Liturgy Lessons: June 11, 2017 (Trinity Sunday)
Prayer of Invocation
Call to Worship: Psalm 33:1-12
Hymn(s) of Adoration: Come, Thou Almighty King (#100); Glorify Your Name
Confession/Assurance: Based on Romans 4:21-25; 5:1-5
Prayer and Hymn of Assurance: St. Patrick’s Breastplate and Be Thou My Vision (#642)
Sermon: Rev. Casey Bedell, Daniel 5
Supper: Let Thy Blood in Mercy Poured (Grosser Gott); Wonderful, Merciful Savior
Closing Hymn: Holy, Holy, Holy (#100)
I bind unto myself the name, the strong name of the Trinity
by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three,
of whom all nature has creation, eternal Father, Spirit, Word.
Praise to the Lord of my salvation; salvation is of Christ the Lord!
– St. Patrick’s Breastplate (433 A.D.)
We follow the liturgical calendar because there is power in retelling the story of our salvation. The calendar begins with Advent, as we prepare for the incarnation, the birth of Jesus. It takes us through the Christmas Season (including Epiphany), Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide, and the astounding miracles of the Ascension and Pentecost. Trinity Sunday is the last liturgical day before Ordinary Time, that long period of about 33 weeks, in which pastors wonder what to preach on, and parishioners patiently wait for the return of their favorite Christmas songs. Trinity Sunday is the one day on the church calendar that does not commemorate an event in the story of Jesus’ earthly journey. Rather, it is set aside to celebrate a “doctrine” which explores the very nature and character of God. How can we even begin to explain the Trinity? In past writings, I have mentioned the concept of the musical triad as an example: each member of the Godhead sounding forth in particular pitch, but all in harmony together to form a beautiful chord. But music is ephemeral and hard to grasp, and Christianity’s essence is God in the flesh. So, perhaps another metaphor is more tangible and vivid: fire.
In the 4th century, there lived a poet named St. Ephrem. He served as a deacon and teacher and wrote many liturgical hymns for the early church. In his 40th hymn, he compared the mystery of the Holy Trinity to fire and to the sun itself. Scripture is replete with this image. Moses encountered God in flaming foliage (Ex. 3:2) and then led the Israelites out of Egypt with the help of a combustible column (Ex. 13:21). The Lord made the alter on Mt. Carmel his own “blazing saddle,” and in so doing, he “Baal”ed out Elijah with a bonfire (1 Kings 18:38), causing the false prophet’s hopes to go up in smoke. The messenger Malachi warned the people that the Lord will come like a “refiner’s fire” (Mal. 3:2), and the book of Hebrews reminds us that God himself is “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). Indeed, last Sunday we read about the tongues of fire that descended upon the apostles’ heads at Pentecost, making them the very first “embers” of the church. So, Ephrem is expanding on the scriptures, and having us ponder this: God is fire, Jesus is the light, and the Spirit is the heat. All are distinct in character and function, but inseparable from one another. All are contributing to the delight and glory of the others. Take any one of these elements away, and fire ceases to be fire. There an indissoluble relationship between the fire itself, and the light, and the heat which it provides.
As we gather for worship on Trinity Sunday, let’s come before this holy hearth and get fired up!
Come, Thou Almighty King
Text: Anonymous (ca. 1757); attr. Charles Wesley
Tune: Felice de Giardini (1769)
This Trinitarian hymn comes from an anonymous prayer found in a leaflet and then published in the 1757 edition of George Whitefield’s Collection of Hymns for Social Worship. Some scholars attribute authorship to Charles Wesley, who may have written this as a counter-anthem to “God Save Our Gracious King,” the English national anthem, which had just been published. The text is saturated with names for members of the Godhead and addresses each member exclusively in individual stanzas: God the Father (vs. 1), God the Son (vs. 2), and God the Holy Spirit (vs. 3, based on John 15:26). The hymn concludes with a doxology to the Trinity (vs. 4).
I have often said that a good song is like a healthy marriage. The words and music should not just co-exist, but serve each other. As an interesting experiment, try taking two hymns of similar meter and swapping their melodies. I suggest trying this with two Wesleyan hymns: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Jesus, Lover of My soul.” All of a sudden, the brooding melody of the latter makes the herald angel choir sound ominous. Likewise, an intimate and desperate prayer becomes laughable when set to such an exultant and iconic Christmas melody. This hymn is a wonderful marriage of form and content. Although it was written in the 18th century by a classical violinist, it is very medieval in its integrity and construct. In medieval times, people generally understood that God was manifest in what He had made (see Psalm 65). The world and everything in it is part of a harmonious whole ordered by God and filled with meaning. For these people, there was no divide between the material and the transcendent. All things were signs pointing to God. It was with this understanding that whole generations spent their lives constructing the cathedral. Without help of modern construction equipment, they spent their lives laboring to build something that—within its form and structure—would illuminate theological truths. These buildings would physically manifest Pythagorean principles of harmonious proportions, and therefore be a signpost to a God of order and beauty. A well-constructed hymn can be a cathedral in miniature. The music can often “preach” of things that are beyond words. Here, in this hymn, we step into a cathedral-like place of wonder; after all, how can anyone fully understand the mystery of the Trinity?
Let Thy Blood in Mercy Poured
Text: Ancient Greek Hymn, tr. John Brownlie (1907)
Tune: GROSSER GOTT, German Catholic Songbook (1774)
If we allow them a place in our hearts, our hymns have a winsome way of shaking us out of our comfortable and cloistered complacency. Singing only music that is exclusive to a certain era, genre, or denomination not only limits our praise palate, but it also cuts us off from so many lyrical and musical gifts by our brothers and sisters in other times and traditions. This hymn reminds those of us in the Presbyterian pool that Christianity did not start at the Reformation. The text has its roots in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and the tune comes to us from the Catholic Church. The text—originally a Greek Communion hymn—was carefully and faithfully crafted into a beautiful English translation by John Brownlie, a Scottish Presbyterian minister who specialized in hymnology. I have chosen to set it to a famous German melody that comes from the mid-18th-century Catholic church in Vienna. In most hymnals, this melody supports the text “Holy God, We Praise Your Name,” a hymn based on the Te eum (ca. 4th cent.). Coincidentally, the closing verse of that hymn is a perfect fit for Trinity Sunday.
Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit, Three we name you;
While in essence only One, undivided God we claim you,
And adoring bend the knee, while we sing this mystery.
However, since this hymn is ushering us into the sacrament of Communion, Brownlie’s text is more fitting for the moment in our liturgy that focuses on Jesus Christ, the light of light, begotten and not made, one in being with Father. When we consume his body and blood, may the all-consuming fire of God and the heat of the Holy Spirit that it imparts be ablaze in our hearts as we sing together this hymn refrain, “Thou didst give thyself for me; now I give myself to Thee!”
It is my hope and prayer that all our hymns and songs would be formative for us. O Lord, we ask that you would use the music and poetry to shape our disordered souls, enthrall our distracted minds, and enamor our shallow hearts with the depth of Your love. John Donne, in his prayer to the Trinity, really did put it better than anyone has:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
– John Donne (from Holy Sonnets)