This Sunday, we begin the pre-Lenten season, a period in which the structure of our liturgy changes. The name suggests that this Sunday is 70 days before Easter. Actually, it is only 63 days before Easter, but the name is still fitting, since the day falls within the 7th (septimus) decade or 10-day period (the 61st to the 70th day) before Easter.
Our opening hymn — “Give praise and glory unto God” — presents 3 of the 9 verses of a hymn by Johann Jakob Schütz (1640-1690). First published in 1675, the German original has inspired at least 6 different English translations. In addition to the version in our Hymnal, there are translations which begin “All Glory to the Sov’reign Good,” “All glory be to God most high,” “All praise and thanks to God most high,” “To God a joyful anthem raise,” and (the most popular) “Sing praise to God Who reigns above.”
The tune — ELBING — is also appointed for Hymn #299 in our Hymnal, which is the only hymn I know of which thanks God for the service to mankind rendered by Plato and Socrates.
Our Sermon hymn — “My soul, be on thy guard” — was originally entitled “Steadfastness.” It echoes the injunction in today’s Epistle reading to run the race of faith with discipline and perseverance. A similar call is given even more emphatically in today’s closing hymn — “Awake, my soul, stretch ev’ry nerve.” Originally entitled “Pressing on in the Christian race,” the hymn is based on Philippians 3:12-14, a parallel passage to today’s Epistle reading. The text is by Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) who also wrote the Advent hymn, “Hark! the glad sound” and the Communion hymn, “My God, thy table now is spread.”
The hymn originally included two verses which are not included in our Hymnal:
That prize with peerless glories bright,
Which shall new lustre boast,
When victors’ wreaths and monarch’s gems
Shall blend in common dust.
Blest Saviour, introduced by thee,
Have I my race begun;
And, crowned with vict’ry, at thy feet
I’ll lay my honors down.
The tune is called CHRISTMAS (it has other names as well) because it was long associated with “While shepherds watched their flocks by night.” It was originally borrowed from a soprano aria in one of George Frideric Handel’s operas, Siroe.
During the Offertory, the choir will sing a chorale by Johann Sebastian Bach, based on a hymn by Martin Luther, “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir.” Luther’s text in this hymn is a paraphrase of the opening of Psalm 130. That Psalm is also sung in today’s Tract (the Proper which replaces the Alleluia until Easter):
Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord: Lord hear my voice. O let thine ears consider well: the voice of my complaint. If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss: O Lord, who may abide it? For there is mercy with thee: therefore shalt thou be feared.
The harmonization the choir sings is from the final movement of Bach‘s cantata Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir (BWV 38). For more about the text and tune, read “Bend down thy gracious ear.” You may listen to the entire cantata here, and read the text here. It would be a fitting way to begin the pre-Lenten season.
At Communion, the choir is singing a setting of the eucharistic hymn by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Pange lingua gloriosi. Thomas’s hymn has six verses; the choir sings the first verse in a familiar plainchant setting. followed by the fifth verse (which begins Tantum ergo sacramentum) as set by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611). The final verse is sung in plainchant. Then the congregation will sing all six verses in English (the familiar communion hymns, #199 and #200).