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O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days

“O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days”  Written by Claudia Hernaman (1838-1898) and paraphrased in the version we sing today by Gilbert Doan (b 1930), this hymn is based on Luke 4 in which “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.”  The stark simplicity with which this hymn conveys its message evidences the fact that it was originally published in the Child’s Book of Praise (1884), a collection of Sunday School songs. With such in mind, our children’s choir this morning has memorized and sings the first two stanzas of this hymn.  With this hymn we begin our penitential observance of Lent.

            In the Early Church (from Pentecost through the persecutions which ended in the mid-fourth century), Easter was the primary celebration of Christ’s life.  There was no observance of Christmas, Epiphany, Advent or Pentecost.  Easter was seen as the climax and focal point of the year, and it was on Easter Eve the catechumens (those studying for entrance into the Church) were baptized.  Such a major yearly event in the life of the Church required some preparation time, and this was variously set from 6-8 weeks before Easter, and this became Lent.  As late as the 5th century, Lent was still set at eight weeks, but did not include Saturdays (which were Sabbath Days) and Sundays (which are Lord’s Days), but which still allowed forty weekdays of Lent.  We still maintain the tradition of not observing Sundays of Lent, but rather Sundays in Lent.  Therefore, the forty days of Lent do not include the Sundays. 

            The Early Church Fathers did not choose the number forty randomly; rather, its theological significance had spanned the ages:  the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, Moses was on Mt Sinai for forty days, and Jesus was tempted in the desert for forty days.  In the Early Church, this Lenten time was devoted to study and to devotion and to penitence—certainly there was no celebration involved.  Eventually, canon law was added that forbid the eating of meat during Lent and forbid all be unaccompanied singing in church.  In the Roman Catholic Church, these strictures where only loosened in the 1960s. 

            “O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days” is faithful to the gospel text from Luke as it recounts the narrative of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness.  The first half of each stanza recounts a fact, the second half of each stanza prays for this fact somehow to be inculcated into our lives.  We sing, “O Lord, throughout these forty days, You prayed and kept the fast,” a factual recounting of the narrative.  But, in the second half we pray, “Inspire repentance for our sin, and free us from our past.”  We likewise pray that God would give us the “nerve, Your skill and trust in God’s eternal Word” that we might likewise successfully counter Satan’s schemes.  The third stanza speaks to the Lenten season when we pray, “So teach us to deny ourselves, since we have known God’s love.”  Our penitence and privations during Lent (should we choose to observe them) are not done from the perspective of the Law, and we know they do nothing to earn our own salvation.  Most religious traditions—particularly those involving denials of some sort—tend to degenerate into legalism.  Yet, they don’t have to.  We can follow the church year which outlines the life of Christ, allowing us to experience the wonder of Advent and Christmas, the hope of Epiphany, the sorrow of Lent and Good Friday, and the resurrection joy of Easter.  Or, we can just celebrate Easter, surrounded with fifty-one Sundays devoted to preaching/singing about topics of interest.  We don’t have to follow the liturgical year for our salvation, but doing so helps us relate to Christ incarnationally—He was a man who experienced the same temptations, sorrows, and joys as we do, and knowing this enriches our own faith.  We don’t have to follow the lectionary every Sunday. In many churches, a pastor preaches on his favourite (and simplest) Bible verses repeatedly.  With the lectionary, we are confronted with reading a great majority of the Bible each year.  Doing so does not earn our salvation, but it helps us to stay grounded in scripture and not the opinions of merely-pious theologians.  We don’t have to follow any particular liturgy or ritual.  All that is really required (according to the New Testament) is that we worship in spirit and truth, singing, praying, and learning.  But how much do we lose when we are not able to sing the words of scripture back to God in our liturgy, or sing of God’s works through Word and Sacrament?  In all these cases, our practices enhance our faith and our continual process of sanctification.

            If the gentle readers of music notes choose to give up something for Lent, they know it is because they will be improved by it. We can be, in the words of Thomas a Kempis, “Imitators of Christ” who spent forty days in the desert preparing for the events of Holy Week and Good Friday.  He had much more to prepare Himself than we do!  Yet, we can pray during this Lenten season the words of stanza four:

 Be with us through this season Lord, and all our earthly days,

That when the final Easter dawns, we join in heaven’s praise.

 

 

Transfiguration

LORD OF LIFE LUTHERAN CHURCH
Music Notes
7 February, 2016

“’Tis Good, Lord, to Be Here” This is the quintessential Transfiguration hymn, literally retelling the historical event of Matthew 17 in which Jesus, taking His disciples to the mountaintop, is transfigured and stands with Moses and Elijah for whom Peter helpfully suggests he might build a tent! The Father then speaks, “This is My beloved Son, listen to Him,” reminiscent of the Father’s revelation only three years early when Jesus is baptised in which He states, “This is my beloved Son; with Him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3: 17b) In a sense, then, God the Father marks both the commencement and the culmination of Jesus’ ministry with His approbation. Only a few weeks ago the Christian Church celebrated Christmas and Epiphany, yet today we begin the Lententide journey which was the reason for Jesus’ incarnation, without which the baby in the manger is mere shallow sentiment. In stanza three we sing, “Fulfiller of the past, and hope of things to be! We hail Your body glorified and our redemption see.” A few chapters earlier Matthew had summarized the prophecies of the Old Testament when he had written of Jesus’ incarnation that “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” We continue the narrative of the hymn by singing “Before we taste of death, we see Your kingdom come, we long to hold the vision bright and make this hill our home.” This writer is reminded of the final hymn in The Lutheran Hymnal, “Heaven is my Home,” which perhaps too-sentimentally reminds the Christian that all on earth and in this life is mere ephemera.
The sermon from last week is reiterated in this hymn-- “How good, Lord, to be here! Yet we may not remain; But since You bid us leave the mount, come with us to the plain.” There is something ultimately satisfying about gathering together to worship in Word and Sacrament, to be where God dwells. There is something unique about gathering at church together which is different than sitting at home practicing one’s own pipe organ, or sitting under a tree on a lazy summer’s morning, or fishing in a lake on an autumn day. Sure, we can see God’s presence in music or in nature. Art, science and humanity all testify to the fact that there is a Supreme Being who had something to do with our existence, which only the most ignorant and narcissistic of people would deny. Yet, as rewarding as it may be to read our Portals of Prayer at home or to discuss the latest Christian book in our small groups, nothing can replace corporate worship, centered around Word and Sacrament, under which we gather every seven days (and more frequently during Lent.)
Jesus transfigured and became something foreign to the apostles; He no longer looked like the man with whom they had traveled for almost three years. And Moses and Elijah were certainly no everyday sight! We, too, can encounter Christ in a special way in church. The first table of the law tells us to honour God by having none other beside Him, by honoring His name, and by keeping the Sabbath holy. God calls us together to worship Him because He knows there is nothing that can replace corporate worship. Worship is uniquely focused on the Holy Trinity and Christ’s sacrifice and redemption as outlined in Holy Scriptures. Worship is not like Christian radio or television. The pastor is not a motivational speaker. We don’t assemble to execute a Broadway production. We could get all of that by listening to the radio or television, going to a motivational speech, or paying exorbitant fees to attend a play. None of those things are Christocentric, and when our identity as Christians becomes too absorbed around these things—even in their Christian guises—we run the risk of not recognizing Christ when He comes again. “It is good to be here” this Sunday morning because we receive at corporate worship absolution, the sacrament, and fellowship with others, confessing together the “one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins.” If we lived stranded on a desert island, we’d have to make do without such things, yet still having faith in God’s promises. But most of us are fortunate to be able to gather to worship, being constantly reminded of law and gospel, sins and forgiveness, in order to be able to deal with the realities of life. As we live out the centrality of worship in the words of the writer of Hebrews, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another,” we can joyfully exclaim anytime we are gathered under Word and Sacrament, “’Tis good, Lord, to be here!”

 

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