There are in our Hymnal fifteen or so hymns that describe the Church in light of its fulfillment as a “heavenly Jerusalem.” This genre of hymns fuses the earthly and heavenly, the material and the mystical, the sensuous and the spiritual. As the Hymnal 1940 Companion notes, these hymns combine “the imagery of a terrestrial Paradise with the apocalyptic vision of the heavenly City.” This latter element often borrows specific detail from the book of Revelation: gates of pearl, streets of gold, etc.
Among such hymns are Peter Abelard’s “O what their joy and their glory must be” (#589), Isaac Watts’s “There is a land of pure delight” (#586), Alexander Pope’s “Rise, crowned with light” (#389), John Newton’s “Glorious things of thee are spoken” (#385), and Samuel Johnson’s “City of God, how broad and far.”
The four stanzas of “Christ is made the sure foundation,” which opens today’s service, is the second half of a larger Latin hymn that may be the earliest known instance of such hymnody, as it may date back to the sixth century. The text of the first half of that ancient poem (which contains much more heavenly and eschatological imagery) can be found in translation in “Blessed city, heavenly Salem” (#383).
“Christ is made the sure foundation” appears twice in our Hymnal, first at #384 and then at #780, in the “Supplemental Tunes” section, which was added in 1976. The tune used at #384 is REGENT SQUARE, which may be more familiar in its association with “Angels from the realms of glory” (#28). It is also used at #587 to accompany “Light’s abode, celestial Salem,” another “heavenly Jerusalem” text.
The tune we sing today is WESTMINSTER ABBEY. The tune is adapted from an anthem by the great English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695), who was once an organist at Westminster Abbey. It was adapted for use as a hymn in 1842 by Ernest Hawkins, a Canon of Westminster Abbey. Apparently, it did not become popular until it was sung at Princess Margaret’s wedding in the Abbey in 1960. It was not available in our Hymnal until 1976.
Hawkins lifted the tune from the final “Alleluia” portion of the anthem, O God, Thou Art My God. Below, you can hear the entire anthem from a concert performance by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers. The Alleluias begin at about 3 minutes into the work.
It is certainly a majestic tune (Purcell had some experience composing for royalty), especially fit to celebrate the reign of Christ the eternal King.
Here is a rendition of the hymn by the Harvard University Choir.
Today’s sermon hymn, “I heard the voice of Jesus say,” is one of five hymns in our Hymnal by Horatius Bonar (1808-1889). Born in Edinburgh, Bonar’s family had been well represented as clergy in the Church of Scotland for over 200 years. He was licensed to preach in that Kirk, but later joined the Free Church of Scotland. As I have remarked before, his poetry suggests a temperament and a piety closer to that of George MacDonald than of John Knox.
The tune we use to sing Bonar”s words, THIRD MODE MELODY, is by one of England’s most versatile composers, Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), and was originally composed to sing a much more animated text, paraphrased from Psalm 2: “Why fumeth in fight: the Gentiles spite, in fury raging stout?” Presumably, that text was sung to a brisker tempo that is Bonar’s contemplative text. (Our choir has sung this tune with George Herbert’s lovely paraphrase of Psalm 23, “The God of love my Shepherd is.”)
The Offertory anthem and Communion motet are sections from the Mass for Three Voices by William Byrd (1543-1623), yet another great English composer. The page linked to Byrd’s name above features an interview I did with Byrd biographer Kerry McCarthy, who refers to this mass during our conversation as a work from which one always learns new things.
The Communion hymns, “Now, my tongue, the myst’ry telling” and “Therefore we, before him bending,” are from a hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas (c,1225-1274) for use at Vespers on the Feast of Corpus Christi. It was written in 1263.
The opening line to our closing hymn is “My soul, be on thy guard.” When the hymn was published in 1781, it was entitled “Steadfastness.” The text is by George Heath (c.1745-1822), once a pastor of a Presbyterian church in England. Given the concern of his hymn for faithfulness until death, it is sadly ironic that late in life he became a Unitarian.
The sturdy tune is named after him. It was once named SCHUMANN, as one of its publishers attributed it to the great German composer. His widow, Clara, doubted this attribution, so HEATH it is.