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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 hymns from this time were 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.  Technically, this is an Easter text.  However, there is no reason not to sing Easter hymns throughout the church year (except maybe for Lent), and there are good reasons to sing them year-round.

            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 (especially the way candie-dish-using Lutherans practice it), 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.


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Music Notes: Good Shepherd Sunday


Music Notes

29 April, 2015

Psalm 23  Good Shepherd Sunday holds special significance for the writer of music notes, for it was on this Sunday in 1988 that he made his arguably successful “debut” as a church musician, playing “The Lord’s My Shepherd” on the violin for the offertory.  The older, more deaf members of the congregation supportively compared his playing to that of “angels in the high heavens playing wondrous odes to God’s glory.”  The more hearing-capable among the congregation, including his peers from Lutheran grade school, likened the performance to “a chicken scratching on a cardboard box.”  He shortly thereafter began organ study. . .

            Today’s service, then, is organized around the readings from John 10 and Psalm 23 in particular. The handbell ensemble’s prelude to the service, “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” can only rightfully be said to derive inspiration from Psalm 23 or John 10—the majority of the thoughts belong to the nineteenth-century author, Dorothy Thrupp.  In addition to Christianizing the Hebrew thoughts (she adds the concepts of the atonement, sin, imploring for mercy and grace as well as “cleansing”), Thrupp sets this entire hymn as a prayer, addressed to the Savior.  One of the refrains implores, “Hear, O hear us when we pray.”  This hymn fits into the gospel song genre popularized by the revival/evangelism movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  When singing this hymn, we are meant to feel conviction for sin so as to change our sinful ways.  No allusion is made to baptism, communion, or even to any specific scripture.  This is why we in the Lutheran Church do not consume a steady diet of gospel songs—they are relatively weak in content.  But, in the context of the faithful renderings of Psalm 23 sung previously, this hymn allows the singer to engage in a more personal response of faith.

            The sermon hymn, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” by Henry Baker (first published in 1868) does not attempt to remain literally faithful to the words of the psalm.  Firstly, it can be noted that Baker is much more free with the translation.  His opening lines, “The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never;  I nothing lack if I am His and He is mine forever” contrast with the psalm’s first verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  The concepts of “King,” “love,” “goodness” and the use of His/mine are not original to the psalm.  The second stanza (“Where streams of living water flow, my ransomed soul He leadeth.  And where the verdant pastures grow, with food celestial feedeth”) contrasts with the second and third verses of the psalm in the same manner (“He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul.”)  In this case, Baker alludes to the eucharist by “food celestial,” and introduces the concept of the atonement with the phrase “my ransomed soul.”  The fourth stanza is even more explicitly Christian, “In death’s dark vale I fear no ill with Thee, dear Lord, beside me, Thy rod and staff my comfort still, Thy cross before to guide me.”  Here Baker theologically extracts the wooden cross from the wood of the shepherd’s rod, clearly delineating the connection between the religion of the ancient Hebrews to its fulfillment in Christ’s atonement.  The final stanza even address Christ as the “Good Shepherd,” completing the Christianizing of the psalm by blending the theological concepts found in John 10.  Here would our Hebrew friend take umbrage.

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