Sunday, May 5, 2013

Come, ye faithful

One of my favorite hymns for the Easter season is “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain”. It’s a perennial favorite for many congregations (and denominations) — featured in 318 hymnals (according to However, it never seems to quite make the cut for Easter Sunday — but could get used for an Easter Vigil, sunrise service, or other second service on Easter day.

Since this is the last Sunday of the Easter season, it seems an appropriate time to remark on this hymn. In particular, the Issues Etc. radio show (i.e. podcast) last month ran an hour-long hymn study on the hymn with Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

In addition to being familiar and well-liked, from an objective standpoint the hymn has two things going for it. One is the theological content of the text — largely based on Exodus 15 — which was  the subject of most of Prof. Just’s interview.

The other is the source. It’s one of two familiar Eastern hymns written by St. John of Damascus (died ca. 749). The other hymn is the beloved “The Day of Resurrection”, H40: 96, H82: 210. Both were translated from the Greek by John Mason Neale, and in fact, they are two of the 14 Easter season texts in Neale’s 1862 compilation Hymns of the Eastern Church (available free at CCEL and Google Books).

The hymn is intended for Low Sunday. The Historical Edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern, the Hymnal 1940 Companion, the ELCA Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship and Prof. Just all recommend it for Easter 2, Doubting Thomas Sunday. In Hymns of the Eastern Church, Neale himself lists this as one of four Odes from the Canon of morning prayer by St. John of Damascus intended for “St. Thomas’s Sunday.”

There is no agreement over the tune, which has changed repeatedly over the years. In the Church of England, Hymns Ancient & Modern (#133) uses a tune called “St. John Damascene”. The English Hymnal(#131) uses Ave Virgo Virginum, from the 16th century songbook by Johannes Leisentritt. This is also the combination published in Songs of Praise (#144), and the New English Hymnal (#106) many decades later.

However, this tune is not found in United States PECUSA hymnals. The hymn was not published in the 1872 Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church. However, the 1892 The Church Hymnal (#110) and Hymnal 1916 (#170) include the hymn with four verses by Neale set to the 1872 tune St. Kevin by Sir Arthur Sullivan. The (Hutchins) 1896 revision of the 1892 hymnal also lists a second tune, Rex Regum.

In the 20th century, Hymnal 1940 (#94) lists two tunes: Gaudeamus Pariter  by Johann Horn (1544) with St. Kevin as the 2nd tune. In Hymnal 1982, these became #200 and #199 respectively, although (as H82 is wont to do), for the latter tune it drops all but the melody.

The latest LCMS hymnal, Lutheran Service Book (#487) uses Gaudeamus Pariter, as did the Issues Etc. interview segment.

The text was first published as an 1859 article on “Greek Hymnology” in  the journal The Christian Remembrancer (p. 304). The same four stanzas appear in his 1862 compilation:
Come, ye faithful, raise the strain
of triumphant gladness!God hath brought his Israelinto joy from sadness:loosed from Pharoah's bitter yokeJacob's sons and daughters,led them with unmoistened footthrough the Red Sea waters.

'Tis the spring of souls today:Christ hath burst his prison,and from three days' sleep in deathas a sun, hath risen;all the winter of our sins,long and dark, is flyingfrom His Light, to whom we givelaud and praise undying.

Now the Queen of Seasons, brightwith the day of splendor,with the royal feast of feasts,comes its joy to render;comes to glad Jerusalem,who with true affectionwelcomes in unwearied strains Jesus' resurrection.

Neither might the gates of death,nor the tomb's dark portal,nor the watchers, nor the sealhold Thee as a mortal:but today amidst the twelvethou didst stand, bestowingthat thy peace which evermorepasseth human knowing.

The are the same stanzas used consistently by ECUSA hymnals since 1896. Hymns Ancient & Modern uses a slightly different version of the 4th verse (“Alleluia now we cry”). Both The English Hymnal  and the New English Hymnal include only the original four. The Lutheran Service Book has five verses — with the final verse expanded into two — but no author is credited with the new translation.