The Processional hymn for this Sunday is “O God, our help in ages past.” On the page devoted to this hymn, you may read the text of three additional stanzas that Isaac Watts originally included in the hymn, and learn about compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Ralph Vaughan Williams that used its melody.
The Sermon hymn, “Fairest Lord Jesus,” is sometimes claimed to be a 12th-century Crusader hymn. In fact, it is a translation of hymn from a 17th-century German Roman Catholic hymnal. The tune, ST. ELISABETH, dates to the 19th century, and is so named because of its use in The Legend of St. Elizabeth, an 1862 oratorio composed by Franz Liszt. Like Liszt, St. Elizabeth (1207-1231) was from Hungary.
Given our smaller choir this week (due to travel and sickness), a hymn was selected for use as an Offertory anthem. The melody will be familiar to the congregation, as we sing it frequently with the text “We come unto our fathers’ God” (The Hymnal, #303). The tune is based on an early 16th-century Lutheran chorale. In the Hymnal version, it is presented (in a rich harmonization by Felix Mendelssohn) with four beats to the measure. The setting sung by the choir (harmonized by Hieronymus Praetorius, 1560–1629) has six beats to the measure, which makes it more dancelike.
Both tune and text in the anthem are the work of Nikolaus Decius (1485-1546), a German monk who followed Martin Luther’s lead during the Reformation. Decius created German-language texts that were used in early Protestant worship in lieu of the Latin texts of the Mass. For the Agnus Dei, he wrote the much-used O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig, which we sang during Lent and which is sung in the opening chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. As a substitute for the Gloria in excelsis, which we sing at the close of our mass, he wrote the text that our choir sings during today’s Offertory, in an English translation by Catherine Winkworth:
All glory be to God on high, Who hath our race befriended!
To us no harm shall now come nigh, The strife at last is ended. God showeth His good will to men, And peace shall reign on earth again;
O thank Him for His goodness!
We praise, we worship Thee, we trust, And give Thee thanks forever,
O Father, that Thy rule is just And wise, and changes never.
Thy boundless pow’r o’er all things reigns, Done is whate’er Thy will ordains:
Well for us that Thou rulest.
O Jesus Christ, Thou only Son Of God, Thy heav’nly Father,
Who didst for all our sins atone And Thy lost sheep dost gather.
Thou Lamb of God, to Thee on high From out our depths we sinners cry,
Have mercy on us, Jesus!
O Holy Ghost, Thou precious Gift, Thou Comforter unfailing,
O’er Satan’s snares our souls uplift And let thy pow’r availing
Avert our woes and calm our dread. For us the Saviour’s blood was shed;
We trust in Thee to save us.
Note how Decius’s version highlights the Trinitarian character of the Gloria and adds quite a bit more theological affirmations.
I confess to frequently scheduling “O God of earth and altar” near national holidays, as G. K. Chesterton’s short poem, written in 1906, provides a fitting counterpoint to the temptation to patriotic hubris. Chesterton originally intended his poem to be sung to AURELIA, the melody to which we sing “The Church’s one foundation.” But when Ralph Vaughan Williams compiled the first edition of The English Hymnal, he set Chesterton’s poem to an English folk tune that he had encountered during his research with the English Folk Song Society. KING’S LYNN gets its name from a seaport town in Norfolk.