Greetings + Mom on Hymns

divine-mercyHello from Father Trying-to-Survive-Today-without-Losing-It.

The sun shines, the Lord rose from the dead. I’m heading back home from the mountains soon (to Martinsville-Rocky Mount). I look forward to celebrating Mass, with the facebook livestream, for the feast of Divine Mercy, at St. Francis and St. Joseph.

A lot of people have slightly different ideas about what is going on with your unworthy servant. My plan is to continue to do my pastoral duties, as I embrace any canon-law process regarding my assignment. I will do everything I can to keep everyone informed, as things unfold.

I appreciate the phone calls, texts, messages, and e-mails. I really need all the prayers and support.

…My dear Lutheran mom has written an essay for us, about hymns.

momAbout Hymns and Hymn Singing

On this year’s Good Friday, no one heard the Passion Chorale sung as part of a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. No one heard the Passion Chorale in a Bach organ prelude. Most important, on Good Friday 2020, no congregation sang the hymn, “O sacred head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down” — the Passion Chorale.

The Passion Chorale tune comes from the 16th century, the words from the 17th century. In the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach gave the tune a four-part harmony and it became a Lutheran Good Friday hymn. For 250 years, Protestants have sung “O sacred head” on Good Friday.

Martin Luther, a musician who played the lute and sang tenor, started the use of hymns in worship. In the earliest days of Lutheranism, you could tell the difference between a Lutheran worship service and a Catholic service not only by the prominence of the sermon in Lutheran worship but also by the great amount of congregational singing. Singing was a passion with Luther. He wrote at least forty hymns and taught his congregation how to sing them. Luther knew that music strengthened individuals and comforted them; he also knew that when individuals sing their faith together, they express the voice of the Christian community.

JS BachBach deepened the Protestant hymn singing tradition. He gave congregations the hymns that he harmonized, known as chorales, and he connected the chorales to the Gospel lesson for the day. For every Sunday of the church year, Bach wrote a cantata, a work for voices and instruments performed in the Lutheran liturgy after the reading of the Gospel. He would often insert a chorale with words that directly connected to the Gospel lesson.

In his cantata chorale, “Sleepers wake,” for example, a watchman sings, “The bridegroom comes, awake, your lamps with gladness take.” What is the Gospel for that Sunday? It’s Jesus’ story about the bridesmaids who weren’t prepared for the coming of the bridegroom. The congregation would have recognized the chorale when they heard it – it was a hymn they loved. Through it they would have heard the Gospel lesson a second time.

Thanks to Luther and Bach, we Protestants see ourselves as hymn singers in worship. We understand that the hymns connect to the Gospel and the sermon, and we know that hymns express the faith in a way that spoken words do not.

After my sister’s memorial service, a friend told me that the most moving part of the service was the congregation’s passionate singing of the hymns, one of which was “Now thank we all our God.” This, too, is a chorale, its words and tune dating to the 17th century, its four-part harmonization written by Bach around 1735. I’m not the only Lutheran to know the hymn’s words by heart, including the last verse: “All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given, the Son and him who reigns with them in highest heaven . . .

cindy and mom
The sisters. Cindy on the right. She died in 2012.

Why do we know the words of hymns by heart? We know them because they repeat Christian truths. You can show this with any hymn; I’ll show it here with the hymn, “The Church’s one foundation.” About the Christian church this hymn tells us 1) that it is the creation of Jesus Christ; 2) that it is united everywhere throughout the world by “one Lord, one faith, one birth; 3) that it is united with God and with those who have died before us. The hymn doesn’t replace sermons and discussions about the nature of the church; it illuminates those sermons and discussions in a memorable way.

For any hymn to be worth singing in worship, its words must be poetic. Look for poetic images direct from scripture, as in “Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea,” from Revelation 4:1-11, in “Holy, holy, holy,” a hymn about the Trinity. Poet and hymn-writer Isaac Watts recast Psalm 90’s picture of the mystery of time. “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” These are the words of verse five of Watts’ most famous hymn, “O God, our help in ages past.”

Unfortunately, recent Protestant hymnals contain quite a few hymns without poetry. These hymns have old, beautiful tunes with new, clunky words. This is a sad development in the Protestant hymn-writing tradition.

In the poetic hymns, words are set to music that is both beautiful and expressive. Jesus’ crucifixion calls for the somber notes of “O sacred head.” In the hymn “Sleepers, wake,” the watchman’s words are sung on three ascending notes that suggest the sound of a town watchman’s voice. For Easter, “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain proclaims the day’s extraordinary joy with three crisp, identical major-key chords. The music is by the nineteenth century British composer Arthur Sullivan, who wrote hymns in addition to the music for the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The hymn’s words are by the eighth century St. John of Damascus. The first stanza begins and the last stanza ends with the same words: “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness; God hath brought his Israel into joy from sadness.”

For me it’s been a continuing joy to sing beautiful hymns, Sunday after Sunday, with a worshiping congregation. I’m grateful to have spent my life in the Protestant hymn singing tradition.

Are the hymns mentioned in this post in your Catholic hymnal? If you find them, sing them soon!

Ann White

Roman Missal V

Leonidas "Fighting Bishop" Polk

Aching for a homily on our Lord’s conversation with the Canaanite woman? You are welcome to click HERE

…Lots to discuss, dear reader, like: the Becks Grossman/John Rex runoff to start at quarterback for the Maybe-Not-Deadskins..

…or: Two Civil-War generals, Catholic convert “Old Rosey” Rosecrans for the Union; “The Fighting Bishop” Leonidas Polk for the Confederates. One Reb general exhorted, ‘Give ’em hell, boys!’ Polk chimed in, ‘Give it to ’em boys. Give it to ’em. Give ’em what Cheatham said!’

…But we will have to come back to all this, because we are not done with:

Were the prayers of the Roman Rite devised by Abel, Abraham, Melchizedek, Moses, David, Isaiah, Malachi, Ezekiel, Daniel, the Roman Centurion, Mary Magdalen, the Blessed Mother, the Lord Jesus Himself, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Linus, St. Cletus, St. Clement, St. Sixtus, St. Hippolytus, St. Gregory the Great, St. Leo the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope Pius XII, Bl. Pope John XXIII, Archbishop Bugnini, or other venerable fathers?


Our culture possesses a definitive religious act, the Roman Rite.

The Roman Rite ultimately determined the floorplan of the Bruton Parish church in colonial Williamsburg. It ultimately determined the annual calendar for Oxford University. It ultimately determined the subject matter for most of the work of J.S. Bach.

Why do we have Christmas Day off? Why do four out of five Americans know the Our Father? Why do we watch football games on Sunday afternoon instead of Tuesday afternoon?

Why do we persist in hoping that the powers greater than us–the powers that move history forward in a way we cannot imagine–why do we stubbornly persevere in hoping that they will act in our favor, rather than dooming us to perpetual misery?

Why do we practice the scientific method, and don’t believe that splaying out fish innards–or sacrificing chickens, or the trajectory of comets–controls our destiny?

The short answer to these questions: Because the culture of the Western world formed around the altar of the Roman Rite.

…still more to come…

Reading Tea Leaves, by Harry H. Roseland