The Collect for this Sunday pleads with God for protection: “in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth thy right hand to help and defend us.” Such a prayer can be uttered in confidence because God’s people have been assured (in Psalm 46) that “God is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea.”
The familiarity of our opening hymn — “A mighty fortress is our God” — may disguise the fact that the first three verses of Luther’s text were inspired by Psalm 46. Luther’s German original dates to 1529, and there have been many English translations. The one we sing is from 1852, and its popularity in America causes us to assume that everyone thinks of this hymn as “A mighty fortress.” But some translations have begun “A mountain fortress is our God” or “A tower of strength our God doth stand.”
Miles Coverdale (1488-1569), whose translation of the Psalms is in our Book of Common Prayer, translated the hymn into English within ten years of its original publication, and rendered the first verse somewhat differently:
Oure God is a defense and towre
A good armour and good weapen,
He hath ben ever oure helpe and sucoure
In all the troubles that we have ben in.
Therefore wyl we never drede
For any wonderous dede
By water or by londe
In hilled or the sea-sonde.
Our God hath them al i his hond.
In England, a translation by Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) is widely favored, although it never caught on here in the colonies. Carlyle’s first verse reads:
A safe stronghold our God is still,
A trust shield and weapon;
He’ll help us clear from all the ill
That hath us now overtaken.
The ancient prince of hell
Hath risen with purpose fell;
Strong mail of craft and power
He weareth in this hour;
On earth is not his fellow.
Given these various translations (some still in use), it may be best to think of this hymn by the first words of its German original (also the name of the famous tune): Ein’ feste Burg.
The Introit, Gradual, and Alleluia for this Sunday (repeated in the Sundays until Ash Wednesday) extend the Epiphany theme of the universal kingship of God with texts from Psalms 97 and 102, summarized in the assertion: “The Lord is King, the earth may be glad thereof.”
Our Sermon hymn — “In heavenly love abiding” — is by Anna Laetitia Waring (1823-1910), a Welsh poet who was raised in the Society of Friends but converted to the Church of England because of her eagerness to participate in the sacramental life of the Church. She is also known to have learned to read Hebrew so she could better appreciate the poetry of the Old Testament. This comforting hymn is a restatement of Psalm 23. The tune NYLAND is a Finnish folk melody adapted for use as a hymn in the early twentieth century, a time when many hymnal editors were acknowledging the virtues of setting hymn texts to durable folk tunes.
The choir’s two pieces today are both by notable English composers from the earliest days of Anglicanism. Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) wrote over 30 anthems as well as several complete sets of canticles for use in Morning and Evening Prayer. Our Offertory anthem today — Almighty and everlasting God — is a setting of today’s Collect. The Choral Amen in today’s service is from a setting of the Nunc dimittis by Gibbons.
At Communion, the choir will sing Oculi omnium, by William Byrd (1543-1623). This motet combines verses from Psalm 145 and John 6:
The eyes of all wait upon thee, and thou givest them their meat in due season.
Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing. Alleluia.
For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. Alleluia.
We have sung the tune to today’s closing hymn (STUTTGART) two times recently. It is the tune with which we opened Advent (with “Come, thou long-expected Jesus”) and welcomed Epiphany (with “Earth has many a noble city”).
Today we sing STUTTGART with a text that continues our Epiphany theme of the kingship of God over all things. “God, my King, thy might confessing” is a paraphrase of Psalm 145 by Anglican bishop Richard Mant (1776-1848). Note that this is the same psalm that is excerpted in today’s Communion motet. Our Hymnal includes the first six of Mant’s original fourteen stanzas (it’s a long psalm!).
Here are the three stanzas that follow the ones we’ll sing, and that connect that theme of universal kingship with the Epiphany theme of light:
They [i.e., all the saints] thy might, all might excelling,
Shall to all mankind make known;
And the brightness of thy dwelling,
And the glories of thy throne.
Ever through eternal ages
Shall thy royal might remain;
Evermore thy brightness blazes.
Ever lasts thy throned reign.
Them that fall the Lord protecteth,
He sustains the bow’d and bent;
Every eye from thee expecteth,
Fix’d on thee, its nourishment.