A Pre-Lent Hymn: Come, labor on!

Although we don’t officially have the Pre-Lent season on the books, there’s no reason we can’t learn from that mindset and explore ways of incorporating the old wisdom of the church into modern practice.  For example, let’s consider a hymn that encapsulates something of the Pre-Lent spirit.

Come, labor on.
Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain
while all around him waves the golden grain?
And to each servant does the Master say,
“Go work today.”

Come, labor on.
The enemy is watching night and day,
To sow the tares, to snatch the seed away;
While we in sleep our duty have forgot,
He slumbered not.

Come, labor on.
Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear!
No arm so weak but may do service here;
By feeble agents, may our God fulfill
His righteous will.

Come, labor on.
Claim the high calling angels cannot share;
to young and old the gospel gladness bear.
Redeem the time; its hours too swiftly fly.
The night draws nigh.

Come, labor on.
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
and a glad sound comes with the setting sun,
“Servants, well done!”

This song links to the Gospel both on Septuagesima Sunday (Matthew 20, the parable of the successively-hired laborers in the vineyard) and on Sexagesima (Luke 8, the parable of the sower and four types of soil).  The call to join in the Lord’s labor, to bear fruit, to put in our all for Christ, is excellent preparatory thematic material to rally the troops, as it were, before the spiritual disciplines of Lent begin.

It may already be too late to appoint this hymn for your Sunday morning worship services in the next two Sundays, but there’s nothing stopping you from using it on your own and recommending it to others as a great-ready-for-Lent sort of devotion!

Pairing: a Collect & a Hymn

Our Collect of the Day from Sunday, the fourth in Epiphanytide, is the first Sunday Collect this season that matches the old Prayer Book tradition.  The first three Sundays have modern Collects to reflect the modern Epiphany emphasis on missions, and now this fourth one takes us back to the original Epiphany tradition.  Here it is:

O God, you know that we are set in the midst of so many and grave dangers that in the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: Grant us your strength and protection to support us in all dangers and carry us through every temptation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

What I thought we’d do with this Collect today, rather than analyze it or link to a Scripture reading, is match it up with a hymn.  And, rather than dig up a lesser-known song as we’ve done a few times already, let’s pair this classic Collect with a classic hymn: O worship the King.

According to hymnary.org this song appears in nearly 1,000 different books, and probably hundreds more that aren’t compiled on that site.  The lyrics were written by Robert Grant in 1833, loosely based on Psalm 104.  It has been set to a couple different tunes, so I’ll let you readers fight over if LYONS or HANOVER is best, or if one should vote third party.

It is the 5th verse that especially links up with the Collect for Epiphany IV.

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
In thee, Lord, we trust, nor find thee to fail;
Thy mercies, how tender! how firm to the end!
Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and friend!

Both the prayer and the hymn consider us in terms of frailty.  We are “set in the midst of so many and grave dangers”, we need God’s “strength and protection” that, unlike us, are “firm to the end!”  It seems appropriate to consider this hymn a sort of response or follow-up to the Collect: we pray for God’s promised protection, and then we sing joyfully of his steadfast love, his covenant faithfulness, by which we know that our maker, defender, and redeemer is also our friend.


Last Christmas Hymn: From East to West

Tomorrow is the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, or, the Purification of Mary, celebrating the events of Luke 2:22-40.  As I’ve suggested and explored here before, using these 40 days from Christmas Day until tomorrow is a great way to crawl through the massive collection of Christmas songs in our hymnals.  A good choice for the last of these hymns is From East to West, from shore to shore.

This is an ancient hymn, its text written in Latin by Coelius Sedulius around the year 450.  As often is the case with ancient hymns, its English translation has been set to several different tunes, so I’m not going to include a YouTube link this time; the lyrics will have to suffice.

From East to West is a good choice for the end of this extended run of Christmas hymns because its lyrics touch upon some thematic material that makes it fitting for this point in the calendar:

  1. The appeal for “every heart”, “from East to West, from shore to shore,” to awake and sing about the newborn Christ, is very Epiphany-appropriate.  The song starts immediately with that world-wide invitation to worship Jesus.
  2. The epiphany theme of revealing the divinity of Jesus is also prominent in this song, which identifies him with godly epithets such as “the everlasting King” and “the world’s Creator” and “the Lord most high.”
  3. Mary plays a relatively prominent role in these lyrics, anticipating her prominent role in the feast of the Presentation tomorrow.  Here she is celebrated, “a maiden in her lowly place,” who becomes “the chosen vessel of his grace.”  In the doxology, the final verse of the hymn, Jesus is named as the “Virgin-born.”

In all, this is a fantastic hymn that works for Epiphanytide almost as well as for Christmastide.  I wouldn’t be afraid to pull it out almost any time of year, come to think of it, if I knew I’d be preaching or teaching Christology.  It plays out the dual reality of Jesus’ humanity and divinity, his lowliness and his exaltation, marvelously.

Perhaps you can read or sing it at the Daily Office or other time of devotion today?

From east to west, from shore to shore Let ev’ry heart awake and sing
The holy child whom Mary bore, The Christ, the everlasting king.

Behold, the world’s creator wears The form and fashion of a slave;
Our very flesh our maker shares, His fallen creature, man, to save.

For this how wondrously He wrought!  A maiden, in her lowly place,
Became, in ways beyond all thought, The chosen vessel of His grace.

And while the angels in the sky Sang praise above the silent field,
To shepherds poor the Lord Most High, the one great Shepherd, was revealed.

All glory for this blessed morn To God the Father ever be;
All praise to You, O Virgin-born, And Holy Ghost, to thee.  Amen.

Follow-up: obscure Christmas songs

Near the beginning of the month, I made the wacky suggestion that in order to get through the massive pile of Christmas hymns and carols in most Anglican hymnals, you could sing a different one every day all the way until the feast of the Presentation (February 2nd).  Well, as that date approaches, why don’t we check in on one of the lesser-known Christmas songs lurking in the hymnals.

And by “lesser-known”, I’m referring to common American use.  If you know and love this hymn, don’t be offended; be proud you know it!

From heaven high I come to you was written by Martin Luther in 1535; he may have written the tune also which bears this song’s name, Vom Himmel Hoch.  You can hear the piano part on YouTube (though the text translation will be a little different).

Despite how most arrangements like to shorten things, this hymn could have seven verses.  The first three are in the voice of the angels.

From heaven high I come to you: I bring you tidings good and new;
Good tidings of great joy I Bring; Thereof will I both say and sing:

For you a little child is born Of God’s own chosen maid this morn,
A fair and tender baby bright, To be your joy and your delight.

Lo, he is Christ the Lord indeed, Our God, to guide you in your need;
And he will be your Savior, strong To cleanse you from all sin and wrong.

Like the Gloria in Excelsis, these words proclaim the saving purposes of God in Jesus Christ.  But unlike the Gloria, the hymn then continues with another three verses of application.  The voice of the angels is now the voice of the heart, exhorting one another.

Now let us all right merry be, And with the shepherds go to see
God’s own dear Son within the stall, His gift, bestowed upon us all.

Mark well, my heart; look well, mine eyes; Who is it in the manger lies?
What child is this, so young and fair?  It is my Jesus lieth there.

Ah, dearest Jesus, be my guest; Soft be the bed where thou wilt rest,
A little shrine within my heart, That thou and I may never part.

The pious desire to worship the newborn Savior at his manger leads to an invitation – may Jesus come into our own home.  Let us make a bed, a shrine, within our hearts to care for and cherish the Savior forever.  Evangelical culture often speaks of “inviting Jesus into your heart” and “putting Jesus on the throne of your life.”  This hymn does exactly that, with poetry, grace, solemnity, and joy.

The final verse is a doxology:

Praise God above on his high throne, Who giveth us his only Son.
The angel hosts rejoice in bliss To chant a glad New Year like this.  Amen.

All those extra Christmas Carols

If you’ve got an Anglican hymn book such the Episcopalian 1940 hymnal or the Book of Common Praise 2017, you may have noticed that there are about sixteen gajillion Christmas songs in there.  Okay, between 50 and 60.  Still, that’s too many to sing in 12 short days, unlike most seasons in which the number of hymns are easily confined to the Sundays of their time of year.  On top of that, many churches have a tendency to stick with the seasonal songs their members know best, and repeat a core repertoire every year… not to mention those who who add in contemporary songs.

But hymnals exist for a very good reason: analogous to the Prayer Book, they serve to provide us with a set of authorized-and-approved words by which we may worship God and ourselves be edified in return.  With scores of Christmas songs available to us but untouched, who knows what we might be missing out on!

To that end I would suggest that one way to explore the lengthy Christmas section of a hymnal would be to appoint one or two hymns each day to the Daily Office or other regular devotions on your own.  With over fifty songs for this little season, and accounting for an Epiphany section beginning on January 6th, you can stretch Christmas an entire 40 days to its final wrap-up holy day of the year: The Presentation of our Lord in the Temple and the Purification of Mary (February 2nd).

Eventually this Customary will have a sample “hymnal in a year” plan but for now feel free to try out some of these principles on your own!

A Hymn for the Season

Advent approaches, the Trinitytide season has essentially wrapped up, the fullness of the Kingdom of God is fresh in our liturgical minds, and the call to Christian labor looms ahead.  One of the great hymns of our tradition that befits this week is Light’s abode, celestial Salem.

It’s a hymn the meditates upon the glorious eternal Kingdom of God, its incomparable superiority to this life, the labor we experience on the way there, and praising God.  It is probably best known by the tune REGENT SQUARE, which is also the tune for Angels from the realms of glory and Holy Father, great Creator.  Perhaps you can sing or read this at the Daily Office at some point this week?

Light’s abode, celestial Salem,
Vision whence true peace doth spring,
Brighter than the heart can fancy,
Mansion of the highest King;
O how glorious are the praises
Which of thee the prophets sing!

There for ever and for ever
alleluia is outpoured;
for unending, for unbroken,
is the feast-day of the Lord;
all is pure and all is holy
that within thy walls is stored.

There no cloud or passing vapour
dims the brightness of the air;
endless noon-day, glorious noon-day,
from the Sun of suns is there;
there no night brings rest from labour,
for unknown are toil and care.

O how glorious and resplendent,
fragile body, shalt thou be,
when endued with so much beauty,
full of health and strong and free,
full of vigour, full of pleasure
that shall last eternally.

Now with gladness, now with courage,
bear the burden on thee laid,
that hereafter these thy labours
may with endless gifts be paid;
and in everlasting glory
thou with brightness be arrayed.

Laud and honour to the Father,
laud and honour to the Son,
laud and honour to the Spirit,
ever Three and ever One,
consubstantial, co-eternal,
while unending ages run.

Morning Hymns

Among the collection of Anglican hymnody stand not a few songs designated for times of day – Morning and Evening.  One of these hymns, lyrics by Thomas Ken in the 1600’s and early 1700’s, is often printed as having two parts of four verses each.

Part one begins:

Awake, my soul, and with the sun
Thy daily stage of duty run;
Shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise
To pay thy morning sacrifice.

It continues to address the self through the other three stanzas, bestirring the singer(s) to virtuous living and and attentively religious life before God throughout the coming day.

Part two begins:

All praise to thee, who safe hast kept
And hast refreshed me while I slept;
Grant, Lord, when I from death shall wake,
I may of endless light partake.

This part of the hymn continues to address God in prayer, asking for the grace and strength to carry out that virtuous life considered in part one.

In this hymnal, it covers #151 and #152.

Both considered separately and as a single unit, this two-part hymn can teach us a lot about worship and song.  There are times in worship when we address ourselves.  The officiant or celebrant engages in dialogue with the congregation, song Psalms and hymns and other songs are verbally directed at the worshiper rather than the Worshiped One.  This is not narcissistic in itself, as traditionalists sometimes accuse contemporary Christian music as being.  Biblically and traditionally there is a place for such self-address.

This two-part hymn also shows how one might move from self-address to doxology (praise of God).  The same subjects are approached in each half of the hymn.  It’s not slavishly mirrored between parts one and two, but clear parallels can be drawn.  The final stanza is even the Doxology “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” which many people only know on its own.  In reality it’s a common stanza employed by several hymns to bring a song of praise to a fitting end.  (So maybe if your church always sings that verse at the offering of the offertory gifts… consider stopping that.  The verse deserves so much more!)

Perhaps you could pull this out to spruce up Morning Prayer sometime.  Try singing part one one day, and part two the next day.  Or both parts at different points in the liturgy!  Or both parts all at once, if you’ve got the stamina for it!

Wrapping Up All Souls’

In Eastern and medieval Western practice, many Major Feast Days had “octaves” – eight days of celebration and observance.  None of these survive in the Prayer Book tradition today (nor really in modern Roman Catholicism for that matter), though echoes are found in our observance of the Baptism of Christ on the Sunday after the Epiphany and the usual practice of observing All Saints’ Day on the Sunday following when November 1st is a weekday.

Today is the “octave day” of All Souls’ Day – that is, a full week has passed since the commemoration of the faithful departed.  To my knowledge, there was never any such thing as an “All Souls’ Octave;” rather, All Saints’ Day was and is the primary celebration going on in early November.  But, just for kicks, sometimes it’s worth re-visiting recent commemorations, and doing so a week later is a convenient time for doing that.  I’m not proposing anything crazy or complicated; how about just grabbing the hymnal off the shelf and adding once of the Burial hymns to the Daily Office today?  The following came to mind:

Now the laborer’s task is o’er;
Now the battle day is past;
Now upon the farther shore
Lands the voyager at last.
Father, in thy gracious keeping
Leave we now thy servant sleeping.

There the tears of earth are dried;
There its hidden things are clear;
There the work of life is tried
By a juster judge than here.
Father, in thy gracious keeping
Leave we now thy servant sleeping.

There the penitents, that turn
To the cross their dying eyes,
All the love of Jesus learn
At his feet in paradise.
Father, in thy gracious keeping
Leave we now thy servant sleeping.

There no more the powers of hell
Can prevail to mar their peace;
Christ the Lord shall guard them well,
He who died for their release.
Father, in thy gracious keeping
Leave we now thy servant sleeping.

“Earth to earth, and dust to dust,”
Calmly now the words we say,
Left behind, we wait in trust
For the resurrection day.
Father, in thy gracious keeping
Leave we now thy servant sleeping. 

On a practical, unrelated, note, it is wise for ministers to have the “occasional services” like the Burial Rite periodically refreshed in memory whether we have any planned or not.  These are events that can crop up suddenly without warning, and it is very helpful when ministers have the liturgical mindset behind those services intuitively grasped ahead of time!

Looking ahead: Thanksgiving Day

Two weeks from today, in the USA, is Thanksgiving Day.  Apart from family traditions that may involve your efforts in the meantime, let us give consideration to some of the liturgical resources we have available for the observance of that day.

The Collect of the Day could be imported into the Daily Office:

Most merciful Father, we humbly thank you for all your gifts so freely bestowed upon us; for life and health and safety; for strength to work and leisure to rest; for all that is beautiful in creation and in human life; but above all we thank you for our spiritual mercies in Christ Jesus our Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

The lessons for a communion service that morning (or perhaps the evening before):

  • Deuteronomy 8; Psalm 65:1-8(9-14); James 1:17-27; Matthew 6:25-33

Additional prayers (link) and thanksgivings #20-22 and #114-123 are also excellent additions to the Daily Offices or other devotions for Thanksgiving.

Hymn ideas:

  • Come, ye thankful people, come (also known as Harvest Home)
  • We plow the fields (refrain “All good gifts around us“)
  • Praise to God, immortal praise
  • For the beauty of the earth
  • Let us, with a gladsome mind
  • Now thank we all our God

If you among the growing number of people who want to push back against the Black Friday shopping craze, consider adding these prayers and hymns to your private and/or congregational worship from Wednesday through Sunday, or even the whole week!

Offering Imperfect Praise

A shortcoming of contemporary worship music is a frequent sense of overconfidence in one’s own worthiness.  There is a severe lack of penitence and contrition among the popular spiritual songs of today, particularly in the mainstream.  There are, of course, more excellent local and grassroot corners of the contemporary worship music movement that are much more biblical, especially Psalms-based, but you kind of have to know where to look in order to find them.

One of the issues this relates to is the idea of offering God worthy praise.  There is a common assumption (usually taken up and reinforced) in contemporary music that our heart-felt worship is worthy of God.  This falls apart at the definition of heart-felt, however.  The human heart, the Scriptures tell us, is full of evil and deceit.  No matter how much emotion and enthusiasm we muster up, our worship of God will always be imperfect, as long as we are sinners.  Only the fully redeemed, sanctified, and glorified Church in Heaven offers God truly perfect praise.  The Psalms are full of reminders of our imperfect praise: Psalm 51’s prayer “open my lips and mouth will proclaim your praise” shows that it is the Lord who opens our lips and enables us to worship him; Psalm 15 reminds us that only the sinless Saint is truly worthy to enter into God’s presence.

John Mason’s hymn Now from the altar of my heart is another example of this reality.

Now from the altar of my heart
Let incense flames arise;
Assist me, Lord, to offer up
Mine evening sacrifice.

Minutes and mercies multiplied
Have made up all this day;
Minutes came quick, but mercies were
More fleet and free than they.

New time, new favor, and new joys
Do a new song require;
Till I shall praise thee as I would,
Accept my heart’s desire.  Amen.

Like many contemporary songs, this hymn expresses the desire to worship God in an honest heart-felt manner.  But it also devotes its second stanza directly to the issue of our sinfulness – the need for God’s mercy was more frequent than the passage of minutes!  To many modern ears, such an assertion sounds like an exaggeration… we’re not really that sinful are we?  Regardless, the hymn ends with the acknowledgement that we desire to worship God for all his mercies, and asks him to accept what we do offer until we reach the point when we finally can and do worship him as we wish we could.

Give this some thought today, and perhaps pull it up to sing at Evening Prayer tonight?