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Songs for Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday

God the Spirit Comes to Stay; Come Down, O Love Divine; Bonds of Peace; The Unity of the Spirit; The Church That Is One; Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow

On Ascension Day, the church celebrates Christ’s going up and returning to his Father in glory as a resurrected human being, the firstfruits of the new creation. Ten days later, we celebrate God coming down again, this time not in human form in a particular time and place—as we celebrate at Christmas—but now as Spirit, a gift to each believer in every time and place. The Christian church has also traditionally followed Pentecost Sunday with Trinity Sunday, our praise and adoration ascending to our triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The songs in this issue focus on these comings and goings, these rising and descending movements of God and of our ascending praise and petitions. Every time we pray, we “raise up” our praises and petitions to God, and we also ask God to “come down” once again, pouring his love and power into our lives. All these songs are under consideration for Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, a bidenominational hymnal in preparation by the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America (for information, see www.crcna.org/pages/hymnal.cfm; planned release date is 2013).

God the Spirit Comes to Stay

In the ten days between Jesus going up to return to his Father and the Holy Spirit coming down, the disciples did a lot of praying and searching of the Scriptures. They may well have reflected on Jesus’ teaching that the apostle John recorded in his gospel account in chapter 14.

“God the Spirit Comes to Stay” is based on John 14:15-27. The four stanzas recall Jesus’ teaching to his disciples to show their love for him by keeping his commandments, and that the Father would send the Spirit. The refrain sums it all up in a short confession of faith:

Jesus, ascended, keeps to his promise:
God the Spirit comes to stay.

This song from the Iona Community in Scotland is typical of their accessible texts and tunes (see RW 62 for two articles on the Iona Community by David Vroege). The teaching of Jesus is offered in a gentle, lilting triple meter, with a little twist at the end of the refrain by a switch to duple meter to express the firm conviction “God the Spirit comes to stay.”

This song is appropriate for Pentecost Sunday, but can be used during Lent or Holy Week as well, especially near the end of the service, perhaps preceding a blessing/benediction that is based on verse 27, “Peace I leave with you.”

The text and music are accessible enough for most congregations to sing right away, though some may want to begin by having a soloist sing the stanzas and the entire congregation respond with the refrain. In that case, the soloist would be proclaiming the teaching of Jesus, and the congregation would respond with the confession of faith. Be sure the rhythmic shift in the refrain is clearly introduced and accompanied so that the confession is strong and firm; keep all the eighth notes the same in length. Lead with organ or, perhaps even better, with keyboard and guitar.

Come Down, O Love Divine

Two hymns from medieval Italy have made their way to North American song collections. “All Creatures of Our God and King,” a favorite found in most hymnals, has its roots in the thirteenth-century poetry of Francis of Assisi. Not as familiar is “Come Down, O Love Divine” by another Italian monk, Bianco da Siena, written about a century later. This second song comes from a body of medieval “spiritual songs” (Laudi spirituali) representing some fringe movements within the Roman church that even then had begun to explore the idea of “alternative churches,” or at least offer ordinary people songs for worship outside the Roman liturgy. These songs became very popular in Italy. Both of these poems translated into English for singing have been much loved.

“Come Down, O Love Divine” was translated from its original sixty lines into four stanzas by Anglican clergyman Richard Littledale and was first published in 1867 in The People’s Hymnal. The poetry is so beautiful that the only updating in hymnals today is of the pronouns.

The music is equally beautiful; in fact, the tune down ampney has been praised as perhaps the most beautiful tune composed since the Doxology, or old hundredth, from the Genevan Psalter. It entered the English tradition in the landmark English Hymnal of 1906. The text was undoubtedly commended by the general editor of that hymnal, Percy Dearmer. But because it was not in a typical English meter, it needed a new tune. Ralph Vaughan Williams, musical editor of The English Hymnal, composed one and named it after the town of his birth.

This prayer to the Holy Spirit could be sung on Pentecost Sunday, or perhaps even on Ascension Sunday, near the end of the service, as a contrast to the more typically exuberant joy of Ascension hymns. Have a choir or soloist sing it as a call to prayer or as a part of the congregational prayer. Then on Pentecost Sunday have the congregation offer this prayer as a way for all to express the desire with “yearning strong” for love to “create a place” in our hearts “wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.” You may want to sing it other times as well—any time we pray for the Holy Spirit to “draw near” and “visit” us with comfort and love. Listen to it performed by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge, accompanied by a variety of art works, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3pS-Ga7OUM, one of many recordings available on the Internet.

Bonds of Peace

The following four songs were all sung at the international inaugural assembly of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC, www.wcrc.ch) at Calvin College in June 2010. In preparation for this event, planners announced a competition for new songs to fit with the theme of the assembly: “Unity of the Spirit in the Bonds of Peace” (Eph. 4:3). There were eighteen entries from five countries: Argentina, Canada, Indonesia, South Africa, and the United States.

“Bonds of Peace” was the winner in this competition, composed by sisters Barbara Price-Martin and Linda (Price) Draper; for a news release see www.reformedchurches.org/songwinners.html.

The refrain is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to guide the church into bonds of peace and unity. The stanzas reflect on our calling to listen to and accept each other in all our diversity, with “hearts wide open” to communion as we worship one Lord, one Spirit, led to one table, sharing our resources with each other.

The music is very accessible and folk-like. Melody versions in French, German, and Spanish—or all four languages, as well as full accompaniment for piano and flute descant, are available on the WCRC website (www.wcrc.ch).

The Unity of the Spirit

This song was composed by Barbara Boertje, minister of music at First Reformed Church, Grandville, Michigan. Her song was also included in the 100-page Worship Book for the WCRC Assembly, one of the four songs selected from the eighteen submissions. This festive chorus was sung many times until most people could sing it from memory.

All the services of this first assembly of WCRC were videotaped (http://vimeo.com/calvincollege/videos). In the festive service on Sunday, June 20, when many local congregations joined in the celebration, this song was sung in English, French, German, and Spanish; you can access it 27 minutes into the service at http://vimeo.com/13458569. (You may want to continue listening to and watching the very creative dramatic reading of 1 Kings 19:1-15 that follows this song.)

Bersatu teguh/The Church That Is One

The previous chorus simply and joyfully celebrates the “unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.” This next hymn from Indonesia expands that thought, acknowledging that our unity is rooted in “love of the Son” (st. 1), and including a prayer that God “plant desire in our hearts to dwell in unity” (st. 2). The prayer continues with a plea that others “now estranged” repent and join hands to expand this unity, lifting high the name of God (st. 3). The word Spiritdoes not appear in the text, but surely the work of the Spirit is what prompts our unity and desire for others to join us, until the entire world confesses Jesus Christ as Lord.

The melody is very simply constructed, with a repeated rising figure in the first half and a repeated descending figure in the second half. This song is included in Global Songs for Worship(Faith Alive, 2010, www.faithaliveresources.org/worship) and was also sung frequently at the WCRC Assembly. The excellent companion CD to Global Songs for Worshipincludes it as one of 28 recordings of the 57 songs in the collection. My own congregation, Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, bought copies of the hymnal for our pews as part of our commitment “to more intentionally design worship gatherings for intergenerational participation and multicultural influence,” as stated in our 2010 Strategic Plan. When introducing this small collection, we also included a bulletin insert for people to order copies of the CD; more than thirty people ordered copies right away—a delightful way for both adults and children to become familiar with these songs. Some have been played in our children’s worship centers as the children arrive.

Indonesian composer Absalom K. Saragih has sixteen songs included in Pelengkap Kidung Jemaat, a collection of 308 songs published in 2007 by the Indonesian Institute of Sacred Music (Yayasan Musik Gereja Di Indonesia, or YAMUGER). This important collection of newer songs for worship is rich in diversity; about half the songs are Indonesian and the rest come from all over the world. Indonesia is remarkable among Asian countries both for its development of indigenous worship songs and its wide embrace of global songs.

Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow

On Pentecost, many churches make an effort to celebrate the spread of the gospel throughout the whole world. Singing and praying in different languages has become a treasured way to celebrate both the unity and the diversity of the church.

This Pentecost, you may wish to sing the traditional Doxology in different languages. This setting in eleven languages was prepared for worship at the WCRC Assembly. It was sung at the same June 20 service of celebration mentioned above, and can be accessed at http://vimeo.com/13458569 at 1:12:56 (one hour and almost 13 minutes into the service). While listening to the large gathering singing, you can also see the doxology being signed (a twelfth language) and see a group of children from around the world dressed in festive clothing from their home cultures—another idea for your Pentecost celebration this year.

This is the best known tune from the Genevan Psalter, originally set to Psalm 134, but later often set to Psalm 100 (and therefore named old hundredth). It is probably the best known hymn tune in the world, and it was a thrill to sing it with thousands of Christians from around the world at this celebrative service.