Ash Wednesday is coming up in two-and-a-half weeks, marking the beginning of Lent. The 40-day season before Easter is still sometimes referred to with the Latin word for “the fortieth part”: Quadragesima.
Septuagesima Sunday is not — despite the literal meaning referring to 70 — exactly 70 days before Easter. Rather, it marks the 63rd day before Easter and thus falls within the 7th (septimus) decade or 10-day period, the range from the 61st to the 70th day before Easter.
The idea of being steadfast in the faith is strongly emphasized in today’s Epistle reading from I Corinthians 9, in which we are enjoined to run the race of faith with discipline. Taken in isolation, that text from St. Paul may suggest that we earn our salvation, an assumption that is contradicted by the Gospel reading from St. Matthew, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard who receive their reward in accordance not with their work but as an expression of the generosity of the Master.
Our Processional hymn — “O God, our help in ages past” — is a paraphrase of Psalm 90, which echoes the affirmation in today’s Introit (from Psalm 18): “I will love thee, O Lord my strength: the Lord is my stony rock, my fortress, and my Saviour.” (Click on the hymn’s title above to learn more about the history of this text and tune.)
The theme of Epistle reading is reinforced in today’s Sermon hymn, “Go labor in! spend and be spent.” It was written by Horatius Bonar in 1836 to encourage his helper in a Leith mission district. Three stanzas from the original are omitted in our Hymnal’s presentation of the hymn:
Go, labor on! ’tis not for naught
thine earthly loss is heavenly gain;
men heed thee, love thee, praise thee not;
the Master praises: what are men?
Go, labor on! Your hands are weak,
your knees are faint, your soul cast down;
yet falter not; the prize you seek
is near — a kingdom and a crown.
Men die in darkness at your side,
without a hope to cheer the tomb;
Take up the torch and wave it wide,
The torch that lights time’s thickest gloom.
The Offertory anthem is a work by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). The hymn (both tune and text) that Brahms based this motet on has a long and illustrious history that is worth examining.
The original source of Brahms’s composition is an early-16th-century hymn sung for centuries in the Lutheran tradition on Septuagesima Sunday. “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her” (Now unto us Salvation comes) is the first line of a 14-stanza text written by Paul Speratus (1484-1551), a Catholic priest who became a Lutheran pastor and hymn-writer. The hymn stresses the fact that our good works do not earn our salvation, although, as historian Scott Hendrix writes (in Early Protestant Spirituality), the text also stresses “the vitality of that faith manifested in service to others.” Here is the first stanza of the hymn:
Es ist das Heil uns kommen her
Now unto us Salvation comes,
aus Gnad und lauter Güte.
by grace and purest favor;
die Werk, die helfen nimmermehr,
our works, they offer help no more:
sie mögen nicht behüten.
they cannot give protection.
Der Glaub sieht Jesum Christum an,
But faith shall Jesus Christ behold;
der hat g’nug für uns all getan,
who for us all enough hath done:
er ist der Mittler worden!
He is our Intercessor!
This hymn was published in 1524 in the first Lutheran hymnal, and was soon taken up by some of the great Lutheran composers as the basis for organ compositions and for complex choral works. Here is a simple presentation of the melody long tied to this text set by Johann Walter (1496-1570), another of Luther’s collaborators in hymnody.
Sytze de Vries, organ
Of course, Johann Sebastian Bach — the greatest of Lutheran composers — got some mileage from this hymn. During his time as court organist at the Weimar court (1708-1714), Bach started compiling a collection of chorale arrangements of Lutheran hymns. These were later published the now-famous Orgelbüchlein, the full title of which (given by Bach) was Orgel-Büchlein, Worinne einem anfahenden Organisten Anleitung gegeben wird, auff allerhand Arth einen Choral durchzuführen (Little organ book, in which a beginner organist is taught to arrange a chorale in all sorts of ways ). Here is is setting of Es ist das Heil uns kommen her (BWV 638).
Andreas Osiander, organ
Sometime in the early 1730s, Bach wrote a cantata based on this hymn, using the first stanza (text above) in the opening movement, and one of the later stanzas as the closing chorale. The first movement of Es ist das Heil uns kommen her (Cantata BWV 9) opens with a spritely instrumental introduction, after which the sopranos enter singing the melody very slowly, while the other vocal parts and instruments dance around it.
Here is a complete recording of Bach’s Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, performed by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, conducted by Ton Koopman.
Johannes Brahms’s Es ist das Heil uns kommen her is one of two motets (Opus 29) that were composed in 1860, though not published until 1864, shortly after their premiere in Vienna. Brahms uses only the first stanza from the Speratus hymn, first sung in a Bachian four-part chorale, then sung in a richly constructed fugue in four parts, punctuated every so often with a fifth part for bass which sings the hymn’s melody. When a melody is used this way, it is referred to as the cantus firmus, the fixed song that grounds the entire work, even if it is only heard now and then.
Here is a recording of the work performed by the Chamber Choir of Europe, conducted by Nicol Matt.
The Communion motet is by another great 19th-century German composer, Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), about whose life and compositions you can read here. Bruckner wrote a number of settings of Thomas Aquinas’s Eucharist poem Tantum ergo (the text that we often sing in English as hymn #200). The choir sings Bruckner’s setting in D major.
Our Communion hymns are “Strengthen for service, Lord” and “O God, unseen yet ever near.” The text for this latter of these hymns was written by Edward Osler (1798-1863), a Cornish naval surgeon who wrote some 50 hymns and numerous Psalm paraphrases. Later in life, he served as editor of the Royal Cornwall Gazette, a regional weekly newspaper, in which he occasionally published some of his hymns.
Our closing hymn — “Awake my soul stretch every nerve” — was originally entitled “Pressing on in the Christian Race,” and is based on Philippians 3:12-14, where St. Paul — as he does in today’s Epistle reading from I Corinthians — compares the disciplined pilgrimage of the Christian life to the running of a race. Written by Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) and published posthumously in 1755, the hymn originally included two stanzas that are not in our Hymnal:
That prize with peerless glories bright,
which shall new lustre boast,
when victor’s wreaths and monarch’s gems
shall blend in common dust.
Blest Saviour, introduced by thee
have I my race begun;
and crowned with glory at thy feet
I’ll lay my honours down.