This is the second of a series of talks for Lent 2017, given in the Parish Church of St Peter & St Paul, Lufton
Read last week’s talk here.
Tonight’s talk I have entitled Hail, gladdening light.
St Ambrose was Bishop of Milan from 374 until his death in 397. Together with St Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers (d. 367), Ambrose is considered the father of western hymnody, although it is by no means certain that he wrote any of the hymns attributed to him. What is more certain is that he was responsible at Milan for importing an antiphonal style of singing (in which one side of the choir responds to the other) from the Eastern Church.
Between twelve and eighteen hymns are attributed to him, four with a fair degree of certainty – although at various times in the past many more have been. He is also said, together with St Augustine, to have written the song which we know now as the Te Deum, although neither he nor Augustine mention it in their writings so we cannot be certain.
The hymns which he wrote, or at least made possible, are among the hymns that we have come to know as the Office hymns, hymns written to be sung in the daily office either at a particular time of day or in a season or for a festival. It is easy to see how focussed these hymns are on the occasion for they were intended to be sung. They are simple in their format, rich in their imagery and grounded in the scriptures and in Church teaching (see here).
Thus was hymnody introduced into the Western Church as part of the liturgy.
These, though, are not the earliest hymns known to us. There are in the books of the New Testament a number, mostly fragments, of hymns. These appear throughout the New Testament and bear witness to a practice of hymn singing which probably died out in the Western Church as a liturgical practice (although probably continued outside of formal church worship) until around the time of Ambrose and Hilary, although the Eastern Church appears to have maintained the practice of singing hymns at least in the Daily Office.
Most obviously in scripture we have the songs that we know as the canticles Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis and Gloria in excelsis.
But we also have other passages which are clearly hymns such as Philippians 2.6-11, Colossians 1.15-20 (see here). And then there are many shorter fragments of ancient hymns found throughout the letters of Paul and others as well as in the book of Revelation.
We have little idea how these hymns might have sounded when sung but we know that Christians sang hymns. Pliny the Younger wrote of the Christians around the turn of the first century, that They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god (Letter 96 to the Emperor Trajan). Paul mentions the singing of hymns too, Ephesians 5.19, Sing psalms and hymns and inspired songs among yourselves, singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts (see also 1 Cor 14:26, Acts 16:25, Jas 5:13).
The most ancient hymn we have which is not recorded in scripture is the (phos hilaron) which is still found in our hymn books as either Hail, gladdening light or O gladsome light (see here). This hymn was sung at the lighting of the lamps at the end of the day.
The difference between these hymns and the psalms and metrical psalms which we considered last week is enormous. None of these hymns were scriptural in origin (the ones we find now in the New Testament were not in scripture when they were written!) They show an imagination and a rethinking of the the relationship between Christians, Jesus and God the Father. The writers of these hymns were finding a new way of talking about God.
The New Testament hymns have a quality of not just praise but also theological reflection. Philippians 2 for instance reflects on, and teaches Christians about, the nature of Christ. Who was he? Why do we worship him? What did he achieve for us? And Colossians 1 answers the same questions in a different way.
1 Timothy 6.11-16 contains fragments of a hymn or hymns in which faith in Jesus is proclaimed. Ephesians 5.14 speaks of the benefit to the believer of faith. 1 Corinthians 13 is an extended meditation on the nature of divine love as seen in Christ (see here).
This is much more the understanding of the purpose of hymns that Martin Luther holds. Unlike John Calvin, who insisted on only psalms being sung (leading to the metrical psalters being produced throughout Europe and North America). Luther himself wrote hymns and the singing of hymns quickly became embedded in the life of the Lutheran churches. Lutheran pastors would write hymns, certainly to praise God, but also to teach and encourage their congregations. Hymns were written for many and varied occasions, often with the purpose of reflecting in song on the situation in which the churches found themselves.
Luther used scripture, and indeed the psalms, in his hymns but they were neither paraphrases nor metrical versions of the psalms. Luther wrote his hymn, A safe stronghold in 1529. It clearly takes its inspiration from Psalm 46 but is much more creative than the metrical psalms and is unmistakeably not a psalm; it is obviously a Christian piece of writing (see here). Luther’s purpose in writing this hymn was to encourage his congregations to trust God in the face of conflict and persecution, With force of arms we nothing can, / full soon were we down-ridden; / but for us fights the proper Man, / whom God himself hath bidden. / Ask ye, who is this same? / Christ Jesus is his name, / the Lord Sabaoth’s Son; / he, and no other one, / shall conquer in the battle. The spirit of the psalm is maintained but it is given a Christian context and a relevance to the situation in which Luther and his followers found themselves.
This is typical of any number of Lutheran hymns. Philip Nicolai wrote Wachet auf, Wake, O wake! with tidings thrilling in 1598 (see here). He had buried 1 300 people who died of the plague. This great hymn has many scriptural references and recalls the promises of God. He wrote it to remind his devastated congregation that death is a meeting with Christ the Bridegroom.
During the Thirty Years War, in about 1636, Martin Rinkart wrote Nun danket, Now thank we all our God (see here). The town suffered from pestilence and hunger, necessitating Rinkart to conduct nearly four and half thousand funerals; the occupying army demanded tribute and Rinkart negotiated with the occupiers to reduce, by a third, the tribute demanded. Rinkart wrote this hymn to help his beleaguered congregation understand that God keeps faith and will deliver them – however bleak things might appear in the moment.
Another Lutheran hymn to have come out of the Thirty Years War is Ah, holy Jesus (see here). Written by Johann Heerman, as his congregation were suffering the effects of this prolonged and bloody conflict, he used this hymn to remind them that, although they may feel themselves to be innocent victims, it was for their sins, as much as their oppressors’, that Jesus suffered and died.
We can see then how at various times hymns have taken on a new meaning and purpose. From the “battle-hymns” of the Arians and the Orthodox Christians of the third century, to the Office hymns of Ambrose and his contemporaries in the fourth, through the spareness and reflectiveness of the metrical psalms of the early reformers to the stirring encouragement and steadfast faith of the great Lutheran hymns of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Christians have expressed the faith in God and reflected on the teachings of their faith. Through hymns Christians have equipped themselves to live lives of faithfulness and discipleship, all the while giving praise to God. In hymns we are express thoughts about God, and give praise, that we barely feel ourselves and find ourselves transformed by the sentiments and truths about God and Christ as we sing.
We move on next week to the evangelical revivals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and beyond.