Sunday, December 5, 2010

Halfway through Advent Year A

At church I’ve been helping to pick hymns for Advent, which somewhat makes sense since the music leaders are not Episcopalian or Anglican but also is a bit odd given we use Hymnal 1982, for which my feelings are well-advertised. (And no, this blog does not solely exist to knock H82.)

It’s also a little confusing because Hymnal 1940 has a built-in lectionary guide for hymns but ECUSA decided to make a buck selling ancillary products to achieve the same goal in H82. (Reviews of those products some other time.) Plus the 1979 prayer book has its lectionary and so the H82 guides are tied to that lectionary, but our Schism II parish is using the RCL which is slightly different.

Still, it’s a lot of fun to apply what little I know about hymns to weekly worship and I got many positive comments today from the hymn-lovers among our fellow parishioners. (In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.)

In trying to come up with four hymns each week — matched to three readings and a Psalm for each of four Sundays — it’s been a mixed bag. Sometimes the text is really really clear; in some cases, a hymn guide makes a linkage that I don’t see (but I used the hymn anyway); and in some cases, there’s no obvious linkage so the hymns all tie to one of the other readings.

I started by keeping out Christmas hymns and making sure the best Advent hymns got scheduled. I started from my list last year of the most consistently popular Advent hymns. I supplemented this with a very good (i.e. I agree with it) overview of the best Advent hymns in H82, from Full Homely Divinity (which like this blog seems to anonymously posted by a virtual online ministry.)

There is also the online cross-reference for choosing H82 hymns at the website of Dr. Shirley, using a lectionary cross-reference by Charles Wohlers and Rev. Richard Losch. The Isaiah readings were particularly difficult without this list.

One problem common to any season is that some hymns can be used at any time, not necessarily for a given Sunday. At least half of the hymns from my greatest hits list are of the “the Messiah is coming” variety which of course is the whole theme of Advent. Some hymns (or readings) may focus on the specific Baby Jesus aspect, or on Mary or on his second coming.

So some of what I did was organize the H82 hymns from a H40 sensibility. (This is after all our Rite I service, many of whom used the H40 for years.) At any parish that I’m at, I’m going to pick/lobby for the first hymn of the first week of the church year to be Hymn #1 from H40 (H82 #66): “Come, thou long-expected Jesus.” It’s appropriate to be sung at any time during Advent, but both by convention and its bright nature, it provides a strong (and reassuring) signal about our focus this time of year.

Conversely, it’s hard to pick the right time for Veni Emmanuel (H40 #2, H82 #56) because it fits so well through out the season. At least one friend joked that if I had my way we’d do it every week which is not far from the truth. This year, however, I advised using it to bracket the last Gospel of Advent in the RCL Year A (Matthew 1:18-25), the story of the angel visiting Joseph. In particular, verses 21-23:
21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us).
(With a better choir, we’d use recitative and air from the Messiah.)

The other theme that comes up throughout the season — but particularly on Advent 2 — is John the Baptist. There are several hymns that talk about John, but the mandatory one is “On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry” (H40 #10, H82 #76) which fortunately is both familiar and easy to sing.

At times the choices were highly idiosyncratic. For Advent 3, both Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11 make explicit reference to opening the eyes of the blind.  To me, this suggested six words of “Amazing Grace” (“was blind, but now I see”) which seemed like a good enough excuse to lay on four verses of this congregation favorite.

Alas, a bridge too far this morning was to program Sleepers Wake (H40 #3; H82 #61). The Philip Nicolai tune is long and difficult and I don’t think it’s familiar to American Anglicans. I don’t recall hearing it as a kid, so I think I may have mistakenly classified it as familiar from my brief sojourn as an LCMS Lutheran (where it is much beloved). This is a very challenging hymn, and of the four Anglican (3 continuing, 1 TEC) congregations I have most often attended over the past five years, I’m not sure any of them could do it without a strong well-practiced choir.

I also learned that if there’s a three verse limit — four for the sequence hymn — that verses should be consciously chosen for each hymn. For “Creator of the stars of night” (H40: 6; H82: #60) — the John Mason Neale translation of the 1st millennial text — I picked the first verse and the last two. The final verse is a trinitarian ending that I didn’t want to omit, but frankly I thought the penultimate verse (of the H82-altered text) was the most germane to Advent:
Creator of the stars of night,
Your people’s everlasting light,
O Christ, Redeemer, save us all,
We pray you hear us when we call.

Come in your holy might, we pray,
redeem us for eternal day;
defend us while we dwell below
from all assaults of our dread foe.

To God the Father, God the Son,
and God the Spirit, Three in One,
praise, honor, might, and glory be
from age to age eternally.
Now that I move from the theoretical to the practical, there are at least four dimensions for choosing a hymn:
  • Fit to the readings
  • Importance of the hymn (historically, musically, etc.)
  • Inherent singability
  • Site-specific singability, i.e. familiarity to this congregation
We’ll use these criteria next year for Advent, and will probably apply them next month when we re-open the Sanctus selection.

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