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Musings / ''Let's sing one of the Old Hymns,'' said disgruntled church member

But age of hymnal is not always guide to age of its hymns
By Joey N. Welsh

Every pastor has heard the grumbling. Even if a church is intentional about using a mix of old and new hymns and praise songs, someone will remain dissatisfied until his or her "old favorite" is sung. For some people, a hymn qualifies as being "old" only if it is sung out of an aged, crumbling and out-of-print hymnal. Even if the very same piece is found printed in a newer hymnal, it only qualifies as a certified old hymn if it is sung from a decaying book.

For many people, an "old hymn" means one that sprang from the 19th century revivals and camp meetings as well as the neo-orthodox music of the early 20th century written in response to the perceived threat of modernism in the church. For today, though, as we head from Palm Sunday into Holy Week and prepare to observe Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, I want to talk about another kind of "old hymn." And I mean really, majorly old, a hymn text that was written in Greek by an early church thinker and was ancient already before Columbus sailed or translators produced the King James Version of the Bible.

Many songbooks contain an Easter hymn entitled "The Day of Resurrection." Set to a variety of tunes according to which hymnal is used, its words have been around for about 1300 years. I think it surely must qualify as an "old hymn."

The text was written by John of Damascus (who lived from about A. D. 675 until around 749). He worked in the Greek language, the language in which the New Testament was first written for wide distribution. John was a major figure in the early centuries of Christian worship, and he wrote many texts for use on special days in the church year. Some of those texts have been translated into English, and we continue the traditions of the ages whenever we sing them. (Many hymnals include another Easter text he wrote, "Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain")

The words for "Day of Resurrection" and "Come, Ye Faithful" were both translated into English by John Mason Neale, a 19th century British clergyman who championed the revival of traditional texts, art and architectural styles in the life of the church.

Besides his written texts for worship, John of Damascus was a defender of the use of paintings of Jesus and Mary - icons - as devotional tools in the early church, and he defended the decoration of sanctuaries with carvings and mosaics. Because of his defense of church-related art, John was sometimes referred to as "The Doctor of Christian Art."

In the hymn "The Day of Resurrection" John sought to describe the joyous celebration of Easter, a religious festival that touched the hearts of believers very deeply. John Dahle edited a three volume commentary on church music back in 1928, The Library of Christian Hymns. In his book he described the coming of Easter at midnight after an all-day prayer vigil on Saturday, portraying the event as it would have occurred in Athens in the Middle Ages. He wrote:
"The midnight hour is drawing near. The archbishop and the priests, together with the king and the queen, come out from the church and ascend a large platform from which they may be seen by the crowd. The people stand round about in silent expectation, reverently holding their torches which are ready to be lighted. A muffled song of the monks is heard from a distance. The firing of a cannon announces the midnight hour. The old archbishop raises the cross toward the heavens, and with a powerful and jubilant voice he exclaims: "Christos anesti!" (Christ is arisen!). The silence is broken by the triumphant shout of joy coming from the multitudes who repeat the grand message: "Christ is risen! Easter morn is breaking, darkness fades away!"

"In a moment thousands of torches are lighted as by a magic stroke, and the light is reflected from the many faces beaming with enthusiastic joy. The air is filled with the playing of instruments, the roll of drums and the roaring of cannons. The people shake hands and embrace each other. From the olive groves the rockets shoot up towards the sky. Christ is risen! He has conquered death, trampled it under foot, and by the power of His resurrection all the faithful, whose bodies are in their graves, shall arise unto eternal life. Thus the hymn of the priests, re-echoed by the multitudes, rings out exultingly with an impassionate spirit, which only the true Easter joy can create."
This is how John of Damascus (as translated by John Mason Neale) sought to describe the joy of Easter 1300 years ago in his text that is truly a very, very old hymn:
The day of resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad;
The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal, from earth unto the sky,
Our Christ hath brought us over, with hymns of victory.

Our hearts be pure from evil, that we may see aright
The Lord in rays eternal of resurrection light;
And listening to His accents, may hear, so calm and plain,
His own "All hail!" and, hearing, may raise the victor strain.

Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth the song begin!
Let the round world keep triumph, and all that is therein!
Let all things seen and unseen their notes in gladness blend,
For Christ the Lord hath risen, our joy that hath no end.
Have a happy and joyous Easter! And don't be shy about singing, whether your Easter favorites are very old or very new.
The Joey N. Welsh is an anagram of a famous minister's name. It is the pseudonym of a Jefferson County pastor who served a very long tenure as pastor in a nearby South Central Kentucky town. He's agreed to share his column, "Musings," from time to time.

This story was posted on 2006-04-09 01:00:00
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