When Morning Gilds the Skies | A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

When Morning Gilds the Skies | A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Liturgy Lessons: May 28, 2017
Call to Worship: Psalm 34: 1-8
Hymn: When Morning Gilds the Skies (#167)
Confession of Sin: Based on James 2:1-13
Assurance of Pardon: Based on Psalm 103
Hymn of Assurance: My Heart Is Filled with Thankfulness
Catechism/Congregational Prayers
Tithes and Offerings
Doxology: Gloria Patri
Sermon: “What is it like to be ‘in’?” (Psalm 139) – Rev. Drew Burdette
Supper: Bless the Lord, My Soul (Taize); Before the Throne of God Above; Bless the Lord (Crouch)
Closing Hymn: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (#92)

At a Calvary Near the Ancre
Wilfred Owen, 1917

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.
Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.
The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends”
John 15:13

Wilfred Owen is regarded by many as the greatest poet of the First World War. He was a British soldier who wrote profound verse about the horrors of the trenches and gas warfare. In January of 1918, Owen was involved in fighting near the river Ancre in France, and shortly thereafter composed “At a Calvary Near the Ancre”, a poem that links the characters in modern warfare with the players in the biblical account of the crucifixion. A “Calvary” is a statue of the crucified Christ, erected at many crossroads in France. I imagine Owen, as he marched through France, felt some deep connection with these images of Christ. Perhaps it was the only beautiful thing he saw in that scorched landscape. Amid a gray and gassy haze that hovered over bloodied fields hung the agonizing and adored Christ, arms outstretched in compassion toward those who hate. Owen was writing this lament from his own Golgotha (“place of the skull”), having felt like a soldier-pawn in the prideful shove between the priests and scribes of his day. In the last two lines, Owen gives us his signature stance on war by quoting John 15.

I first encountered this poem in the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten, who weaves Owen’s verse throughout the large-scale opus. In the 5th movement, Britten intersperses Owen’s Calvary poem with the Latin prayer Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) in one of the most haunting segments of this landmark composition, considered to be one of the masterworks of the 20th century (listen here).

You may wonder what all this has to do with our liturgy or hymns this week. Well, I am taking the time to write about this for two reasons. First, Owen’s poem feels like a hybrid sort of hymn in the way it protests against evil and praises love so beautifully embodied in the crucified Christ. There are many sentiments that parallel Luther’s battle hymn “A Mighty Fortress” (see below). Second, this coming Monday is Memorial Day (originally called “Decoration Day” for the practice of decorating the graves of the fallen soldiers), during which we remember and honor those in the armed forces who have died protecting our freedom. In a way, every Sunday is the church’s own Memorial Day. We gather to decorate and beautify our beloved Savior with the fragrance of our praise, remembering his sacrifice that bought us eternal freedom over sin and death. All of our poetry and preaching transcends “allegiance to the state” or any earthly powers, for if Christ, “the right man,” were not on our side, “our striving would be losing.” But Christ is the “greater love” who has conquered, and so we stand and shout from a position of eternal victory, and with eyes of faith we anticipate the coming again of Him whose “kingdom is forever.” I don’t know if Owen believed this or not. He was killed in action on November 4th, 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war, and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells were ringing out in celebration.

When Morning Gilds the Skies
Tune: Laudes Domini (Joseph Barnby, 1868)
Text: Anonymous German Hymn (ca. 1800)

The Reformed Church in America’s statement on music says this:
“From its inception, ‘when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy’ (Job 38:7), to its consummation, when ‘every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them’ will sing to the Lamb on the throne (Rev. 5:13), creation is musical.’”

Indeed, when we gather on Sunday morning, it a liturgical continuation of an unending antiphon between Christ and his creation. This wonderful hymn reminds us that praise should not be limited to church services, but should overflow to our homes and places of work. A more appropriate title would be “May Jesus Christ be Praised!”. That credo is repeated twice in each verse, and is a direct translation from the original German hymn, which contained 14 stanzas. The English translation of the six stanzas in our hymnal is the poetic work of Edward Caswall and Robert Bridges. Some of the other non-hymnal verses include more injunctions to praise God at all times:
“Be this at meals your grace, in every time and place, may Jesus Christ be praised!”
“And at your work rejoice, to sing with heart and voice, may Jesus Christ be praised!”
“When in the mini-van, o people clap your hands, may Jesus Christ be praised!”

Well, maybe that last one is best left out of the hymnal. Anyway, Psalm 133:3 perfectly captures the theme of this hymn: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised!”

Link to sheet music: http://www.hymnary.org/page/fetch/TH1990/174/high
Link to suggested recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0slnlNveJu4

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
Words and Music: Martin Luther (c. 1529)

For Memorial Day weekend, many churches offer up rousing renditions of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” We are choosing to close our service this week with “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (German: “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott”), which has been called “the battle hymn of the reformation.” It is not only one of Luther’s best-known hymns, but one of the most popular hymns in all branches of western Christianity. The words, which are a paraphrase of Psalm 46, are inscribed at the base of Luther’s monument in Wittenberg. Recent research suggests that Luther himself wrote the tune, which is contrary to the myth that it originated as a popular song overheard in the bars and pubs. In fact, the mistaken and popular notion that Luther converted this bar tune for use in the church is entirely false and based on a silly misunderstanding. The word “bar” refers to the musical bar-form (AAB), and not an actual place of public drinking. A Mighty Fortress is a textbook example of bar-form, where the first musical phrase (phrase A) is repeated, and then the last half of the hymn is different music (phrase B). The original version of the tune is quite rhythmic, and stands in stark contrast to the more isometric “white bread” version we sing today. It has inspired many composers, who have quoted and used the material throughout its history. Bach based an entire cantata (BWV 80) on the hymn, and quoted it in his Christmas Oratorio. Other composers who have based material on this hymn include Handel, Pachelbel, Wagner, Mendellsohn, Debussy, and Vaughan Williams. Heinrich Heine, the famous German poet, called this an “imperishable hymn! Not polished and artistically wrought but rugged and strong like Luther himself, whose very words seem like deeds”.

If the music of this hymn is the muscle, then the text is the strong spine and sturdy skeleton. I love the defiant nature of this text, daring the devil to approach this singing army of saints who stand with arms locked and hearts loaded with confidence in our Captain. The second verse of this hymn reminds us that Jesus “must win the battle.” Then we launch into the third verse of Luther’s text, which holds a deeper meaning when we remember what Wilfred Owen and other fallen victims of wars past must have endured.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him.
His rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure.
One little word shall fell him!

That word? JESUS! A name worth singing a thousand times in a million tongues.
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die; but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8)

Sheet music: http://www.hymnary.org/media/fetch/96175
Historical(original) version: http://www.hymnary.org/hymn/UMHS1991/page/77
Recording of Bach’s chorale setting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GwvIdV6vbA