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Hymn of the Month

December

Psalter Hymnal 194
Rejoice in the Lord 169
Trinity Hymnal 148



Isaiah 40 is often read and sung during the Advent season. It's a passage that speaks of the peace and comfort that the coming Messiah will bring. The prophet encourages the people of Israel to prepare a way for the Lord: to "make straight in the desert a highway for our God" (RSV). The first three movements of Handel's Messiah are taken from Isaiah 40:1-5.

The hymn "Comfort, Comfort Now My People," written by Johannes Olearius in 1641, is a paraphrase of Isaiah 40:1-5. It captures the Advent theme, of looking forward to and preparing for the coming of the Messiah. Especially striking is the personification used to conclude the second verse: "Let the valleys rise to meet him and the hills bow down to greet him."

In addition to being a hymn writer, Johannes Olearius was at one time a court chaplain, a professor of philosophy, and the author of a commentary on the entire Bible. He published "Comfort, Comfort Now My People," along with three hundred more of his hymns, in one of the most important German hymnbooks of the seventeenth century.

Almost two centuries later the English scholar and educator Catherine Winkworth translated the hymn from German into English. During her lifetime she published several volumes of translated German hymns. Among her most famous are "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty," "Jesus, Priceless Treasure," and "Now Thank We All Our God."

The tune for this hymn was composed by Louis Bourgeois, choirmaster for John Calvin in Geneva, whose responsibilities included compiling, composing, and arranging music for the Genevan Psalter. Much credit can be given to Louis Bourgeois for the many sturdy psalm tunes that are still being sung in many parts of the world today, over four centuries after these psalms were first composed and sung.

When introducing this hymn to the congregation, take great care to avoid singing it too slowly. The nature of the text (the coming of the Messiah) and the rhythm of the tune suggest that this hymn might be sung as a joyful dance.

The harmonization with descants given here is by Johann Criiger, who wrote choral and instrumental arrangements of Genevan psalm tunes in Psalmodia Sacra (1657). The descants, which are found with Psalm 42 in the Psalter Hymnal, may be played by flutes, recorders, or violins.

There is a wealth of organ music based on this tune, often under the German title Freu dich sehr. In addition, there are a number of good choral settings of the hymn (see below), which choirs could sing in preparation for, or in place of, the congregation singing the hymn.

"Comfort, Comfort O My People" by J.S. Bach, ed. Klammer. SATB, string quartet, organ continuo. GIA, 1987. G-3112.12 pages. $.90. First verse unison, second verse 4-part chorale. Music taken from cantatas nos. 13 and 194. (Bach used the tune in eight of his cantatas.)

"Comfort, Comfort Ye My People" by C. Goudimel, ed. Heider. SATB, a capella. GIA, 1986. G-2893.14 pages. $.90. First and  third verses contrapun-tally set by Goudimel. Second verse chorale-like setting by Claude Lejeune.

"Comfort Ye My People" by Paul Bunjes. SATB, string quartet and or organ. Concordia, 1957.98-1388.8 pages. $.75. Four-part chorale setting with string interludes between each phrase.

"Comfort, Comfort" by John Ferguson. SATB, with optional instruments (piccolo, 2 B-flat clarinets, and tambourine). Augsburg, 1897.11-2381. 4 pages. $.75. Four-part chorale setting with instrumental interludes between each stanza. Featured on the cassette In the Presence of Your People, available from CRC Publications.

January

Psalter Hymnal 370

We would all like to believe that when Jesus was born, the whole world somehow sensed the presence of the Son of God on earth and stopped to marvel at this wonderful event. That, of course, was not the way it happened. Few people were aware of Jesus' birth.

A wider understanding of Jesus' nature and mission came years later, during his ministry. Through himself he revealed God to the world. The season of Epiphany recalls those events in the life of Christ in which he was made manifest to the world.

"The King of Glory" was written by Father Willard Jabusch for a parish folk-music group in Elmwood Park, Illinois. On a trip to the Holy Land, Jabusch learned this old Israeli folk song and decided to write new words for it. The refrain repeats the Epiphany theme of the "King of Glory," Christ revealing himself to the nations. The four stanzas in turn speak of the prophecy of Christ, his earthly mission, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Children will love to sing this hymn and will enjoy playing a variety of rhythm instruments to accompany the refrain (the descant could be sung on the refrain following the last stanza). Allowing children to teach the congregation the hymn will help them understand how important they are as contributing members of God's worshiping family.

February

The Hymnbook 370
Psalter Hymnal 72
Rejoice in the Lord 232
Trinity Hymnal 224


Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was one of the earliest and most prominent hymn writers to "Christianize" the psalms. In fact, he is known as the Father of English hymnody. In Watts's day most churches permitted their congregations to sing only psalms— no hymns. Watts became impatient with some of the poor poetry based on the psalms and with being unable to sing about the Christian faith in New Testament terms, so he decided to "Christianize" some of the psalms.

His "Christianized" psalms opened the door in many churches to accepting hymns in public worship. Most Christians are familiar with his "Jesus Shall Reign," but perhaps not all are aware that this is Watts's free paraphrase of Psalm 72.

"Hail to the Lord's Anointed" is another paraphrase of Psalm 72, written almost a century later by James Montgomery (1771-1854). Although not as popular as "Jesus Shall Reign," "Hail to the Lord's Anointed" is a closer paraphrase of Psalm 72, especially with Bert Polman's revision for the Psalter Hymnal.

James Montgomery was born of Moravian parents who later served as missionaries to the West Indies. When both his parents died, Montgomery was sent to a Moravian school in England. He began studying for the ministry but soon became frustrated and turned to his first love, poetry. For most of his life, Montgomery worked as a journalist and editor of a small newspaper, the Sheffield Iris, which published many of his over four hundred hymns. Among the most famous of his hymns are "Angels from the Realms of Glory" and "According to Thy Gracious Word."

Many churches celebrate mission emphasis during Epiphany, a most appropriate time to demonstrate that God reveals himself to the world through his people. "Hail to the Lord's Anointed" focuses on the mission aspect of the Epiphany theme. It speaks of God's rule over all the nations (st. 2 and st. 6) and the desert tribes and foreign kings who pay tribute to him (st. 3).

Your congregation will enjoy learning this hymn. The opening measure is very proclamatory, and the bright melody has the necessary repetitions to facilitate learning. The hymn concertato (see insert in this issue of RW) includes a soprano descant, a brass accompaniment, an alternate harmonization, and a brass fanfare that can be used in whole or in part throughout the month to provide variety from Sunday to Sunday.