O Holy Spirit
Pentecost falls on June 3 this year, so I chose an ancient Pentecost hymn for the month. "O Holy Spirit, by Whose Breath" (PH 426) is a recent translation by John Webster Grant of a hymn that dates all the way back to the ninth century. You may have come across the Latin title, "Veni Creator Spiritus," before. Beginning in the tenth century that Latin hymn was sung on Pentecost at "Terce," the service held the third hour (9:00 A.M.) of each day. Bells, incense, and light usually accompanied the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The text, which is a prayer to the Holy Spirit, includes many of the images and characteristics we associate with the work of the Spirit: breath and fire (st. 1); protector and giver of life (st. 2); energy and giver of gifts (st. 3); source of light and power (st. 4). Stanza 5 leads into a powerful concluding doxology in stanza 6.
This hymn has been popular in English translation for over four hundred years, possibly because it was the only hymn specifically prescribed by the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in 1549. Many hymnals include more than one translation of this hymn. The Episcopal Hymnal 1982 and the Psalter Hymnal, for example, include both "Creator Spirit, by Whose Aid" (Dryden, 1693) and this beautiful new translation by John Webster Grant. Rejoice in the Lord offers "Come, O Creator Spirit, Come" (Bridges, 1899).
The Psalter Hymnal set this text to the German tune, DAS NEUGE-BORNE KTNDELEIN, composed by the Lutheran composer Melchior Vulpious in 1609 and used by Bach in several movements of his Cantata 122. There are several fine organ works on this tune.
Following is a way to introduce this hymn and use it meaningfully to frame the service:
1. Opening of the service: The organ (or bell choir) plays through the hymn at the end of the prelude, followed by the choir or soloist singing stanza 1 as an opening prayer. The choir could frame (sing both before and after) stanza 1 with the Taize "Alleluia" (Psalter Hymnal 639).
2. Prayer for illumination: Before Scripture and sermon, the choir could sing stanza 1 again, with the congregation continuing on stanzas 2-4.
3. Doxology: all on stanzas 5-6.
Psalm 81 is a psalm of celebration and solemn reminder. Israel sang this psalm of joy, remembering how God had delivered them from Egypt.
Stanza 5, which brings back memories of how God supplied manna and quail in the wilderness ("Open your mouth wide: surely I will fill it."), is simple enough for the youngest child to understand (though "yoke" will need to be redefined for them). But the mood shifts in stanza 6, in which God pleads with us to "walk upon my path" in order to experience the blessings of the Lord. Psalm 81 is appropriate for baptism services and for other times when we are called to our covenant commitment to walk in the ways of the Lord.
Marie Post versified this text for the Psalter Hymnal to a bright and celebrative tune from the Genevan Psalter. The tune has very short phrases, two of which are repeated, making this melody one of the simplest to learn of those in the Genevan Psalter. For that reason, generations of Dutch children started their weekly school program of memorizing psalms with this tune, beginning with the stanza that included "Open your mouth wide."
Use trumpet on the melody if possible. Jan Overduin has composed a two part arrangement for organ (see page 18), as well as an interlude to make the transition in mood between stanzas 5 and 6.
Seek Ye First
This Scripture song, less than twenty years old, is sung around the world in many languages and has gained acceptance in many denominational hymnals. Although "Seek Ye First" is not technically folk music, composer Karen Lafferty (see interview on page 5) captured the simplicity of folk music with the strength of this biblical text in creating a song that young and old have committed to memory.
The first two unrhymed stanzas are taken from the Sermon on the Mount, and the third stanza is taken from the words Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy during his temptations in the wilderness. The "Alleluia" places the entire song in the realm of praise to God for "every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."
This song is appropriate for several places in the liturgy and can be sung in a variety of ways:
- Congregation on melody, instrument on descant, beginning with stanza 2. (An oboe would carry over a large congregation; violin, flute, or recorder would also work well.)
- Congregation on melody, with as many members as wish singing on the descant, probably also waiting until stanza 2.
- The entire congregation singing as a round, with group 1 beginning with the melody and continuing with the descant; group 2 comes in on the melody when group 1 is ready for the descant. In this way, the melody and descant continually trade parts.
As with many popular songs, one danger lies in singing "Seek Ye First" too often. If you are familiar with this song, you may not wish to sing it every week during August. If you do, try challenging your congregation to sing all stanzas from memory by the end of the month.