Service music

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (September 1, 2019)

Our Processional hymn — “Father, we praise thee” — announces in the first line its identity as a “Morning Hymn.” Our Hymnal identifies it as a Latin hymn from the 10th century, although it may be even older. As a Latin hymn from that era, this was not a hymn sung by a congregation, nor as part of a Eucharistic service. It was an Office hymn, which means it was part of the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours that formed the official structure of monastic life and worship.

The word “hour” in this context refers not to a 60-minute period, but an appointed time for prayer. There are traditionally eight hours in the Office:

Matins (during the night, at about 2 a.m.); also called Vigil and perhaps composed of two or three Nocturns
Lauds or Dawn Prayer (at dawn, about 5 a.m., but earlier in summer, later in winter)
Prime or Early Morning Prayer (First Hour = approximately 6 a.m.)
Terce or Mid-Morning Prayer (Third Hour = approximately 9 a.m.)
Sext or Midday Prayer (Sixth Hour = approximately 12 noon)
None or Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Ninth Hour = approximately 3 p.m.)
Vespers or Evening Prayer (“at the lighting of the lamps”, about 6 p.m.)
Compline or Night Prayer (before retiring, about 7 p.m.)

So, since our opening hymn announces “now the night is over,” one might assume this was a hymn sung at Lauds or Prime, after the sun had come up. Well, no. For centuries this hymn was sung at Matins. The translator of the hymn, Percy Dearmer, took some liberties with the original Latin when he translated it for publication in the first edition of the English Hymnal (1906). The Latin of the first line reads: Nocte surgentes uigilemus omnes. Literally: “Rising by night let us all keep watch.”

Imagine being wakened from sleep at 2:00 A.M. on a Sunday morning to begin the weekly round of chanting through the entire Psalter, which was done every week in the Office. In the absence of caffeine, I wonder if a certain extra incentive might have been welcome, something to prime the choral pump, as it were. This hymn seems to have been written to serve such a purpose. For about half the year, this hymn was the very first thing to be sung on the first day of every week. That puts the text in a somewhat more specific light. Here is a more literal translation of the Latin than our Hymnal presents:

“Rising by night, let us all keep watch and ever devote our minds to psalmody, and with harmonious voices let us sing sweet hymns to the Lord, that singing to the loving King, together with His Saints, we may merit to enter the royal court of heaven, and with them enjoy eternal life. May the blessed Deity of the Father, Son, and likewise of the Holy Spirit, whose glory resounds throughout the whole world, grant us this.”

We won’t be singing this hymn at 2:00 A.M., but “Father, we praise thee” is nonetheless a wonderful way to set our worship in its larger context. The tune to which we sing this hymn was adapted by Ralph Vaughn Williams from plainchant for use with this text in that 1906 English Hymnal mentioned above (the history of which is detailed here).

William Cowper (1731-1800) suffered from depression and doubt most of his life. His poetry was much celebrated in his time, and his hymns (four of which are in our Hymnal) are typically marked by (in the words of one hymn historian) “plaintiveness, tenderness, and refinement.” We frequently sing “O for a closer walk with God,” in which we can sense Cowper’s desire that spiritual darkness might be lifted. Today’s Sermon hymn — “Sometimes a light surprises” —was originally published under the title “Comfort” in John Newton’s Olney Hymns (1779). The tune LIGHT first appeared in 1830 with the words to this hymn. It may or may not have been adapted from an English folk song known as “Stormy Winds.”

The Offertory anthem is Thomas Tallis’s If ye love me. Based on a text from St. John 14, it was originally published in 1565 during the reign of Elizabeth I. It is a textbook example of the “Tudor style” of liturgical music, as is today’s Communion motet, Tallis’s Verily, verily, I say unto you, with its text from St. John 6:53-56.

At Communion, we sing “Come, risen Lord, and deign to be our guest” and “Peace, perfect peace.” The punctuation in this latter hymn is absolutely critical. The first line of each stanza (except the final one) ends with a question mark. The second line answers the question in the first line. In each stanza, the harsh realities and frustrating disappointments of life are posited (in the first line) as challenges to faith or faithfulness. The second line offers a Christocentic response. The hymn was written on a Sunday in August 1875 by Edward Henry Bickersteth (1825-1906), bishop of Exeter, to comfort a dying relative. The tune SONG 46 is by the great Elizabethan organist and composer Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625).

Our closing hymn — “Praise the Lord through every nation” — is a paraphrase by James Montgomery (1771-1854) of an Ascension hymn by the Dutch poet, playwright, and novelist Rhijnvis Feith (1753-1824). The tune WACHET AUF is most closely associated with the Advent hymn “Wake, awake, for night is flying.” But the magnificent and triumphant tune works just as well with the Feith/Montgomery text.

There was an additional stanza in the original publication of this hymn, which is not included in our Hymnal. This missing stanza makes the theme of Christ’s Ascension and cosmic rule more prominent:

God with God, dominion sharing,
and man with man, our image bearing,
Gentiles and Jews to him are given.
Praise your Saviour, ransomed sinners,
of life, through him, immortal winners;
no longer heirs of earth but heaven.
O beatific sight,
to view his face in light!
And while we see — transformed to be,
from bliss to bliss eternally.