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Christ is Made the Sure Foundation

Christ is Made the Sure Foundation” This Latin hymn, dating from the sixth to eighth centuries, was originally eight stanzas; as with most Latin hymns from that early era, the writer is unknown. Traditionally, this hymn has been sung on occasions celebrating the dedication of a church or other building project. Nonetheless, the text is not about a building. Consider the first stanza: “Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ, our head and cornerstone, chosen of the Lord and precious, binding all the Church in one; Holy Zion’s help forever and our confidence alone.” This stanza uses New Testament language to describe the constituency of the Church. Consider First Peter 2: 4-6: “As you come to Him, the living stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to Him—you also, the living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says, ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in Him will never be put to shame.’” We are told that a cornerstone—a foundation—is of utmost importance to the building which will be constructed above it; so it is with the Church. We live in an age where social gospel, good works, excessive emotion, and all sorts of ephemera constantly tempt Christians and the Church as a whole away from the Word of God. Instead of being “. . . built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone,” in whom “. . . the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord,” (Eph. 2: 20-21) the Church through history has often been enticed away. Whether through corrupt popes and ecclesiastical leadership or reformers who sought to remove Christ’s real presence from the Eucharistic elements, the Church has always struggled to maintain its identity as the Body of Christ. Indeed, the next stanza could refer either to an earthly church building or to our own bodies, called in scripture our “temples.” The Latin writer pleads, “To this temple, where we call You, Come, O Lord of hosts, and stay; come with all Your loving kindness hear Your people as they pray; and Your fullest benediction shed within these walls today.” Our prayer for blessing—benediction—extends from our bodies, to our family and friends, and to our physical homes and churches; certainly, dangers to such in prior centuries were much greater than they are now for us who live in relative safety and security.
In the third stanza we sing, “Grant, we pray, to all Your faithful all the gifts they ask to gain; what they gain from You, forever with the blessed to retain; and hereafter in Your glory evermore with You to reign.” We might be tempted to reference John 14: 13 in which Jesus promises, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” Substantively, this is correct; however, we moderns tend to use this verse to justify our prayers for earthly things—not all bad, of course. We pray for many noble earthly causes including health and safety. Nonetheless, this is not for what the third stanza prays, for there we pray for what we “gain forever. . .and hereafter in Your glory evermore with You to reign.” We pray, then, for salvation and the redemption that has come through Jesus Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. The final stanza is a standard doxology, so this third stanza, at least in our hymnal’s configuration, is the climax of the thought of the text. In this stanza we are not praying for our health, the security of the poor, etc., but for life everlasting. Indeed, anything less would not be worthy of our ultimate prayer. This hymn reminds us to keep Christ—and his central work of justification and human redemption—first in our minds and prayers.


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These are the Holy Ten Commands

“These are the Holy Ten Commands” Indeed, this is not one of the congregational hymns today, but it will be sung by two superb cantors, accompanied in partly Renaissance style by harpsichord and recorder. The hymn is 581 in Lutheran Service Book, and comes from the pen of Martin Luther, who first published the text in the Erfurter Enchiridion of 1524. (The writer of music notes played a concert in Erfurt last summer based on tunes found in this little hymnal.) In this hymn, Luther seeks to metrify (ie., turn into a singable meter) the Ten Commandments, resulting in twelve stanzas total. The first stanza serves as an introduction, “These are the holy Ten Commands God gave to us by Moses’ hands when high on Sinai’s mount he stood, receiving them for our good. Have mercy, Lord.” The subsequent stanzas metrify each of the commandments, reflecting the Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy 30 today, “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his just decrees then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” Luther comments in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians about this Law of the Old Testament,
All the prophets of old said that Christ should be the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, blasphemer that ever was or ever could be on earth. When He took the sins of the whole world upon Himself, Christ was no longer an innocent person. He was a sinner burdened with the sins of a Paul who was a blasphemer; burdened with the sins of a Peter who denied Christ; burdened with the sins of a David who committed adultery and murder, and gave the heathen occasion to laugh at the Lord. In short, Christ was charged with the sins of all men,that He should pay for them with His own blood. The curse struck Him. The Law found Him among sinners. He was not only in the company of sinners. He had gone so far as to invest Himself with the flesh and blood of sinners. So the Law judged and hanged Him for a sinner.
In the final two stanzas, Luther speaks of this power of the Law, “You have this Law to see therein that you have not been free from sin but also that you clearly see how pure toward God life should be, have mercy, Lord.” This hymn follows in the medieval musical tradition of the Leisen, hymns which ended “Kyrie eleison,” or sometimes elided into “Kyrileis,” or Leisen. Our need for mercy is evidenced at the end of each stanza wherein we repeat that Greek supplication. Even in the midst of a hymn that exemplifies the confines of the Law, Luther ends with the Gospel: “Our works cannot salvation gain; they merit only endless pain. Forgive us Lord! To Christ we flee, who pleads for us endlessly. Have mercy, Lord!”
This tune should sound foreign—it is of Renaissance if not medieval background, having originated sometime in the 1200s and was sung by pilgrims to the text, “In Gottes Namen fahren wir,” or “Forth in God’s Name we Go.” In a way, perhaps it is a good pairing of text and tune—singing the Ten Commandments to a syrupy and melodic tune such as the Victorians gave doesn’t seem to convey the strength, or even the harsh message, of the Law.

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