Posted by: Johnold Strey | May 15, 2009

Easter 6 & Stanza 10

With the weekend upon us, my work is directed toward final sermon and service preparation for Sunday.  This Sunday’s service happens to be the Sixth Sunday of Easter, and the Hymn of the Day appointed for this service in Lutheran circles is Martin Luther’s hymn, “Dear Christians One And All Rejoice” (Christian Worship #377; here’s the original GermanCW‘s public domain translation, and a MIDI file of the tune).  I don’t have any hard data to support this, but I suspect that as many pastors made their preparations for Sunday, they noted the hymn suggestion, opened up the hymnal, saw a 10-stanza hymn looking back at them that’s supposed to be sung just before the sermon, and thought, “Forget that — it’s too long!”  In a large congregation, a 10-stanza hymn might be used later in the service during the distribution of Holy Communion.  In a smaller congregation, it might be divided up as if it were two hymns: stanzas 1-6 as the Hymn of the Day (usually before the sermon), and stanzas 7-10 as the closing hymn.  That’s an option we’ve sometimes used in previous years here at Gloria Dei.  Apart from those options, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” is not sung in many Lutheran congregations this weekend despite its status as the suggested Hymn of the Day.

I suppose that begs a question: Why was this hymn chosen to be sung on this particular Sunday of the church year?

Tools like the lectionary (the series of readings appointed for each Sunday and festival in the church year) and the appointed Prayer, Psalm, Verse, and Hymn of the Day each week are not mandated, but they certainly serve a valuable purpose for — among other things — organizing worship and faithfully proclaiming the whole council of God on a yearly basis.  The suggestions given were not pulled out of thin air.  With careful examination, one can usually see the rationale and wisdom behind the Proper (the parts of the service that change on a weekly basis) for a given service.

So maybe we should first figure out what pastors who follow the lectionary will be talking about on the Sixth Sunday of Easter.  The best way to answer that question is to look at the specific emphasis in the Gospel reading and the larger context of the Church Year season that we’re in right now.

The Fifth and Sixth Sundays of Easter are the last two Sundays before we celebrate Jesus’ Ascension 40 days after Easter.  The Gospel readings on those two Sundays in all years of the lectionary come from Jesus’ discourse to his disciples on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week in John’s Gospel.  Why Holy Week readings in the Easter season?  Because the selections on these days contain statements from Jesus that essentially looked past his death and resurrection and prepared them for the time when he would no longer be physically present among them.  In other words, Jesus statements in John 13-16 serve very well as preparation for his Ascension and for Pentecost.  The Year B selections (with their more general encouragements to remain in Jesus) may seem a bit less obvious than the others, but look at these excerpts from the Gospels for the Fifth and Sixth Sundays of Easter (following the lectionary series in Christian Worship):

  • John 14:2-3 (Easter 5, Year A): In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
  • John 14:16-17 (Easter 6, Year A): I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth.
  • John 15:3-4 (Easter 5, Year B): You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.  Remain in me, and I will remain in you.
  • John 15:9 (Easter 6, Year B): As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.
  • John 13:33 (Easter 5, Year C): I will be with you only a little longer.  You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.
  • John 14:25-26 (Easter 6, Year C): All this I have spoken while still with you.  But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
  • John 16:5 (Easter 5, One-Year): Now I am going to him who sent me.
  • John 16:28 (Easter 6, One-Year): I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father. (NIV)

As you can see, the Gospel readings for the Fifth and Sixth Sundays of Easter (the two Sundays prior to Ascension Day) show Jesus preparing his disciples for the time when they will be without his physical presence among them.  But he also comforts them with the knowledge that he will send them the Holy Spirit after his departure from their midst.

Now take a look at stanza nine of “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice.”

“Now to my Father I depart,

The Holy Spirit sending

And, heav’nly wisdom to impart,

My help to you extending.

He will a source of comfort be,

Teach you to know and follow me,

And in all truth will guide you.”  (CW 377, st. 9)

Given the fact that Jesus gave his disciples the Great Commission shortly before his Ascension, stanza ten also seems very appropriate for this pre-Ascension Sunday:

“What I on earth have lived and taught

Be all your life and teaching;

So shall my kingdom’s work be wrought

And honored in your preaching.

Take care that no one’s man-made laws

Should e’er destroy the gospel’s cause.

This final word I leave you.”  (CW 377, st. 10)

Okay, so there’s a connection between the end of the hymn and the Sunday focus.  But what about those other eight stanzas?

What does a family do when a loved one dies?  Perhaps the family gathers pictures to display at the visitation that review their loved one’s life.  Perhaps there is a meal after the funeral service during which family and friends can stand up and share their memories about their departed friend.  Funerals often provide an opportunity to remember and reminisce about our loved one’s life.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter is hardly a “funeral,” but it does present us with the end of Jesus’ physical presence among his disciples.  The Gospel readings recalls words that Jesus spoke less than 24 hours before his death.  The season and Sunday of the Church Year recall the last few days of the risen Jesus’ visible presence with his believers.  He would soon be gone from them visibly — but certainly not gone altogether, for he promised to “be with [them] to the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:20).

The end of Jesus’ physical presence with his disciples certainly is a natural time to recall, review, and repeat the story of his life lived for us and his death died for us.  And that’s exactly what the first eight stanzas of “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” do.  Stanza one encourages the church to rejoice and “proclaim the wonders God has done, how his right arm the vict’ry won.”  Stanzas two and three set before us the reason for Christ’s entrance into our world as they proclaim the law’s judgment on our sin.  Stanza four states the mind-boggling truth that before the world began — before our first parents had even been created and fallen prey to Satan’s temptations! — God planned out our salvation.  And stanzas five through eight map out the story of salvation, walking us through the virgin birth, the vicarious atonement, and the triumphal resurrection.  Certainly this is a hymn worthy to be sung on any Sunday, but given the immediate and larger context of the Church Year, this particular Sunday is a perfect fit for Luther’s 10-stanza gospel gem!

But there’s still that practical problem.  The hymn is — gasp! — TEN STANZAS long!!!  (Although, let’s be honest, compared to some old German Lutheran hymns, ten stanzas is just barely getting started!)

Whatever you do, I beseech thee — for the love of all that is meet, right, and salutary — please, please, please DO NOT SING AND PLAY ALL TEN STANZAS IN EXACTLY THE SAME WAY!  Worship planners should consider how they can add variety into this longer hymn.

This year, we will be using a concertato for organ, trumpet, congregation, and three-part choir (although in our setting the three-part choir is really a trio, but it works!).  This particular arrangement is by the late James Engel and was published by Concordia Publishing House in 1988 (I believe it’s out of print now).  The choir/trio sings four of the ten stanzas.  Of the remaining six stanzas, we have designated one to be sung only by the men of the assembly and other to be sung by the women.  In this way, no one (except the trio) sings more than five stanzas of the hymn, allowing some “breathing room” for the congregation.

Even without a special setting of the entire hymn, congregations could…

  • sing the hymn antiphonally (men/women, right side/left side),
  • give a stanza or two to the choir (in unison with accompaniment, or with the four-part harmony in the hymnal a cappella; for variety, the tenors and sopranos could sing each other’s parts in their own ranges),
  • vary organ registration based on the text of each stanza, and
  • use alternate accompaniments of the hymn (from other hymnals or resources) on some stanzas to keep successive stanzas from becoming stale.

Organists should remember to play this hymn at a good clip, too.  Many old Lutheran hymns have “new life” injected into them if they’re played with gusto, and “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” calls for that kind of treatment.

Now that you see the “why” behind this hymn choice and the “how” for performance options, let Luther’s words sing out on Sunday!  If not this year, then plan it for next!

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Responses

  1. Pastor Strey,

    Sometimes with a longer hymn I have one of the verses simply played by the organ, instructing the congregation to read the words silently as the organist plays. This is playing the hymn verse straight-up, so that the congregation can follow along easily. It *always* makes for a wonderful meditation!

    In Christ,
    Pastor Jerry Gernander (ELS)


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