Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Lenten Hymn

I was asked last weekend what my favorite hymns were. After naming "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty," which is definitely my favorite, there's a large group of hymns that I like fairly equally well. I started naming them—"O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," "Jesus, Priceless Treasure," and several others immediately came to my mind. I quickly realized there's a big pattern in my favorites, though—with some British exceptions (notably ones with tunes by Vaughan Williams and Parry), most of the hymns I like best are of the German Lutheran variety. I'm not sure what has caused that, but I think it's probably a combination of J.S. Bach and the German Church Music class I took with Robin Leaver.

That said, there's some really great German Lenten texts. One of my favorites is "Christ, the Life of All the Living" (Jesu, Meines Lebens Leben) by Ernst C. Homburg. Catherine Winkworth translated it into English in Christian Singers of Germany (which I've discussed before). Here is Winkworth's translation:

Christ, the Life of all the living,
Christ the Death of death, our foe,
Who Thyself for us once giving
To the darkest depths of woe,
Patiently didst yield Thy breath
But to save my soul from death;
Praise and glory ever be,
Blessèd Jesus, unto Thee.

Thou, O Christ, hast taken on Thee
Bitter strokes, a cruel rod;
Pain and scorn were heaped upon Thee,
O Thou sinless Son of God,
Only thus for me to win
Rescue from the bonds of sin;
Praise and glory ever be,
Blessèd Jesus, unto Thee.

Thou didst bear the smiting only
That it might not fall on me;
Stoodest falsely charged and lonely
That I might be safe and free;
Comfortless that I might know
Comfort from Thy boundless woe.
Praise and glory ever be,
Blessèd Jesus, unto Thee.

Heartless scoffers did surround Thee,
Treating Thee with shameful scorn
And with piercing thorns they crowned Thee,
All disgrace Thou, Lord, hast borne
That as Thine Thou mightest own me
And with heavenly glory crown me.
Thousand, thousand thanks shall be,
Dearest Jesus, unto Thee.

Thou hast suffered men to bruise Thee
That from pain I might be free;
Falsely did Thy foes accuse Thee,
Thence I gain security;
Comfortless Thy soul did languish
Me to comfort in my anguish.
Thousand, thousand thanks shall be,
Dearest Jesus, unto Thee.

Thou hast suffered great affliction,
And hast borne it patiently,
Even death by crucifixion,
Fully to atone for me;
Thou didst choose to be tormented
That my doom should be prevented.
Thousand, thousand thanks shall be,
Dearest Jesus, unto Thee.

Then, for all that wrought our pardon,
For Thy sorrows deep and sore,
For Thine anguish in the garden,
I will thank Thee evermore;
Thank Thee with my latest breath
For Thy sad and cruel death,
For that last and bitter cry
Praise Thee evermore on high.

I like this hymn because while the text itself is moderately dark, describing at length Jesus' suffering so that we do not have to, the tune is almost cheerful. That combination describes how I feel about Lent in general—in fact, it's one of my favorite times of the Christian year (OK, so I actually like it all). But, as a time in which introspection is encouraged, and in which we can focus on Christ's immense love for humanity, there is that tension of remorse and sorrow for our own sin, while, at the same time, a sense of joy for what Jesus did. I think people forget, sometimes, that Christianity is a joyful religion, even during Lent, when people have given up something dear to them, the "alleluia" is absent, and minor key hymns are dug out of the hymnal.

These hymns that do appear at Lent are, by and large, hymns with great theology and great gospel messages. I wish we'd sing them more often, and, to that end, "Christ, the Life" might be a good candidate, since it's in a major key. I think that is what hampers many of these hymns—their minor quality, which leaves many uncomfortable with them. What others would be useful throughout the year?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Another holiday, more symbols

While digging through book reviews from 1883 for dissertation research, I discovered that one book published that year (which was apparently fairly popular, since I saw several different reviews) was all about the symbolism of various flowers you might give and receive. This was a popular pastime in the Victorian era, with many books and pamphlets produced to be sure that you could say or interpret exactly what you wanted with your floral gifts.

Low and behold, while home this morning because of the ice storm, Lisa Benenson of Hallmark Magazine appeared on the Today show to discuss just this subject. Here is her list of the meanings of flowers. I was a little surprised at the definiteness she gave the subject—such as the absolutely horrible nature of yellow flowers, implying jealousy, disdain, etc.

It seems that unless someone is privy to this system, all these meanings would not be clear. They aren't universal symbols, or else all the books that were published would have been unnecessary. But, it made me think about other issues—namely, as to why, like at Christmas, someone was on television dictating symbolic language to America. What is it about holidays that brings a symbolic urge to companies?

Ronald Grimes, the ritual theorist, maintains that an underlying symbolic language begins at birth, with the rituals established between mother and baby as the baby cries for food and the mother picks it up, day after day. Again I wonder about symbols that are dictated to people, as opposed to those arising naturally. Can they have any effect? Or, in this case, is just the commonly understood symbol of love from flowers enough? And, Hallmark should remember that symbols are always multivalent—different people interpret them differently. Things less fundamental than water, food and drink seemingly would be more difficult to include in an underlying symbol system.

The emotions inherent in Valentine's Day (you can read its history at this quality internet website) and Christmas would definitely give strong associations with the symbols surrounding them. Is it the emotional nature of the holidays that brings out easy symbol appropriation? And, what does that say about other symbols? Does emotional content help their effect? Or, conversely, does it cloud their effect?