Our hymnals are full of great hymns. Great because the melodies and harmonies have survived, in some cases for centuries. Great because the lyrics, whether in their original language, or translated, or adapted, can often read as timeless poetry, lending themselves to effortless memorization. For instance.
… “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” I quote this line because it was the first to come to mind, thanks to the poetic soul of Phillip Brooks.
The problem for me is not the poetry of so many hymns, but the theology, seen in the light of historical and biblical scholarship. It is now widely believed that Nazareth was the probable site of Jesus’ birth, not Bethlehem. But who would discard Brooks’ hymn because of geography? Far more troubling, to me at least, is a line such as “but in this world of sin.” Yes, this phrase is almost mellowed by the following words:
“still the dear Christ enters in.” But the point is already and quite intentionally made: ours is a sinful life, and we are in great need of a saviour to “descend to us” and “cast out our sin.” It is to offer a different theology that I have become a hymn writer.
Perhaps a Christmas carol seems too obvious a target for re-vamping. Let me suggest a different hymn: the age-old Sanctus used often on a weekly basis for liturgically oriented churches. Its origins are found before the fourth century in the Roman and Eastern churches. This is what I would call the “Baby,” as opposed to the bath water. This is what I do want to remove so that a better theology can take its place.
Yes, these words do not fit into the widely known melody of Healy Willan, nor the earlier beautiful melody of Franz Schubert, or the relatively contemporary melodies of, say, Mathias, Proulx and Powell. A melody with a new shape, and perhaps a new feeling, is called for. So I adapted a melody I had originally written to a Shakespearean sonnet, “When In Disgrace With Fortune and Men’s Eyes.” Why? Because I love this melody that, like the sonnet, rises to a climax of full affirmation.
The traditional Sanctus is as follows:
Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory
Hosanna in the hightest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
There are those who think that to touch these words is folly, even sacriligeous. Nonetheless, this is what
I would offer in their place:
Holy, holy, Holy God of power and love,
Universal ground of all being.
Yours is a mystery we approach in awe.
Blest any one whose life reflects Your glory.
This we can hold in faith with all on earth.
Hosanna to the furthest of the heavens,
Hosanna for the Presence of our God.