shepherd sounds

Hymn of the Month: January 2015 · I

O for a thousand tongues to sing [Hymn 493]

Last May we talked about Isaac Watts, one of the most important people ever to have written hymns in English. You can go back and read about Watts and his most famous hymn here. Even more important than Isaac Watts, though, was Charles Wesley. In fact, if you only ever know the name of one hymn-writer, it should be Wesley.

Charles Wesley

Charles Wesley was born in England in 1707, the eighteenth (!) child of an Anglican priest and his wife. When Charles was a college student, he gathered a few friends to follow strictly the way of life set forth in the Book of Common Prayer: daily Morning and Evening Prayer, weekly Communion, fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, studying the Bible, examining their own thoughts and actions to see whether they followed the example of Jesus, and serving the poor, prisoners, and orphans. Charles’s brother John later joined this group and became its leader. Other students made fun of their devoutness and nicknamed them the ‘Holy Club’ or the ‘Methodists’ – a name that was later used to describe the revival movement you’ll read about below.

John Wesley

Both Charles and John became priests like their father. In 1735, just after Charles’s ordination, the brothers came to America. They worked for a short time in Savannah, in what was then the brand-new British colony of Georgia. John was the parish priest (the parish – Christ Church – is still there, although the original building isn’t) and Charles assisted the governor.

Though neither John nor Charles got along in their new surroundings and they both soon returned to England, the trip was very important for their future ministry: on the trip to America, they had met members of another Christian group, the Moravians, who had a very strong faith in God – and who sang hymns as part of their prayer meetings. John was so impressed by their singing that he immediately translated several of their hymns from German into English and published them in the Collection of Psalms and Hymns – the first Anglican hymnal published anywhere! (The name ‘Charles-Town’ on the title page refers to Charleston, South Carolina, where the book was printed; there must not yet have been a print shop in Savannah. You might remember that the very first book of any kind printed in English-speaking America, about a hundred years earlier in Boston, was a book for singing the Psalms. We also mentioned this book in the series on Isaac Watts back in May.)

When they returned to England, both John and Charles began a traveling ministry. They rode many thousands of miles on horseback each year and wrote sermons and letters constantly, often preaching out of doors because parish priests – many of whom at that time were not very spiritual – didn’t like what the Wesleys had to say about having a lively and personal faith, or about helping others. But huge crowds of people – especially the poor, the sick, and others who weren’t considered ‘respectable’ – came to hear the Wesleys and joined their movement (this was rather like what happened with Jesus!).

Although both John and Charles remained Anglican priests and (especially Charles) wanted their revival movement to take place within the Church of England, the Church as a whole wasn’t ready to hear their message, or to support their work against the slave trade and the terrible conditions poor people in England faced at that time, like being thrown in jail (or exiled to a colony like Georgia or Australia) because they couldn’t pay their debts. The Wesleys’ movement later split from the Church of England and became known as the Methodists.

John Wesley preaching out of doors

A huge part of the success of the Wesleys’ work was Charles’s gift for writing hymns. After being inspired by the Moravians, he went on to write a staggering 6,000 hymns during his life – more than anyone else in the English language, by a long shot. And he didn’t just write a lot; he wrote a lot of very great hymns, many of which are still sung and loved today. In fact, in our Hymnal there are more hymns by Charles Wesley than by anyone else. ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’, ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’ – those are just a couple of Charles Wesley’s many great hymns that put the Church’s teaching and his personal experience of God into good poetry that’s easily sung. Look in the Index of Authors, Translators, and Sources in the back of your Hymnal to find more of Wesley’s work!

Next week we’ll look at one of Wesley’s greatest hits, ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’.

Hymn of the Month: December 2014 · IV

Unto us a boy is born [Hymn 98]

The third stanza of Hymn 98 talks about a part of the Christmas story that we don’t always read in church: the Slaughter of the Innocents. St Matthew tells us in Chapter 2 of his Gospel that, when the Wise Men came from the East to worship the young Lord Jesus, Herod, the king of Judea (the southern part of Israel), was very upset. This was because the Wise Men called Jesus the ‘king of the Jews’ – and if this was true, then Herod was out of a job!

Herod tried to find out where Jesus was and how old He was, saying he too wanted to go and worship – but he really wanted to kill the young Jesus so that he could keep the power and privilege of being king. So, St Matthew tells us, in order to make sure that Jesus was put to death, Herod had all the children living near Bethlehem who were two years old or younger killed. Here you can see an icon of the Holy Innocents waiting to be welcomed into heaven by Jesus, who is pictured as a young man (martyrs are always shown robed in white):

The children who were killed by Herod are called the Holy Innocents because they did nothing to deserve their deaths. They are remembered by the Church every year on December 28 (this feast was moved to yesterday this year because the 28th was a Sunday) and are honored as martyrs (MART-uhrz), which is Greek for ‘witnesses’ and usually means ‘people who are killed for their faith’. In this case, the children didn’t have a choice to give up their lives, but  their deaths witness to the horrible things that happen when someone seeks earthly power and status no matter what. The deaths of these saints point out the difference between a king like Herod (fearful, power-hungry, and violent) and a King like Jesus (who did and gave everything he could – including His own life – to help others).

St Matthew tells us that the Holy Family were warned in a dream and escaped to Egpyt, where they lived until King Herod died and it was safe to return home. There are many, many pictures of this part of the story. Here’s one by Giotto, whose Nativity scene we saw two weeks ago:

Hymn of the Month: December 2014 · III

Unto us a boy is born [Hymn 98]

The fourth stanza of Hymn 98 asks God that Jesus show us the way to heaven, and it reminds us that there is great joy to be found in a life close to God. ‘Hearts aflame’ of course doesn’t mean that we are actually on fire! – it’s a way of trying to describe a great sense of joy. St Luke’s Gospel uses this expression to tell about how some of Jesus’s disciples felt when they were with Him on Easter evening:

‘Were not our hearts burning within us while He was talking to us on the road, while He was opening the Scriptures to us?’ (Luke 24:32)

Originally there was a fifth stanza to the English translation of this hymn, but it didn’t make it into our Hymnal – which is too bad for us church musicians, because it says,

Omega and Alpha he!
Let the organ thunder,
while the choir with peals of glee
doth rend the air asunder.

A replica of an organ from the 1500s in Wales. Note the painting of the Nativity on the right-hand door!

Merry Christmas!

Hymn of the Month: December 2014 · II

Unto us a boy is born [Hymn 98]

The words of Hymn 98 aren’t too hard to understand, but there are some things in it that are worth saying more about.

Right from the beginning, the hymn reminds us that the little baby born at Christmas was also God, the ‘King of all creation’ and ‘Lord of every nation’, and that He came to our ‘forlorn’ (sad and lonely) world that was, and is, very badly in need of love and hope. The hymn goes on to say that, right from the time Jesus was born, He was so special – He had so much love to give to everyone because He was God, and God is love – that even the cows and donkeys in the stable somehow knew it.

Another important Latin Christmas song tells us that the animals’ presence at Our Lord’s birth was a great mystery and even a wonderful sacrament – a way that God shows that He is with us and loves us – because it showed He was willing to leave His rightful place in heaven and become a poor, helpless baby who had no earthly power or status, but only His life to offer.

There are of course thousands of pictures of the birth of Our Lord. Here’s one by Giotto (JOT-toe), an important Italian painter in the 1200s and 1300s:

Hymn of the Month: December 2014 · I

Unto us a boy is born [Hymn 98]

This hymn was written in the 1400s and has been very popular ever since, especially after it appeared in a collection of songs called Piae Cantiones (PEE-ay Can-tee-OH-ness, which means ‘Holy Songs’ in Latin). This book, which was put together in 1582 by a school headmaster in Finland for his pupils, was very popular, which is why there are several hymns from it in our Hymnal. You’ve even sung at least one of these before if you’ve been in choir for at least a couple of years. Can you find it by looking up ‘Piae Cantiones’ in the Index of Authors, Translators, and Sources (that is, where the words came from) or the Index of Composers, Arrangers, and Sources (that is, where the music came from) in the back of the Hymnal?

We also use a different version of this tune to sing a couple of other hymns (Hymn 124, ‘What star is this with beams so bright’, at Epiphany, and Hymn 193, ‘That Easter day with joy was bright’, at Easter). That other version uses mostly the same notes, but only three beats per measure (3/4 time) instead of four (4/4 time) as in this one.

Here’s a recording of the hymn:

Here’s a picture of the title page of Piae Cantiones

and one of this hymn as it appears in that book.

Hymn of the month: November 2014 · IV

O come, O come, Emmanuel [Hymn 56]


Christ in majesty
Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy, 500s

The term Desire of Nations comes from the Old Testament book of Haggai (2:7) and has found its way into several hymns, including the one we studied back in January. What a beautiful way to refer to Our Lord – to say that He and His ways are the very thing that people want most! And what are His ways? to bring peace and unity between one person or nation and another, and between us and God. What is more, we who follow Jesus have an important part to play in spreading this peace and unity. The Catechism – an outline of what the Church teaches, found near the back of the Book of Common Prayer – says that the very mission of the Church is ‘to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ’ (page 855).

The music

The melody we sing this hymn to today wasn’t written with these words in mind. The words were written, in Latin, around 1700, based on some other Latin words from around 800. The music was written around 1500 for a completely different text. When the Latin hymn was translated into English in the 1850s, it was set to this tune, and we have been singing it that way ever since, usually with a very grand organ accompaniment.

But the tune, which is an example of ‘Gregorian chant’ or ‘plainsong’, was written at a time when probably the only accompaniment to its singing was other voices. In fact, in the earliest known book that includes this tune, there is a harmony part alongside it. Here you can see  images of the tune in this very book, which is now in the National Library of France. The tune is on the left-hand pages, starting at the top of the first left-hand page (in this version, the first phrase is repeated) and ending near the end of the second line on the second left-hand page. The harmony part is on the right-hand pages.

And here you can hear ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ sung in Latin to this tune, both by itself and with the harmony part (the harmony begins around 1'25" into the video):

Hymn of the month: November 2014 · III

O come, O come, Emmanuel [Hymn 56]


Jesse tree, St Quentin Basilica

Remember Isaiah from last time? He wrote one of the longest books in the Bible, urging people to put their trust and hope in God, during a time of terrible war. Israel was so badly beaten, scattered, in fact almost completely destroyed, that it was like an almost-dead tree or vine, one that looks like it has no more life in it. But Isaiah, knowing that God still loved God’s people and would never abandon them, wrote that ‘a shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’ (Isaiah 11:1) – a little bit of green growing out of a dead-looking plant.

Jesse was the father of David, who was the greatest King of Israel (he lived maybe 300 years before Isaiah). Much, much later, the beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesse was the great-great...(25 greats in all!)...grandfather of Jesus’s earthly father, Joseph, meaning that Jesus was the ‘shoot’ or ‘branch’ growing out of ‘root of Jesse’: a sign of hope for God’s people. Many old books and churches have paintings of Jesus’s family tree springing from Jesse like the one above.


The source of the phrase Key of David is once again the prophet Isaiah (22:22). The original meaning of the phrase doesn’t have to do directly with Jesus or with this hymn, but the verse from Isaiah is used again in the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible, where St John writes that Christ has, or is, the ‘Key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens’. Both heaven and hell, though they are not places in the physical sense, are often described as having gates: hell is like a prison, and heaven is like a garden (the word ‘paradise’, which is another word we use for heaven, originally meant ‘a walled garden’) or a city with gates. We believe that because Christ overcame death by living and dying completely unselfishly – by living in perfect harmony with God and other people – he has the power to lock the gate of hell and open the gate of heaven. In the picture above, Christ is shown holding the Cross that is also a giant key, and rescuing people from hell. And so we pray that we may live a heavenly life with Him.


The sun over a lake by JMW Turner

Dayspring is just a poetic way of saying ‘dawn’ or ‘sunrise’. What does it mean here? In the daytime we can see, for example, and so we feel safer, while at night, we can’t see the people or animals or objects around us that might surprise or even hurt us, and so we might feel afraid sometimes. So we often use day and night to talk about other good and bad things (you’ll see this all through the Bible, Prayer Book, and Hymnal as you use, read, and study them more and more). ‘Day’ might stand for warmth, health, safety, happiness, home, friends, family, even life itself, while ‘night’ might remind us of cold, sickness, fear, sadness, loneliness, or even death. This hymn, and the Bible verses it’s based on, tells us that Christ is like the sunrise: when we let Him come near to us by following His teachings, showing love to everyone (and being loved by others), receiving His Body and Blood in the Communion, then it’s like we light up inside, and we can spread that light to a world that can often seem very dark. God doesn’t necessarily make evil disappear, but the Light of Christ helps us see the bad things around us (and even those of our own thoughts and wishes that aren’t very nice) and helps us to overcome the things we can and to survive the things we can’t, knowing that God is always right there with us.