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At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing

 

At the Lamb’s High Feast”  This hymn text originated in the medieval age.  All liturgical hymnody from this time was written in Latin, as it was not until the Reformation in the sixteenth century that hymnody in the vernacular (“common language”) was sung.  This text, “Ad coenam Agni providi” comes to us from an anonymous author (as most early hymn texts were), although this hymn was early spread to England, Italy and Spain. This is an Easter text, appropriate for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, but, like with many Easter hymns, we sing this year-round to remind us of the Resurrection event.

            Most likely this hymn was used at the Easter Vigil services.  In the early and medieval Church, catechumens, or those adult converts who had studied the Christian faith for as long as three years, were baptized only on Holy Saturday’s Easter Vigil (the evening before Easter morning) and on Pentecost.  Donning a white alb symbolizing rebirth in Christ, these new converts would be baptized (usually they were dunked in the water—the early church knew nothing of the candy dish that so often passes for a font in our churches), were confirmed and then received first communion.  In some circles, particularly in England, Pentecost is still known as “Whitsuntide,” or “white Sunday,” in reference to the white albs worn by the converts to be baptized.  Easter Vigil on the other hand is a commemoration of Christ “passing from death to life” which, from a theological perspective, is what happens at baptism.  Notice the death/life eucharistic imagery used in this hymn.  The first stanza praises the “victorious king,” Christ, “Who has washed us in the tide flowing from His pierced side.”  Christ’s blood shed at Calvary cleanses and effects forgiveness through baptism.  We sing in the second stanza that “Christ the victim, Christ the priest” has given “his sacred blood for wine, give his body for the feast.”  In the Old Testament sense, Christ was the “priest,” offering the sacrifice to God on behalf of the people.  Yet, unlike those ancient priests, he was the sacrifice himself.  This concept of God sacrificing Himself (in the context of the Trinity) for the sins of the people for no account of their own is a theological concept unique to Christianity.  In all other religions, humanity must come to God.  In Christianity, God comes to humanity.

            Notice further Old Testament imagery in the third stanza.  “Where the paschal blood is poured, death’s dread angel sheathes the sword;  Israel’s hosts triumphant go through the wave that drowns the foe.”  In a metaphorical sense, we modern humans are like Israel.  We, too, are saved from the ravages of Satan the foe (ie., pharoah) by a God who first leads us by cloud and pillar of fire, and who “drowns the foe” not by the waters of the Red Sea but in the waters of baptism.  Baptism may not be an outwardly dramatic event, but inwardly it is no less dramatic than the Red Sea falling in on the advancing chariots.

            The fourth stanza praises Christ, the “Paschal victim, paschal bread;  with sincerity and love eat we manna from above.”  From the term pascha we derive “passion.”  We speak of Christ’s “passion” as being the time preceding His death.  He has fulfilled the Old Covenant so that the manna we eat from above is His own body—a eucharistic theology at once fulfilling the foreshadowing of the Old Testament. 

            As with any good hymn, there is much more to be said.

 

Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with

Sing Praise to God

“Sing Praise to God, the Highest Good”  This text was written by Johann J Schütz.  He was born in Germany in 1640, studied law and eventually became a town councellor in Frankfurt and published a selection of his hymns in 1675.  Although originally a Lutheran, his tendencies toward Pietism and religious mysticism eventually resulted in his becoming a Separatist. 

            In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Pietism made great inroads within the Lutheran Church and, originating in Germany, spread soon to other Protestant countries, most notable of which is England.  Pietism, a theological movement, is not to be confused with piety, the condition of being pious.  Pietism stressed inner faith, individualism, the visible “fruits of the spirit,” and even mysticism as opposed to the more objective elements of Christianity such as Word and Sacrament.  Within the Lutheran Church, theologians reacted against what they perceived to be “dry orthodoxy”—preaching and teaching that was correct but without emotional fervor.  Whereas the hymns of the Reformation were always composed in terms of the objective second or third person (“A mighty fortress is our God”), hymns influenced by Pietism generally are set within the more subjective first person (“I know my faith is founded.”)  Pietism tended to disregard doctrinal differences and instead focused on faith as emotion.  (This is the difference between orthodoxy—“right praise”—and orthokardia—“heartfelt praise.”)  Certainly this tension is still evident today, and both an intellectual understanding and a type of emotional faith are valuable to a Christian.

            This hymn is an example of Pietist hymnody, although it does not employ first person as we might expect.  Yet, it is not as doctrinally-focused as, say, a Reformation hymn would be (“All who believe and are baptized.”)  Instead of objectively teaching doctrine, this hymn expresses a personal doxology from the singer to God.  (“To God all praise and glory!”)  We sing praise because, in the words of stanza one, “the God of love understood our need for His salvation,” echoing the entire chapter of I John 4.  The third stanza reveals humanity’s “distress” from which we implore God “in mercy, hear us.”  (Psalm 143.)  This continues with an awareness that salvation comes only from Christ—“Our Saviour saw our helplessness and came with peace to cheer us.”  This is certainly a doctrinal statement, but is really about as doctrinal as a Pietist writer can get without becoming controversial.  The final stanza, rather interestingly, places worship in the context of the Christian believer as opposed to worship as evangelism (which is not a scriptural concept.)  “All who confess Christ’s holy name, give God the praise and glory.  Let all who know His pow’r proclaim aloud the wondrous story.  Cast every idol from its throne for God is God, and he alone. . .”  Minimally, we know from this stanza that the hymn is addressed only to Christians.  Whether the writer of the hymn thinks that only Christians can actually praise God (which is not an unreasonable assumption) is not the issue.  This hymn is meant to assist in the sanctified praise of the redeemed.  Yet, this and every stanza concludes with the short doxological refrain, “To God all praise and glory!”  This hymn cannot be accused of the decadence of much “Christian” music these days.  Yes, there is much emotionalism, but this emotion is based on the reality of Christ’s work for and with us.  Much like the writers of the psalms, these objective facts result in our wanting to express our heartfelt praise in this doxology!

 

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