Songs for Ascension, Pentecost, and Justice

Psalm 68: Let God Arise; My Heart Is Filled with Thankfulness; Come, Holy Spirit; In Great Thanksgiving/All Who Are Thirsty

Psalm 68: Let God Arise

Psalm 47 is an obvious and joyful choice for the celebration of Ascension Day, with its celebration of the victorious Christ taking the throne as the great King over all the earth. But these days, most churches no longer celebrate the Ascension on Thursday (which in 2010 falls on May 13); instead, they usually celebrate on the following Sunday, which is traditionally assigned Psalm 68 (Year A, Revised Common Lectionary). Psalm 68 is another excellent possibility for celebrating the Ascension—both in preaching and singing.

I’ve been intrigued by Psalm 68 ever since learning about its structure from the late John Stek, who translated the psalms for the New International Version and wrote the very helpful psalm notes for the NIV Study Bible. Those notes introduce Psalm 68 as “a processional liturgy celebrating the glorious and triumphant rule of Israel’s God.” The psalm, perhaps sung at the festival of the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, celebrates the triumphal march of God, who first led his people through the wilderness to Mount Sinai in the days of Moses and then continued leading them in the victorious march up to Mount Zion in the days of David.

In Ephesians 4, Paul quotes from Psalm 68 in applying this triumphal march to the ascension of Christ: “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe” (vv. 9-10).

The Genevan melody for Psalm 68 is one of the most beloved in the Reformed tradition. It is also probably the longest in the entire collection, but it has a helpful structure in AAB form. The repetition is akin to the AAB structure of other substantial sixteenth-century melodies such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (see also p. 21). The English shortened the melody and set it to Psalm 113 (the tune is named old 113th). The Lutherans adopted it for a penitential hymn “O man, bewail thy grievous sin” (O Mensch, bewein’ dein Sünde gross); many organ preludes were composed on this melody by Lutheran composers, including J. S. Bach.

Psalm 68, though, is not a penitential hymn. It is a celebration in confidence that God is King over all the earth and leads his people in victory, caring for them along the way.

The Psalter Hymnal text needed nine stanzas to complete this victorious psalm, alternately tracing God’s movement through history and reflecting on its meaning. The most beloved stanza in the Dutch Reformed tradition is translated in stanza 6 in the Psalter Hymnal. Stanzas 1 and 6 became the “battle song” of the Calvinist Reformation throughout Europe, especially during difficult days of persecution in France and the Low Countries; it became known as the “Huguenot Marseillaise.”

So how can we sing this psalm today in an era of much shorter songs? When is the last time your congregation sang more than, say, five stanzas of a song? In addition, today’s Christians are not quick to sing about battles and “crushing heads of enemies.” But Christians in earlier times and in places of persecution well know the threat of enemies without and enemies within. Only when we understand the suffering of Christ and take up our own cross will we be able to savor and celebrate the victory over sin and death Christ has won for us.

For Reformed Worship, I chose only four stanzas from the complete setting in the Psalter Hymnal: stanzas 2, 6, 8, and 9 (set here as st. 1-4). It was a hard choice, but I suggest that a choral group or worship team sing the first stanza as an invitation to praise, especially for congregations who don’t know the melody. Then have the congregation sing stanzas 2-4, increasing in strength until in full voice, with all the stops pulled, we celebrate that “God reigns, all reigns excelling.”

This song calls for exuberant accompaniment; organ and brass would be excellent. Worship teams, including brass if possible, could also provide rousing support for congregational singing. The singing of this part of Psalm 68 could follow a sermon on Psalm 68 and Ephesians 4 that begins with Paul writing “as a prisoner for the Lord” and calling us to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace” (v. 3) through the grace we have received from Christ, our ascended Lord.

My Heart Is Filled with Thankfulness

This song of thanksgiving was selected for Paul Detterman’s Ascension Day service (see p. 8). The first stanza speaks of what Christ has done for us (descended to take on our pain, gave us new life, wrote his law on our hearts with power). The second stanza speaks of what Christ is doing for us (walks with us, sustains us with love and grace). The final stanza looks up to the ascended Christ who is reigning above; it is this stanza that connects to Ascension Day.

The song was composed by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend in 2002. The focus on the person and work of Christ is typical of many of their songs; the text is one of testimony and believers’ commitment. As is also typical of their songs, it is structured like a traditional hymn but is sung especially by worship teams. (A Google search on the song title will turn up videos and recordings of performances by Stuart Townend and by Keith’s wife, Kristyn Getty.)

Finally, this text is typical of the writers’ approach to providing theologically rich texts.

The theme of thanksgiving makes this song appropriate for many times and seasons. It is most often sung with a band, but an organ could also lead this song well. Choose a tempo that is not too fast so your congregation can absorb and meditate on this rich text.

Ven, Espiritu Santo/Come, Holy Spirit

On Pentecost Sunday, the church celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit ten days after Christ ascended. It is striking that so many worship songs ask the Holy Spirit to “come,” even though we acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is among us. The church and the people of God need fresh outpourings of the Holy Spirit when God calls us to follow Christ into areas of challenge. The prayer for the leading of the Spirit in our lives is something we need every day and in every season.

One of the challenges of the church in North America is to intercede for our brothers and sisters who long for hope and freedom. Those who are longing are already praying; the question is whether those of us who enjoy hope and freedom are willing to be taught by the Spirit to pray for and with our brothers and sisters who suffer.

The little song “Ven, Espiritu Santo/Come, Holy Spirit” calls on the Holy Spirit to hear the cries of suffering people and to teach the church to respond to calls for justice. This song would make an excellent call to worship on Pentecost Sunday, but would also serve well as a call to prayer any time the church intercedes for those who long for justice and who suffer from loss of hope.

The song comes from South America. The text and melody are by Louis Marcelo Illenser from Brazil, and the arrangement is by Horacio Ruben Vivares from Argentina, who attended the Calvin Symposium on Worship in 2009. Like much music from Latin America, the rhythm shifts between 3/4 and 6/8. Sing with guitar or guitar and keyboard.

This song comes to us from La Red Create, an organization formed in 2004 as a forum for development, discussion, and dissemination of liturgical music and resources throughout Latin America (see www.redcreate.org.ar). The song is scheduled for inclusion in Global Songs for Worship (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2010).

In Great Thanksgiving/All Who Are Thirsty

Finally, we turn to a song from the Philippines, also scheduled for inclusion in Global Songs for Worship. This song continues both the themes of thanksgiving and of the Holy Spirit calling the church to justice.

There are two texts set to the same tune. The first, “In Great Thanksgiving,” is a joyful hymn for the Lord’s Supper. We come to the table of the Lord in thanksgiving (st. 1), celebration (st. 2), dedication (st. 3), and exaltation (st. 4). Like “Come, Holy Spirit,” the song ends with a call for “peace with justice, hope for today.” The text and tune are both from the Philippines.

The second text comes from England. “All Who Are Thirsty” was written by Michael Perry (1942-1996), a member of the Jubilate group of hymn writers and composers who worked on providing new songs for worship. The text, based on Isaiah 55, could also serve well for a Lord’s Supper service (see sidebar p. 19).

This second text is a call to those who are searching to be filled outside of what Christ has to offer. The song could be sung only in terms of spiritual needs. We all come hungry and thirsty for Christ to fill our deepest needs. But when we sing this text to the Filipino melody, we are encouraged to broaden our yearning, taking on our lips also the wider call for justice so that we may live life abundantly, in all its fullness (John 10:10), not only spiritually, but also physically, economically, and politically.

As the world’s population grows, and as increasing numbers of people suffer greatly from natural disasters like the terrible flooding in the Philippines last year, prayers for daily bread take on urgency. Most readers of Reformed Worship do not go to bed hungry, for which we can be thankful, and we may not appreciate the urgency many have when they pray
“Give us today our daily bread.”

When we sing, we need to match our prayers and songs with our deeds and action. To paraphrase James 2:15-16, “If anyone sings with brothers and sisters who are physically hungry, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat your fill,’ yet does not supply their bodily needs, what good is that?” Receiving this gift of song from the Philippines, sung to either of these texts, may help in some small way to increase our commitment to work for justice and unity in the body of Christ (see also Series for the Season, p. 26).

Excerpt

All Who Are Thirsty

  1. All who are thirsty,
    come to the Lord;
    all who are hungry,
    feed on his Word.
    Buy without paying,
    food without price,
    eat with thanksgiving
    God’s sacrifice.
  2. Why spend your wealth
    on what is not bread?
    Why do you labor
    yet are not fed?
    God will provide you
    richest of food.
    Come to the waters,
    drink what is good.
  3. Call on God’s mercy
    while he is near;
    turn from your evil,
    come without fear;
    ask him for pardon;
    grace will abound!
    This is the moment
    God can be found.
  4. Where once were briers,
    flowers will grow
    Where lives were barren,
    rivers will flow
    Praise to our Savior,
    grace and renown.
    Ours is the blessing,
    his be the crown!
    from Isaiah 55 Words: Michael Perry © 1993 The Jubilate Group, (admin. Hope Publishing Co.) All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.