Monday, August 31, 2015

Hymns in the News

It's been a while since I've done one of these posts, and this news is a few weeks late, but I recently came across an article about an episode of the popular British television programme Songs of Praise, which, as you may know, has presented hymn singing every week since 1961 on the BBC, from a wide variety of locations.

Anyway, this piece from August 15 seems especially relevant here in the US, given this summer's ongoing coverage of various political opinions on immigration.  Unfortunately, the Songs of Praise episode can only be viewed for the next few weeks if you are in the UK (but that does include some of my readers there, who may have missed it).

Without getting into a long discourse on my own thoughts regarding the immigration question, it seems better to tell you about some relevant hymns. Modern hymnwriters have made the useful connection between the story of Mary and Joseph's flight into Egypt, briefly told in Matthew 2:13-15, and our understanding of what it might mean to be a "refugee."  I commend to you the following texts:

When Jesus was a refugee by Mary Nelson Keithahn (2002)

Gentle Joseph heard a warning by Carl P. Daw Jr. (1990)

Jesus entered Egypt by Adam M. L. Tice (2007)

The last two are particular favorites of mine.  We could certainly do worse than to sing these hymns and others like them as the immigration debate swirls around us in the coming months.

P.S. - This painting by Orazio Gentileschi, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1628) depicts the Holy Family as simple weary travelers, not attended by angels as in several other depictions.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., both physician and poet, was born today in 1809.  He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1835 after a brief consideration of law school, and also having already published one of his most famous poems, Old Ironsides, in 1830.  He went into private practice, but during the first year of that practice his success as a poet was even greater. This did not enhance his reputation as a serious medical professional to potential patients, and eventually he moved into teaching and lecturing in medicine, first at Dartmouth and later at Harvard Medical School, where he taught until 1882.

Friends such as Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged a parallel career as a poet and he published his first of several collections of poetry in 1836.  Twenty years later he was asked by his friend, poet James Russell Lowell, to assist him in editing a new magazine, the Atlantic Monthly (still published today) and Holmes's frequent writings in the magazine, both in poetry and prose, contributed to the success of the new venture.

His father, Abiel Holmes, was a Congregationalist minister, but Holmes became a Unitarian, perhaps due to the influence of his Harvard education.  His views seem to have been even more liberal than many Unitarians, and John Quincy Adams supposedly once accused him of preaching "wild atheism."  Several of Holmes's poems have been used or adapted as hymns, such as today's text, originally written for the fortieth reunion of his Harvard class of 1829.

O gracious Power, whose mercy lends
The light of home, the smile of friends,
Our families in your arms enfold
As in the peaceful days of old.

Will you not hear us while we raise,
In sweet accord of solemn praise,
The voices that have mingled long
In joyous flow of mirth and song?

For all the blessings life has brought,
For all its sorrowing hours have taught,
For all we mourn, for all we keep,
The hands we clasp, the loved that sleep.

Thank you, Creator; let your grace
Our widening circle still embrace,
Your mercy shed its heavenly store,
Your peace be with us evermore.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1869; alt.
Robert Schumann, 1839; adapt.

I made one significant alteration to this text, attempting to adapt it for modern use.  In the final stanza, Holmes wrote "our narrowing circle still embrace," which was appropriate for the original occasion, the reunion of an aging community of colleagues then approaching the twilight of their lives.  But after reading some of his other works, I think he would approve of the reversal, and agree that a worshipping community should be open to wider experiences and influences, as he was.

The line that may be remembered from one of his famous poems, The Chambered Nautilus (1858), opens the final stanza: Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul. The whole poem uses the spiral shape of the chambered nautilus as a metaphor for the constantly-expanding lives we live, if we are open to the experience. The final line of the poem is Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea! 

P.S. - The Chambered Nautilus was set to music in 1908 by Amy Beach for women's voices and can be heard in a partial performance on YouTube (though the chorus's diction is not to be commended).

Seven Years Ago: Oliver Wendell Holmes

Three Years Ago: Oliver Wendell Holmes

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Saint Mary the Virgin

Today's feast day is celebrated in some places as a day to honor Mary in general, and in other places it is a more specific celebration of the Assumption, the day when Mary was taken up bodily (or 'assumed') into heaven.  That story does not appear in the New Testament, but grew out of accounts dating from the fourth century.

Today's anonymous hymn text comes from a Roman Catholic collection titled English and Latin Hymns (1884).  These two stanzas, part of a longer hymn, depict the fourth and fifth of the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, Mary's Assumption and Coronation in Heaven.

Behold her open grave, adorned
With blossoms fair and bright,
And friends who mourned for Mary stand
Enraptured with the sight.
They find her earthly body gone, 
Sweet roses in its place,
Assumed on high she leaves this world
And God will grant her grace.

To welcome Mary, queen of saints,
See countless angels throng,
Their glad 'Hail Mary!' rends the skies,
An anthem loud and long.
See, Jesus crowns his mother dear
With rays of dazzling light,
As saints and angels kneel and sing
That maiden Mother's might.

Anonymous, 19th cent.; alt.
C.H.H. Parry, 1904

P.S. The art above is detail from Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Annibale Carracci, circa 1600.

Seven Years Ago: Ye who claim the faith of Jesus

Six Years Ago: Hail, holy Queen!

Five Years Ago: Sing, sing, ye angel bands

Four Years Ago: Virgin born, we bow before thee

Three Years Ago: Let today above all other

Two Years Ago:  Hail, Queen of heav'n, the ocean star