Thaddeus = Jude).

At the very least, the woman of Luke 7 has a similar spirituality to Mary Magdalene: both are very emotive and physical about their love for Jesus.  Perhaps you know the sort in your own church or Christian connections: people (usually women) who have such a profound emotional love for Jesus, who smile at his name and sigh with arms outstretched as if they’re in love.  For those who are more intellectually-minded it can be easy to scoff at these enthusiasts and their apparent crush on Jesus.  But the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, tears, and kisses, and Mary Magdalene clinging to Jesus in the garden after his resurrection both testify to a legitimate spirituality of emotive love and adoration.  If the woman of Luke 7 and Mary Magdalene are not the same person, they sure had a lot in common.

So let’s take a look at how this feast day – and theory of Mary’s identity – can play into the liturgy of the Church.  There is a song I came across in the Saint Dunstan Hymnal (related to the Saint Dunstan Plainsong Psalter) which is an Office Hymn from the 17th century, and it illustrates a way of acknowledging her spirituality and example.

O Father of celestial rays, When thou on Magdalene dost gaze,
The flame of burning love appears, Her icy heart dissolves in tears.

Wounded by love, she hastens o’er The feet of Christ her tears to pour,
Anoints them, wipes them with her hair, And prints adoring kisses there.

Fearless, the Cross she will not leave: And grieving, to the Tomb doth cleave:
No ruthless soldiers cause her dread: For from her love all fear hath fled.

O Christ, true Charity thou art; Purge thou the foulest of our heart,
Fill ev’ry soul with grace and love, And give us thy rewards above.

All laud to God the Father be; All praise, eternal Son, to thee;
All glory as is ever meet, To God the Holy Paraclete.  Amen.

The testimony of her devoted love ranges from the time of her conversion and repentance, through the Cross, to Jesus’ resurrection.  “For from her love all fear hath fled”, applying in her example the teaching perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18).

This example she has left us is valuable.  You can love God with your emotion.  Your devotions can be expensive and extravagant, if that is your honest offering.  God’s love, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness should have a serious impact on the sinner’s outlook.  The more you realize how much has been forgiven, the more you can love God and others in return.  For all the intellectual considerations of right doctrine, and all the logistical considerations of right worship, the value of a exultant heart can never be overlooked.  The Gospel is worth “thinking about” correctly, yes, absolutely; but it is also worth celebrating with the fullness of human emotion.

Make the Daily Office Unrecognizable

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One of the big concerns among traditionalists when it comes to modern Prayer Book revision and the proliferation of options and substitutions is that our liturgical heritage will get so muddled in “local preferences” that all semblance of Anglican heritage, or even any sense of common prayer, will be lost.  Personally, I think that overlooks the vast array of tweaks and changes that many priests and parishes have gotten away with even under the classically-minded 1928 Prayer Book in recent decades – in some cases drastically re-writing the Communion service so it looks more and more like the pre-Vatican-II Roman Mass and no longer actually an Anglican Prayer Book service.  But let’s not fight.  It’s Weird Rubric Wednesday!  So let’s humor those who complain about the 2019 Prayer Book and see just how far we can destroy the Daily Office without actually breaking the rubrics.

Ahead is Wednesday evening, and the parish is getting together for a special ‘Evening Prayer’ worship service.  But this is what happens:

  • The Officiant reads something short from the Bible.
  • The Invitatory dialogue (BCP 43) is exchanged.
  • The congregation sings a song like Nate Hale’s Psalm 13.
  • Another, slightly longer, reading from the Bible follows.
  • Someone comes up front and gives a brief testimony of faith, referring to his or her favorite Bible quote which is found in that previous reading.
  • A couple more songs are sung.
  • Now it’s prayer time (starting on BCP 47) – the Kyrie, the Lord’s Prayer, one of the sets of suffrages, a Collect commemorating someone in the calendar that day, and one of the Prayers for Mission (BCP 51).
  • The congregation then launches into a time of prayer and song lasting as long as the Spirit leads (so, about fifteen minutes).
  • The Officiant reads Ephesians 3:20-21 (BCP 53) to conclude the service.

If you know the Office pretty well, you can probably discern here what was done.  It’s actually not quite as mangled as I expected it to turn out; the “myriads of options” in the 2019 Prayer Book aren’t all-encompassing.  So here’s what happened:

  • The Opening Sentences can be anything “appropriate”.
  • The Confession may be omitted, once per day.
  • The Phos Hilaron is optional, and therefore skipped.
  • The Psalm(s) Appointed can be shortened “according to local circumstance” (BCP 734), so a sung version took its place.
  • Only one Scripture lesson is permitted (BCP 44).  Rubrics don’t seem to allow deviation from the lectionaries, though if you take the option of drawing the Communion readings into the Office then quite a few choices are possible.
  • A “sermon may be preached after the lessons” (BCP 56).
  • The Canticles can be replaced by other songs (BCP 45).
  • The Creed may be omitted, once per day.
  • The beginning of The Prayers are not optional, and the Collect of the Day is the only explicitly required Collect, but you can choose a black-letter-day commemoration to fulfill that role.  The Prayer for Mission is also required.
  • After that, there is technically free reign to pray and sing (BCP 51) although the rubric does technically indicate only one hymn or anthem.
  • The final prayers are optional, but the list of three closing sentences is not (BCP 52-53).

Yes, this is satire, I do not recommend this for healthy, proper, regular Anglican worship.

However, there are extraordinary circumstances in which such freedom may actually be advantageous.  Say you’re planning an ecumenical prayer service with another church… as the Anglican host you are bound to the authority of the Prayer Book as our rule of worship, but to be a gracious host you want to find room to incorporate elements of worship from your “guest church” also.  Perhaps you’re commemorating one of the ecumenical figures in the calendar together, or perhaps it’s Thanksgiving Day or some other holiday – in such cases you can draw Scripture lessons from the Communion Propers instead of the Daily Office Lectionary.  Perhaps they have their own prayers or canticles, or just particular translations thereof, that you can substitute in the place of our own.  The confession with full introductory exhortation may be a good idea to retain, as it puts forth a fantastic theology of worship, but perhaps circumstances would benefit from side-stepping that instead.  The flexibility of when the sermon is placed (BCP 56) also can be helpful in “shaping” the worship service in a manner appropriate to the occasion.

The good news, for those concerned about the integrity of Anglican tradition, is that the simplest by-the-book service of Evening Prayer with the least amount of page-flipping is going to be solidly traditional.  It takes more effort to deviate from the standard norm, and that alone is enough to steer most folks in the right direction.

The Gloria may be omitted

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On pages 107 & 125 of the Book of Common Prayer, 2019, the following rubric is found:

The Gloria or some other song of praise may be sung or said, all standing.  It is appropriate to omit the song of praise during penitential seasons and days appointed for fasting.

This in itself is not a particularly strange rubric.  The 1979 Prayer Book renders the Gloria optional, and it is already a widespread custom (rooted in Western liturgical tradition) that the Gloria should be omitted during Lent, Advent, and on other occasions of similar tone.

You can read more about the use (and even placement) of the Gloria in this article from last year’s series on the Communion liturgy.  You will also find there some notes about evaluating songs to replace it which are worth re-stating here:

  • If it is Advent or Lent, this is an excellent point at which to sing a hymn specially appointed for that season.  Or just let the Decalogue stand on its own strength!
  • At other times of the year, be sure it truly is a “song of praise”, as the rubric twice describes it.  A song of praise does NOT talk about me/us, but sings only of God – his character and his works.  The Gloria barely glances at “us”; let that set the standard for whatever replaces it.

What’s so weird about this, though?

I submit this under the banner of Weird Rubric Wednesday not because the rubric itself is weird, or even the reasons behind it are weird, but because some common executions of this rubric are pretty weird.  And it’s on a sliding scale from “okay” to “weird” to just plain “bad”.

Okay?

One approach to replacing the Gloria is to not simply put in one “song of praise,” but a whole set (say, three on average) of contemporary worship songs.  Singing multiple songs here stretches the language of this rubric – “song” is in the singular, after all – but it’s not necessarily an outright violation.  Besides, a lot of contemporary worship songs are shorter than hymns (in terms of word-count through the lyrics) so it’s not necessarily a bad idea to stack up two or three contemporary songs to form a substantial substitute for the Gloria or other single hymn of praise.

Weird?

Sometimes that “okay” idea gets taken a step further: it’s a contemporary “worship set” of three-ish songs in a row, but they’re not brief. Instead they repeat their refrains multiple times and include interludes within or between the songs for people to sing or pray extemporaneously.  This is popular evangelical worship practice, and has made its way into the practice of many Anglican churches.  If you’re going to import other traditions into the Prayer Book tradition, this is probably the least disruptive point in the Communion liturgy in which to do it, though it is worth observing that many Anglicans find contemporary pop-evangelical worship theology incompatible with historic Protestant (as well as Catholic) theologies of worship.  So music ministers and clergy alike should give careful thought to the use of music in the liturgy before stretching the rubrics this far.

Bad?

It is not normally the purpose of this blog to call out bad liturgy; there’s enough grumpy negativity on the internet already.  But occasionally problems in worship (just like problems in doctrine) do need to be confronted.  Moving from “okay” to “weird” to “bad”, the next step in this descent would be to add the excesses of Pentecostalism: speaking in tongues, inviting “words of knowledge” to be shared, and other extemporaneous expressions of charismata according to 20th-century Pentecostal theology.  Much of this runs in the face of St. Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 14, let alone an historic liturgical theology, but this has been known to happen in some Anglican churches today.

So what do you suggest?

When in doubt, keep it simple and consistent.  Say or sing the Gloria for every Communion celebration on Sundays and Holy Days.  For a short mid-week service, perhaps skip it entirely.  During Lent, replace it with a Lent Hymn; during Advent, replace it with an Advent Hymn.  Or just don’t sing anything at all after the Decalogue during those seasons – there’s a lot to be said for stark simplicity in worship, especially in our culture that is over-drenched with activity and sound.

Jesus Loves Me / Solid Rock

It’s one of the classic “little kid” Christian songs that cradle Christians in many traditions learn…

Jesus loves me, this I know
for the Bible tells me so.

Little ones to him belong;
they are weak but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me!  Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.

Complete with a cute little melody, it’s the perfect song for young kids to learn, enjoy, and promptly grow out of and cast aside in favor more exciting music.

Obvious repetition aside, this Hymn for Children is worth a fresh look.  First of all, it has more verses that a lot of us never heard as children.  In the new hymnal Magnify the Lord, or Common Praise 2017, it is #431, and has four verses.  Here are verses 2-4.

Jesus loves me – this I know – As he loved so long ago,
Taking children on his knee, Saying “Let them come to me.”

Yes, Jesus loves me… etc.

Jesus loves me – loves me still, Even when I’m weak and ill;
From his shining throne on high, Comes to watch me where I lie.
Yes, Jesus loves me… etc.

Jesus loves me!  He who died Heaven’s gate to open wide;
He will wash away my sin, Let his little child come in.

Yes, Jesus loves me… etc.

What this hymn is doing, quite simply, is setting out a theological truth in verse 1 and then exploring the biblical evidence in the next three which verse 1 claims.  So verse 2 looks back to the ministry of Jesus, during which he directly welcomed children; verse 3 brings that biblical love back into the present and highlights his continual care and watching-over; and verse 4 points us into the future, towards our death in the following of Christ’s death.

Hopefully this gives you a newfound respect for ye olde Jesus Loves Me.  But if you still think it’s silly, consider the song printed right before it (#430) in the same hymnal:

My hope is built on nothing less Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame, But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

This classic hymn, only 25 years older than Jesus Loves Me, is remarkably similar.  It, too, has a repetitive refrain with a message that is only one small step away: from “Jesus loves me” to “On Christ… I stand.”  This first verse is conceptually just as simple as Jesus Loves Me, and its melody is equally basic.  If all you ever heard of this hymn was its first verse, it probably wouldn’t be quite so beloved among adults as it is today.

Even more interesting, when you look at how the lyrics unfold, Solid Rock follows the same structure as Jesus Loves Me:

  1. Basic theological premise
  2. Looking back to Jesus’ example to back up or explain the premise
  3. Applying Jesus’ example to the present
  4. Pointing to the future – death and resurrection

With that in mind, now read verses 2-4.

When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace;
In ev’ry high and stormy gale, My anchor holds within the veil.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand… etc.

His oath, his covenant, his blood, Support me  in the ‘whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand… etc.

When he shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in him be found,
Dressed in his righteousness alone, Faultless to stand before the throne.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand… etc.

The same pattern is found in both hymns.  Yes, the first was written especially for (and about) children, and the second is clearly more “grown-up” in its word choice, language, and range of biblical allusion and reference, but both hymns are solid expositions of the Christian faith.

A Psalm & A Hymn

Psalm 90 begins with the simple but heartfelt words

Lord, you have been our refuge
from one generation to another.

This is captured and paraphrased in a famous and beloved hymn:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home;

Under the shadow of thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Yes, O God our help in ages past is a hymn that was written to paraphrase and reflect upon Psalm 90.  It was written by Isaac Watts in 1719, and many of his hymns are re-workings of biblical psalms.  Let’s see how more of this hymn teases out layers of meaning from Psalm 90.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting thou art God,
To endless years the same.

This approximates verse 2 of the psalm:

Before the mountains were brought forth, or the earth and the world were made,
you are God from everlasting, and world without end.

The ancient helping power of God traced through the generation of his saints in the first verse of the psalm and first two stanzas of the hymn is here found all the in the very Days of Creation.  God has always been God, “world without end” or “from ages of ages”.  Before the aeon of time itself, God was the same God we now know and love.

The next stanza in our hymnal reads thus:

A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

This matches verses 4 & 5 of the Psalm:

For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday,
even as a day that is past.

You scatter them them as a night-watch that comes quickly to an end;
they are even as a dream and fade away.

Verses 6 & 7 also provides more context and application of this concept of God’s timelessness:

They are like the grass, which in the morning is green,
but in the evening is dried up and withered.

For we consume away in your displeasure
and are afraid at your wrathful indignation.

The eternity of God causes us to reflect upon our mortality, and our insignificance in comparison with Him.  The days of our lives compared to his eternity is like comparing our long lives with the brief life of grass in the desert climes – just one hot day can dry and wither it away.

This leads to the next stanza in the hymn.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Verse 7 of Psalm 90, above, and also verse 10, here, both play into that stanza.

The days of our life are seventy years, and though some be so strong that they come to eighty years,
yet is their span but labor and sorrow; so soon it passes away, and we are gone.

The following verses of the Psalm continue on that meditation: we must learn to “number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” which, we know from the scriptures, is the fear of the Lord.  The fear of the Lord has also been described in the psalm, especially in verses 7, 8, 9, and 11.  It doesn’t feed into Isaac Watts’ hymn too directly, but it’s an important piece of context to keep in mind as we sing.

The hymn ends with a partial repetition of the beginning, but a slightly different petition.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guide while life shall last,
And our eternal home.

This matches the tone of Psalm 90 in its final few verses, which step back from the language of fear and the shortness of life, and settle upon prayers for comfort.  The Psalm does not overtly return to the language and imagery of God as our refuge or help in ages past, nor of being our home or shelter, but it the hymn and the psalm do wrap up with the same tone or mood.  Thus the hymn is an encapsulation of Psalm 90 in miniature, pulling out some major themes and leaving only hints of others.  It’s no substitute for praying the psalm, of course, but it is a wonderful point of entry.

 

This reflection was originally written for Grace Anglican Church and published on leorningcnihtes boc.