The Gospel for this Sunday continues our engagement with the Farewell Discourse, Jesus’ instruction to the disciples in the Upper Room on the night he was betrayed. The reading this week again alludes to the Ascension (which we celebrate on Thursday), but at the beginning of the reading, the theme is asking.
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.”
In Latin, the verb “to ask” is rogare, which is why this Sunday is known as Rogation Sunday.
Our opening hymn — “We come unto our fathers’ God” — was inspired by Psalm 90:1: “Lord, thou hast been our refuge, from one generation to another.” The imagery in the hymn suggests that God’s people in Israel were possessed by a song that now possesses the Church. “Keep on the song forever!”
The tune name in our Hymnal is TO GOD ON HIGH, which is an Anglicization of the more familiar German tune name, ALLEIN GOTT IN DER HÖHE. (American Christians were a bit nervous about German nomenclature in the early 1940s when our Hymnal was published.) In either language, attentive worshippers will hear echoes of the Latin phrase, Gloria in excelsis, the opening words of the Gloria that we sing at the end of our service, and which has been part of the Mass for centuries. This tune is also called the German Gloria, because it was the tune widely used for the German-language translation of the traditional Gloria in excelsis. The tune is actually based in part on the Gregorian chant Gloria in excelsis which was typically sung in the late medieval liturgy. Martin Luther preserved many elements of the traditional Mass, and was fond of taking ancient chant melodies and converting them — with a little squeezing and amending — into sturdy German hymns.
The harmonization we sing was by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), and is from the second chorus of his oratorio St. Paul, completed in 1836.
Our sermon hymn — “O Jesus, crowned with all renown” — includes a number of agricultural references, which reflects the fact that Rogation days were traditionally days of special prayer for successful harvests, and days on which priests would bless the crops. The tune is an English folk song, one of many collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams for us in the first edition of The English Hymnal in 1906.
Our Offertory anthem this week is a new work for our choir. Composed by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612), it’s the first stanza of a nine-stanza hymn by Martin Luther, based on the Lord’s Prayer. If we sang the entire piece, it would take about 20 minutes.
At Communion, the choir sings a short motet by William Byrd (1543-1623). The text is based on Leviticus 21. The Communion hymns are “My God, Thy table now is spread” and “Take my life and let it be.” This latter is by Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879), the youngest child of an Anglican priest and composer. At the age of seven, she began writing verses which appeared in a magazine called Good Words (which should be an encouragement to the aspiring poets in our parish, encouraged by Isaac James’s publishing project).
Our closing hymn — “Let us with a gladsome mind” — is a paraphrase of Psalm 136 by a better-known poet, John Milton (1608-1674), who wrote this hymn when he was but 15 years old. Our Hymnal presents seven stanzas; young Milton eighteen more (the Psalm has twenty-six verses), many of which tell the story of the Exodus.
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote two cantatas for use on Rogation Sunday. The text for both of these was inspired by the same Gospel reading that we use this week. One of theses works is BWV 86, Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch, “Truly, truly, I say to you.” The Netherlands Bach Society has recorded a wonderful performance of this cantata, which is presented below. You can read the text to the work here.