By Gail Ramshaw
History books claim that the Reformation began with the “bam-bam-bam” of Luther’s hammer nailing up the 95 theses. But perhaps the real Reformation — the Christian movement of thousands, then millions, of believers who faithfully come to church for word and sacrament, yet who know that the church can err — began with singing.
Rather than mumble some words or listen to an exquisite or pitiful choir, we together sang “Lord, have mercy,” “Glory to God,” “Holy, holy,” “Lamb of God.” The creed became a communal song. The gospel was rhymed into stanzas easy to memorize, when after dinner each evening we sing our favorite from last Sunday’s worship.
And Lutherans keep singing — grateful to be part of a cultural minority that not only can sit there and listen but also can stand up and sing and sing and sing. In song, the I becomes a We, lethargy aroused from slouching in the pew, the hymns still there in a decrepit mind that holds little else. What “I feel” is less important than who “we are”: a community of Christ, committed to life and death in the triune God, singing as we go.
We start with the hymns that Luther wrote: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (ELW #504-505) on the first Sunday of Lent; “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” (#370), an un-sappy Easter hymn that faces down death; all 11 stanzas of “From Heaven Above” (#268) during Christmas (we’re Lutherans — we can do it!); “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word (#517) on the last Sunday of October. And what shall we sing near to Feb. 18, Luther’s death day? Perhaps “In Peace and Joy I Now Depart” (#440).
Then we check the calendar of commemorations for more singing Lutherans. Second (or first?!) prize goes to Philipp Nicolai, Oct. 26, from whom came both the king of chorales “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” (#436) and the queen “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright!” (#308). In both, hiding in the first letter of each stanza are the initials of his dear student, dead of the plague.
Or perhaps you prefer the eight hymns by Paul Gerhardt, who added the “I feel” to the “We are.” On the Sunday nearest Sept. 1 are seven choices by the Danish poet Nikolai Grundtvig, including “Built on a Rock” (#652). From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by Hitler on April 9, #626, and from Jiri Tranovsky, the Slovak who died on May 29, #602. Don’t miss them.
But proud as we are of dead Lutherans, let’s not be narrow in our song, for we are made wider by the songs of other Christians. Did the Eastern poet John of Damascus (Dec. 4, e.g., #363) sing the hymns of the Western Bishop Ambrose (Dec. 7, e.g., #263)? From Patrick (March 17, #450,), Francis (Oct. 4, #835), Thomas Aquinas (Jan. 28, #476), and Nicolaus von Zinzendorf (May 9, #624)? We have one unforgettable hymn from each.
On the Sunday nearest to Nov. 25 comes Isaac Watts, who complained to his father about the lousy versification of the psalter he was given to sing, and his father responded, “Give them something better, young man,” and he did, crafting nearly 700 hymns, 10 of which are in “Evangelical Lutheran Worship.” What would we do without “Joy to the World” (#267) or “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” (#632)? Nine more, on March 2, come from Charles Wesley, who with his brother John invented a “method” for devotion, urging all Christians to stand up when they sang, and so, Methodist or not, we do. One hymn comes from George Herbert, but near to March 1 we ought not do without “Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life” (#816).
But stanzas must be set to music. Thanks to J.S. Bach for seven arrangements in our cranberry book and also to Heinrich Schütz and George Frederick Handel. We will sing at least one from each near to July 28.
But hymns must be translated. So near to July 1 we sing words fit for our mouths by Catherine Winkworth and John Mason Neale. Judged by his bishop to be far too dedicated to elaborate liturgy, Neale was stuck in a minimal ministry out of the way, where he used his extraordinary linguistic abilities to bring into English dozens of the classic Latin and Greek hymns. Can you hear him over the ages, shaping his phrases, finding his rhymes, his voice drowning out that of his shortsighted bishop?
We are gifted by new texts from hymn writers presently at their computers crafting the “We are” songs of the faithful. But we are also enriched by hymns written by the now dead, whose voices are alive in us. So check the calendar; find the masterpieces of faith and devotion that hold our sorrows and shape our joy — and sing and sing and sing.
- “Earth and All Stars: Hymns and Songs for Young and Old” by Herbert Brokering (Augsburg Fortress, ISBN: 9780800659295, $14.95) All ages will enjoy this collection of songs by the author of “Earth and All Stars.” Herbert Brokering, a treasure among hymn writers of our time, has selected 170 of the best of his hymn and song texts for this volume.
- “Great German Hymns Arranged in Contemporary Styles” by Bradley Sowash (Augsburg Fortress, ISBN: 9780800637446, $16.00) Bradley Sowash surveyed multiple musicians and pastors for this list of beloved German hymns and then arranged them in his “flexible contemporary styles.” The primary focus is for solo piano but chord symbols are included for additional adaptation.