Friday, December 26, 2014

Saint Stephen

December 26 is marked on some church calendars as the Feast of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose story is told in the sixth and seventh chapters of Acts.  Again, because of its prozimity to Christmas, there are probably not many services today where he will be remembered.

There is less speculation about Stephen's death, as it is told in scripture.  When he was brought before the Sanhedrin and accused of blasphemy, he gave a long speech about the history of Israel, and then said that he could see Jesus in heaven at the right hand of God.  This suggestion that the recently-crucified Jesus was alive as the Messiah enraged the crowd of listeners, who stoned him.  A quick Google search will turn up several paintings depicting the scene of his murder.  The three stones seen here are also sometimes used to represent Stephen.

By all your saints still striving,
For all your saints at rest,
Your holy Name, O Jesus,
Forevermore be blessed!
For those passed on before us,
We sing our praise anew
And, walking in their footsteps, 

Would live our lives for you.

Praise for the first of martyrs,
Who saw you there to stand
To aid in midst of torments,
to plead at God's right hand.
We share with him. if summoned
By death our faith to own,
On earth our faithful witness,
In heav'n, the martyr's crown.

We pray for saints we know not,

For saints still yet to be,
For grace to bear true witness
And serve you faithfully,
Till all the ransomed number
Who stand before the throne
Ascribe all power and glory
And praise to God alone.

Horatio Bolton Nelson, 1864; alt.

Hans Leo Hassler, 1601; harm. J.S. Bach, 1729

Five Years Ago: Good King Wenceslas looked out

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Silent Word Is Pleading

What child is this, who laid to rest,
on Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
while shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
haste, haste to bring him laud,
the babe, the child of Mary.

Why lies he in such mean estate
where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for people here
the silent Word is pleading.


William Chatterton Dix, 1865
Tune: GREENSLEEVES ( with refrain)
English ballad melody, 16th cent.

Six Years Ago: Once in royal David's city

Five Years Ago: Where is this stupendous stranger?

Two Years Ago: Hark! the herald angels sing

Monday, December 22, 2014

Saint Thomas

Today's feast day of Saint Thomas usually gets swallowed up in the Christmas season, though they may be some churches named for him that celebrate the day this time of year.  Most likely Thomas is remembered on the Sunday after Easter, when the lectionary reading tells of his encounter with the risen Jesus, whose previous appearance to the disciples Thomas did not believe. (Though I never forget that none of the disciples believed Mary Magdalene's account a week earlier, so it hardly seems fair that Thomas is the only one branded as 'doubting' for the last two centuries.)

In art, Thomas is often depicted carrying a spear, since in some accounts he died of a spear-wound somewhere in Asia.

We have already seen the hymn that I consider the most perfect for the day, as over the last several years I have presented many individual hymns for the various saints on the church calendar. For the next year I am planning something a bit different for our commemorations of the saints.  The hymn below first appeared (in somewhat different form) in 1864, written by Horatio Bolton, Lord Nelson (grandnephew of the famous Admiral).  He wrote a general first and last stanza of praise, then several stanzas for individual saints that would be used as the second, middle stanza on each particular saint's day.  Bolton's text has been much altered over the years but this seems like a useful variation to use throughout the coming year.

By all your saints still striving,
For all your saints at rest,
Your holy Name, O Jesus,
Forevermore be blessed!
For those passed on before us,
We sing our praise anew
And, walking in their footsteps, 

Would live our lives for you.

Praise Thomas, your Apostle,
Whose short-lived doubtings prove
Your perfect two-fold nature,
The fullness of your love.
On all who wait your coming,
Shed forth your peace, O Lord,

And grant us faith to know you,
True God made flesh, adored.

We pray for saints we know not,

For saints still yet to be,
For grace to bear true witness
And serve you faithfully,
Till all the ransomed number
Who stand before the throne
Ascribe all power and glory
And praise to God alone.

Horatio Bolton Nelson, 1864; alt.
English melody; adapt. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1906

Note that Bolton slips in an Advent reference, "all who wait your coming" seasonably suitable to December 22.

The meter of  has proven quite popular over the years so we can try out several different tunes with this text over the coming year as we explore the various middle stanzas of the saints of the church.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Be It According to Thy Word

On this fourth Sunday in Advent many churches hear the lesson of the Annunciation, Mary's encounter with the angel Gabriel who brings news from God.  Mary famously says "yes" to God, perhaps more remarkably than we first realize for a young girl of no stature in her society, who would not have been able to make important decisions for herself.  And yet, she was chosen for this honor and agreed.

Today's hymn is by an old friend, Christopher Wordsworth, and comes from his collection The Holy Year (1865), containing appropriate hymns for each Sunday and major feast day of the church's liturgical year.  Originally published with twelve stanzas, I have brought it down to a more manageable four.

Today the angel comes, the same,
Who once of old to Daniel came;
Tidings of joy has Gabriel,
Tidings of thee, Emmanuel.

"Hail, highly favored! for of thee
Conceived and born a Child shall be,
Jesus our Savior, ever blest,
In human flesh made manifest."

"I am the servant of the Lord.
Be it according to thy word;"
With faith and forthright courage said
Mary, the highly favor

May we thy living Word receive,
Bring forth to life what we believe;
O come to us, and with us dwell,
And be our souls' Emmanuel.

Christopher Wordsworth, 1864; alt.
Tune: ANGELUS (L.M.)
Georg Joseph, 1657

While Gabriel's appearance to Mary is probably his most famous, he had previously visited Daniel in the eighth and ninth chapters of the Book of Daniel.

P.S. - The fifteenth-century painting below is The Annunciation by Filippo Lippi.

Six (Liturgical) Years Ago: Great Gabriel sped on wings of light

Five (Liturgical) Years Ago: Away! with loyal hearts and true

Two (Liturgical) Years Ago: Praise we the Lord this day

Saturday, December 13, 2014

William Walsham How

William Walsham How was born today in 1823 in Shrewsbury. In his later years he was Bishop of Wakefield (1889-1897), and was known in his time as the 'omnibus bishop' because he was often seen riding public transportation.  Throughout his life he always identified with the poor and downtrodden, and avoided his own career advancement for many years.

He was ordained in the Church of England in 1846.  His writings included a Commentary on the Four Gospels (beginning in 1863) and a popular manual, Holy Communion: Preparation and Companion (1854)

Some of his views on religion were quite ecumenical.  As a writer of hymns, he first collaborated with the Congregational minister Thomas Baker Morell, with whom he compiled a collection titled Psalms and Hymns (1854).  Some years later he was the chair of the committee that produced Church Hymns (1871) for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.  This book, for which Arthur Sullivan was the musical editor, was for many years the second-most popular hymnal in England, after Hymns Ancient and Modern.  Some years later, How would collaborate with Sullivan again when they  produced a hymn for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria which was sung throughout Great Britain on Sunday, June 20, 1897.

How wrote about fifty hymns in total, the most famous being  For all the saints.  We have seen several others here over the years (click on his tag below this entry). According to the calendar it may not quite be winter yet but this hymn seems appropriate for many parts of the country this week.

Winter reigneth o'er the land,
Freezing with its icy breath;
Dead and bare the tall trees stand;
All is chill and drear as death.

Sunny days are past and gone:
So the years go, speeding fast,
Onward ever, each new one
Swifter speeding than the last.

But the sleeping earth shall wake,
And the flowers shall burst in bloom,
And all nature rising break
Glorious from its wintry tomb.

So, Lord, after slumber blest
Comes a bright awakening,
And our flesh in hope shall rest
Of a never-fading Spring. 

William Walsham How, 1871
Tune: HALLE (
The Psalmist, 1830

Bishop How died on August 10, 1897 while vacationing in Ireland, and was buried in Whittington, where he has been rector for nearly thirty years (1851-1879, during which time most of his hymns were written).  

How currently appears on Broadway, as a character in the revival of Bernard Pomerance's play The Elephant Man, where he is portrayed by actor Anthony Heald.  Apparently How had some contact with Joseph Merrick when he was Suffragan Bishop of Bedford in East London, which is dramatized in the play.

Six Years Ago: William Walsham How

Monday, December 1, 2014

Hymns in the News

It's a few weeks late, but I did want to mention a special event that took place recently at Goshen College, a private liberal arts institution in Indiana that is affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA.

From Friday evening, November 14 through Sunday, November 16, students and people from the larger community gathered to sing through all 658 hymns in Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992), the Mennonites' current hymnal.  The event was sponsored by the college's Hymn Club (don't you wish your college had a Hymn Club?) to raise funds for Christian Peacemaker Teams.  Five of the students made it all the way through the book, while others came and went as the weekend progressed.

Hymnwriter, pastor, and musician Adam M. L. Tice, a graduate of Goshen College, later wrote down some of his impressions from the event, which is an interesting read.

I congratulate all who planned and participated in the hymn marathon (though I am just a bit envious as well).

Five Years Ago: World AIDS Day