Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bible Sunday--Hymns and collect of the week

I've been letting this feature languish, so by way of making up, this week I'll feature one collect and two hymns.

First, the collect. This is the week known as "Bible Sunday" from the collect for Advent II, an original composition by Cranmer for the 1549 Prayer Book:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

This is one of those bits of the liturgy whose phrases make it into speech occasionally (like "devices and desires" or "chances and changes"). You might have at some time heard someone say "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest." It makes a good way to tell your students to pay attention to something, anyway.

Certainly one of the emphases of the Reformation was the sheer knowledge of Scripture, and one of the greatest gifts of my own upbringing was a comprehensive knowledge of the contents of the Bible. In my parents' home, we read the entire Bible through over the course of many family devotions. One of the big frustrations I can recall at the age of six was being forced to wear a patch over my good eye just as I was learning to read the Bible and thus having to read the small print with my bad eye. (The patch was supposed to correct a "lazy eye," but actually it was a completely useless exercise in frustrating a little kid who was just learning to read. That, however, was the doctors' fault, not my parents'.) There are many passages that still, despite the waning memory that comes once one has gone even a little way over the hill, I can continue to quote from memory if you get me started. All in the beautiful King James English, of course. I can't say I've quite given such a fully-formed treasure to my children, though we're working on it. The older ones have memorized a number of passages, and we just this year started a regular "Bible time" for Middle Daughter which is going very well. We've finished Acts and are nearly through John and Romans. I think we'll go to Hebrews after that. Just knowing what's in Scripture is a great guard against many-a heresy. I highly recommend it.

Speaking of knowing the Bible, I showed that I'm a bit rusty this morning. I was telling my family about one of the hymns we'd be singing in church that I thought they might not know or might not remember. It's "O Word of God Incarnate" and was chosen for Bible Sunday. (A bit odd to call the Bible the "Word of God Incarnate"; that should really be Christ himself. But the song gets it worked out in the end, referring to Christ as the "living Word.") I mentioned the ending, which I especially like: "O teach thy wandering pilgrims by this their path to trace/till, clouds and darkness ended, they see thee face to face." So I, trying to look learned and thinking vaguely of "Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee" said, "And it ends with a nice St. Augustine allusion," and proceeded to quote the line. "Sounds like a Paul allusion," said my husband. Er, right. And far more St. Paul than St. Augustine. What was I thinking? Obviously: "Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face"--I Corinthians 13. I've gotta watch that; don't want to start losing my familiarity with St. Paul and replacing it with St. Augustine!

So here's a nice, exceedingly meaty, Scriptural hymn for my second featured hymn, with words by none other than Charles Wesley: "And Can it Be." All the words are here, but a better version of the music is here. Click on "play music." I especially like that music recording, because it reminds me of some of the better hymn-playing pianists I've heard. Women can do that sort of thing well enough, with the big, moving bass line, but men do it best of all, because they have the big hands for it. Here's verse 1:

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

When I say "all the words" are at the cyberhymnal, I mean all. I really like John W. Peterson's 1968 hymnal Great Hymns of the Faith. I own thirty-some copies and use it for all our hymn sings, but one of my few gripes with it is that Peterson has cut out some of the words to "And Can it Be." And it isn't just whole verses that he cuts. That would be okay; some hymns do have too many verses to be printed or sung easily. But for some reason Peterson has cut the second half of all the verses other than verse 1 and replaced it with the second half of verse 1, beginning "Amazing love! How can it be..." as a chorus for all the rest of them. The version given in the cyberhymnal repeats the last two lines of every verse. The other hymnals I have here repeat only the second "Amazing love" pair of lines as a short chorus, so that all the unique words for all the verses are preserved.

Anyway, one of my favorites as a kid was the verse about the angels. (I'm printing it here with the short chorus.)

’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
Amazing love! How can it be?
That thou my God should'st die for me?

An allusion to I Peter 1:12, where we are told that "the angels desire to look into" our redemption. Peter's quite a presence in the song. Until I saw the painting at the cyberhymnal site, I'd forgotten the verse about the dungeon flaming with light--an allusion to Peter's release by an angel in Acts 12. But St. Paul is all over the place, too: "Emptied himself of all but love"--the kenosis passage in Philippians 2. "No condemnation now I dread"--Romans 8. "Bold I approach th'eternal throne"--Hebrews 4:16. (And I am once again five years old, lying on my parents' bed, listening to Moody radio, and hearing a man's deep voice just before praying say, "Let us go now to the throne of grace...") In fact, you can go line by line through this hymn, as through others of Wesley's, and look up biblical allusion after biblical allusion. Yet they all fit together into poetry. You get the feeling that Scripture had become so much a part of Wesley and of his poetic gift that it just flowed out of him this way. I've known a few people (mostly, though not all, old people) whose talk sounded a bit like this.

Wesley's hymns are a gift to the world, and a gift to all Christians, from Protestantism. I don't know any other tradition that could have produced them, but all Christians can profit from them.


mebauman said...

Wesley's hymn is indeed one of the richest and most beautiful ever written. I still recall, quite vividly, how I wept in gratitude the first time I heard it, just a week or two after conversion. Few hymns, if any, have captured the mystery of redemption and of incarnation the way this one does.
Michael Bauman

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Michael. Yes, it's a shame that some of contemporary ilk would consider a hymn like that boring or too difficult or heavy, when in fact it applies doctrine directly and personally where it most counts.

Anonymous said...

I came to your page to read about Bible Sunday.

VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself or any other creature ...

There is a exemplary recording of the hymn And Can It Be? on the disk Sing lustily and with a good courage. This disc includes O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing: When I played it to my aunt she remarked that she had not heard that hymn for many years - it was a favourite of her father's and
in those days before television, the family would spend the evening singing Wesley's hymns around the piano.