Sunday, May 30, 2010

Great Three in One Hymn

For most Americans, today is the middle of a three-day weekend that marks the unofficial beginning of summer. For some Americans — and even some church services — it is the 143rd Memorial Day, first observed at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868,  but since 1971 observed as a Monday holiday.

But for Anglicans (and perhaps other liturgical Protestants), it is Trinity Sunday, the last major feast before Ordinary Time, which occupies nearly half the year. In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the  Sundays of Ordinary Time (sort of a permanent “low” Sunday) were designated as the “1st Sunday after Trinity” etc., but it seems with the 1979 prayer book and others following the RCL the formulation has shifted to use “propers” to work back from Advent 1.

I must admit that my theology of the Trinity is weaker than a lot of other core doctrines, if for no other reason that it’s only indirectly covered in the Bible. In the King James version, the phrase “Holy Ghost” is mentioned 89 times (all in the New Testament), but the word “Trinity” cannot be found in anywhere.

As a boy, my understanding of the Holy Trinity came from two main sources. One source was all the times that we said “Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” whether in the Doxology (“Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost”) or the creeds. In those days,  we celebrated Morning Prayer we said the Apostles Creed (said to date to 2nd century Rome), while those Sundays with communion had the Nicene Creed (definitively dated to 325/381 A.D.) All of these list the three members of the Trinity, but again don’t use the “T” word.

Instead, my childhood definition of the Trinity came every Trinity Sunday with one of the most majestic entrance hymns of the entire year, Hymn #266:
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!
I think it was fair to say that this stanza was the source and extent of my knowledge of the Trinity up until my confirmation. The tradition continues to the next generation, as it was one of the first (non-Christmas) hymns learned by my eldest, and we both sang it with gusto this morning.

The words were written by an English vicar, Reginald Heber, who later died while serving as Bishop of Calcutta. As with so many other great English language hymns, it owes its current form to the 1861 Hymns Ancient & Modern, with the tune Nicae written by John Dykes for this purpose.

The perfect match of both are called out by the Hymnal 1940 Companion, which reports that Heber’s words have been reproduced unaltered in the American hymnal since the 1874 edition. The companion also notes
Testimony to the genius of Dykes is that the fact that not a note of either tune or harmony has since been altered.
Hymnal 1982 (#362) reproduces all four verses with one modification to verse 3. The original “Though the eye of sinful man” has become “though the sinful human eye,” one of the least objectionable of the many PC alterations in this hymnal.

Two other thoughts on the hymn. Doesn’t it seem odd that a hymn about the Trinity has four verses? One of my rare agreements with H82 is that if you have to drop a verse, the 2nd is the most expendable, because the third verse (“Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee”) also seems like a central part of imparting the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Also, unlike many other hymns, the final verse is as powerful as the first. Although the message is almost identical to the opening verse, were I to skip the final verse — due to a choir recessional, ushering duties, or a clueless music director — the hymn and Trinity Sunday itself would seem incomplete:
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty
All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!
English Hymn 3Although the hymn is relatively recent by Christian standards, I think both the message and the perfect integration of the music (as noted by Hymnal 1940 Companion suggests this is one of our timeless hymns. Hopefully it will remain a well-known congregation hymn for generations to come, and not just enjoyed at a few English cathedrals with well-trained choir schools

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