"This is one of the oldest texts in the book!"
I find myself frequently saying this to our choirs during rehearsals, and my proclamation is frequently true.
The Hymnal 1982 is one of the most successful Christian hymnals in history, as was its predecessor The Hymnal 1940. In modern Christianity, the average lifespan of any denomination's hymnal is about 20-25 years; in the Episcopal Church, we seem to use our hymnals for about 40 years, a testament to the scholarship and editorship of these hymnals.
Some of the most beloved texts that we sing are from the 3rd and 4th centuries, which have been translated by modern scholars and theologians. Our Sequence hymn at 10:30 this Sunday morning, "From God Christ's deity came forth," is a marvelous example of an ancient text translated by a contemporary theologian.
Ephrem of Edessa (c. 306-373), also known as Saint Ephrem and Ephrem the Syrian, was a deacon, theologian, poet, and hymn writer who is also called a venerable father of the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. He was born at Nisibis in modern day Turkey, where he lived until 363 when he moved to Edessa and lived his latter years as a hermit.
For centuries Ephrem has been affectionately called the "lyre of the Holy Ghost" or the "harp of the Spirit," in Syriac the Kenārâ d-Rûḥâ. In the Episcopal Church, his feast day is celebrated on June 10.
This ancient text was translated by one of the most prolific scholars of modern Episcopal times. Francis Bland Tucker (1895-1984) was a beloved figure among Episcopal priests and musicians for most of the 20th century. The son of a bishop and brother of a Presiding Bishop, he was Rector of historic St. John's Church, Georgetown, Washington, DC, from 1925-1945. He was then Rector of historic Christ Church, John Wesley's parish in Savannah, Georgia, from 1946 until his retirement in 1967.
Fr. Tucker served on two commissions, 42 years apart, that revised the hymnals of the Episcopal Church. He always spoke of never having had a thought of writing a hymn text until 1937, when he was asked to serve on the hymnal revision committee.
Our present hymn contains 17 of Fr. Tucker's original hymns or translations, a number of which are beloved parish favorites that we frequently sing:
All glory be to God on high
All praise to thee, for thou, O King divine
Alone thou goest forth, O Lord
Bread of the world, in mercy broken
Christ, when for us you were baptized
Father, we thank thee, who hast planted
Holy God, we praise thy name
O gracious light, Lord Jesus Christ
Songs of thankfulness and praise
Spread, O spread, thou mighty word
The Lord my God my shepherd is
Ye who claim the faith of Jesus
As hymn texts go, "From God Christ's deity came forth" is magical in what it has to offer. The text in total traces the life of Christ. In stanza 1, his "manhood, priesthood, royalty" are established, along with his "Oneness" with the Father and Holy Spirit. Stanza 2 traces some of his specific life events: miracle at the Cana wedding, temptation in the wilderness, teaching in the temple, and death on the cross.
Stanzas 3 and 4 further explore Jesus' life and ministry: lifting the lowly and those in sin, celebrating the righteous, seeking out the lost and the sick, descending to the dead, and ascending into heaven. Each of the stanzas ends with a poetic formula that could be considered a literary nod to litany-form: praised be his Oneness, his teaching, his mercy, his coming, and his glory.
As hymn texts go, this text is wonderfully useful in the season after the Epiphany during which we celebrate Jesus' life and work on earth.
From God Christ’s deity came forth,
his manhood from humanity;
his priesthood from Melchizedek,
his royalty from David’s tree:
praised be his Oneness.
He joined with guests at wedding feast,
yet in the wilderness did fast;
he taught within the temple’s gates;
his people saw him die at last:
praised be his teaching.
The dissolute he did not scorn,
nor turn from those who were in sin;
he for the righteous did rejoice
but bade the fallen to come in:
praised be his mercy.
He did not disregard the sick;
to simple ones his word was given;
and he descended to the earth
and his work done, went up to heaven:
praised be his coming.
Who then, my Lord, compares with you?
The Watcher slept, the Great was small,
the Pure baptized, the Life who died,
the King abased to honor all:
praised be your glory.
Photo credit: Wikipedia, public domain.