I’ll never forget my visit to see the famous leaning tower in Pisa, Italy. I had not realized that the tower was a bell tower at the east end of the church in Pisa, a separate building with bells that would peal when someone died. I actually became more interested in the building at the other end of the church—the round baptistery, a separate building dating from the thirteenth century built just for baptisms, with fantastic acoustics.
In the center of the baptistery is the font, more like a pool, with steps leading down into it for baptism by immersion. The person to be baptized would walk down steps into the font, and after baptism ascend the steps. The symbolism is striking. Drawing a line from west to east, we enter life, dying and rising with Christ in baptism; we move into the church, where we live in a community of faith, always facing east, the direction of the rising sun; and then our death is announced from the bell tower. In ancient days, we would also have been buried on the church grounds in anticipation of rising again when Christ returns, when “the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings” (Mal. 4:2).
For Christians, the community of faith gathered in the local church has always been at the center of the movements and important milestones in our lives. The songs in this issue are all intended for beginnings and endings—starting with a song for baptism and ending with one for a funeral or memorial service. An overarching theme could be “dying and rising with Christ,” which is the biblical way of beginning our lives in Christ (Rom. 6:4). There are other milestones in life too, such as professions of faith and weddings. Here are four songs for these times.
Baptism: “All Who Have Been Baptized in Christ Jesus”
People in the Reformed tradition were psalm singers for centuries and did not encourage hymn writing, so finding a baptism song that reflects a Reformed theology of baptism is not easy. Many song writers have produced hymns meant for infant dedications rather than baptisms, or for a service in which the one being baptized is making all the promises.
In a recent search for new baptism hymns for a forthcoming collection of songs from around the world, I came across the Spanish song “Todos los que han sido bautizados” in the Methodist hymnal Mil voces para celebrar (Nashville, 1996). There is good theology in this song based on Galatians 3:27: “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” This song is appropriate not only for a baptism service but for profession of faith, where those who were baptized as infants remember the promises God made to them in their baptism, and then make their own promises back to God and the covenant community.
The composer is Fernando Rodrígues. This song is sung frequently in Spanish-speaking communities but had never been translated into English before. Look for this song in Global Songs for Worship to be released late 2009.
Profession of Faith and Commissioning: Psalm 121
Psalm 121 has a long history of connections to beginnings and endings, especially comings and goings. The final verse reads: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” It has been a habit in many family devotions and worship services to read Psalm 121 when someone is leaving on a journey, or perhaps moving away.
Profession of faith is one important step in a journey of faith. God makes promises to us in our baptism, and at some point we take a public stand and make promises back to God within the community of faith. There are, of course, many times that we are called to profess our faith publicly—in ordination and commissioning services, for example.
Psalm 121 is not a prayer directed to God, but a testimony—a statement of trust that God will keep us in his care wherever we are. And so we can sing this psalm to someone setting out on a particular journey of faith. Because these are not only our words, but God’s Word, we can sing this song knowing that once more, God is making promises to guide us on our journey.
The text of this psalm comes from the 1912 Psalter, the English language psalter produced by nine different Presbyterian and Reformed denominations. It is still the source of many psalm settings in many hymnals, including the Psalter Hymnal. The language has been updated a bit, and a refrain has been added by Hal Hopson, a prolific full-time composer of music and teaching resources for church musicians. He has taken on many large projects; his latest is The People’s Psalter (MorningStar, 2008), a collection of psalms set to folk tunes. All the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary are included. Hopson composed a refrain for each psalm to be sung by the congregation, as well as settings of the psalm verses in varied styles that could be sung by the congregation, choir, or soloists.
For Psalm 121, Hopson took a Basque melody and the 1912 Psalter text and crafted a refrain and an attractive keyboard accompaniment. Since the melody and the text are public domain, they could be sung independently without the need for permission. Hopson has given permission for the refrain to be copied on a projection screen or in a bulletin, also without need for permission for those who have purchased the book.
Weddings: “God, in the Planning and Purpose of Life”
The current affection for all things Celtic makes this hymn very accessible for a wedding. The text is by John Bell of the Iona Community, the best-known hymn writer in Scotland. The tune slane is surely one of the most beloved Irish tunes, known especially for its pairing with the text of “Be Thou My Vision.”
This hymn is intended for congregational singing at the beginning of a marriage service before the vows are made. The text begins with an affirmation that God has hallowed the institution of marriage. The second stanza describes the wedding scene at Cana, which also sanctified the joyful celebration of a wedding feast. In the third stanza, the “therefore” moves us to prayer for the wedding service we are celebrating, and for the bride and groom in the future, that their hopes and dreams may be rooted in love. The final stanza is a doxology that could stand alone at the conclusion of the service (if so, consider changing the second word from “then” to “now”).
Funerals: “No Saint on Earth Lives Life to Self Alone”
When Singing the New Testament was published last year, we knew that the contents included only a small fraction of songs based directly on Scripture. (See the Scripture database of more than 4,000 song titles at www.hymnary.org and the notice about the website in News and Notes, p. 47).
I recently discovered “No Saint on Earth Lives Life to Self Alone” when a Lutheran friend asked me a question about its origin. This hymn is a treasure—a song of strong comfort for those who grieve the loss of loved ones not “as those who have no hope” but with strong assurance that “We are the Lord’s, safe in God’s faithfulness.”
The text is based on Romans 14:7-9. In this text and the surrounding verses, Paul encourages those stronger in faith not to pass judgment on others who are weaker in faith, never offending or putting stumbling blocks in the way of others. When people are grieving, they are particularly vulnerable, and this passage is a clear teaching for Christians to be compassionate with those who grieve.
The text was crafted into poetic form by the well-known Dutch poet Jan Willem Schulte-Nordholt (1920-1995), a professor of North American history and culture and author of many books of history and poetry. He contributed more than eighty hymn texts to the Liedboek voor de kerken, the 1973 psalter and hymnal that still serves all the churches in the Netherlands—Protestant and Catholic. He tells the story behind his writing of the text in the Compendium to that hymnal:
In earlier times, it was often customary to memorialize the death of a loved one by writing a song. And so I wrote this song as an In memoriam of a beloved young wife, mother of four children, who died in the summer of 1969 at the age of thirty-two. I had heard that in her last weeks her husband read to her from Romans 14 over and over, words that spoke comfortingly to her about dying in Christ, especially verses 7-10. So I set those verses to rhyme.
In 1982, Norman Kansfield translated this text, following the same structure (six lines of ten syllables each, with a rhyme scheme of aabbcc), but he shortened Schulte-Nordholt’s text from four to two stanzas, keeping it more tightly connected to the Romans text. His English text was published in Rejoice in the Lord (1985); Kansfield was on the committee that prepared that hymnal for the Reformed Church in America. The song speaks of the comfort we have in Christ, our risen Lord, who has gone before us but who also knew what it was to die. Our comfort sometimes needs to come through hard-fought faith and trust that “through sorrow on to triumph Christ has led, and reigns o’er all.” This confession would be comforting as a congregational hymn or as an anthem sung by a choir that is prepared to sing at funerals (see Karl Moyer’s article on funeral choirs in RW 66).
There are many tune possibilities: the Dutch Liedboek and Rejoice in the Lord set it to a 1971 tune by the Dutch composer Jaap Geraedts; the new Lutheran Service Book (2006) set it to Song 1 by Orlando Gibbons, but here I chose the more familiar and beloved tune FINLANDIA by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). That tune resonates with another comforting hymn, “Be Still, My Soul.” But the text on Romans 14 goes to the heart of the matter for the Christian: if we die with Christ, we will also live with Christ.