Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Himmelfahrt Christi -- Ascensio Domini -- Ascension Day

When I was in preschool, my mother ordered a Reader’s Digest history book for me through the mail entitled “Great People of the Bible and How They Lived.” I still have it. It sits with its torn dust cover on my study shelf next to my 1912 edition of the Luther Bible, the Biblia Vulgata, The Book of Concord, the Oxford Bible Dictionary, the Jerome Commentary, the Documents of Vatican II, and other works of Biblical and liturgical scholarship. Of course at that young age, I couldn’t read much at all, but I could look at the pictures and I welcomed when an adult would read the text to me. The entire book had been read to me at multiple sittings who knows how many times. My mother spent much time with me reading the text and discussing the photographs of the Holy Land that corresponded to the historical narratives. I knew the book so well, that I was eventually able to tell the story of the pictures without the text. It was one of my favorite books. This history book along with Bible readings and a book for children that contained re-tellings of Biblical stories was the beginning of a life-long fascination and study of Scripture, Church History, and naturally, music. World History, and especially Church history, were (and still are) vitally important: knowing this information revealed who exactly we were, where we had come from, and why we believe as we do.
I was thumbing through my copy of Great People the other day, and a little slip of paper floated out. The note had purple-inked, hand-written mimeograph letters of a hymn text. Number 657 in the Lutheran Hymnal, verse 1: Beautiful Savior. This slip of paper was about 31 years old. It was prepared by my first grade teacher, Mrs. Strothmann, at First Lutheran School in Little Rock. This had been a memory work assignment. Mrs. S. would prepare these sheets for us frequently. Christian prayers, countless hymn verses, Scripture verses, were all memory assignments. We took home the slips of paper, memorized them, then stood up in class and recited them. Beautiful Savior you may know as “Fairest Lord Jesus”. It’s sung to its own chorale tune, Schönster Herr Jesu. The hymn came up frequently at school, both in daily classroom devotion at the beginning of the day and in all-school Matins. Mrs. Strothmann had the same outlook on early religious education as did my parents: start the trend early to build an interest in the heritage and history. I remember Mrs. Strothmann telling the story of Martin Luther using a felt board with big fabric cut-outs of all the characters. It was spellbinding! These lessons were underscored with music by singing verses of the chorales we had memorized.
Last Sunday we celebrated Ascension Day. The choral anthem at the offertory was none other than a rapturous setting of the tune Schönster Herr Jesu with the appropriate “Beautiful Savior” text. I was so excited to sing the tune I had known since before I could even sound out letters to read the words. This hymn, a profound act of praise, evoked memories of many people whose collective invaluable actions had brought me to this very point, standing in these choir stalls on the Feast of the Ascension singing one of the loveliest hymns of praise ever written. Back home, from my family’s pew in the church, I had a perfect view of the right transept window which featured a depiction of the Good Shepherd. I included a photo of the window (note that the color surrounding the window is the color of the church cookbook from which I scanned the shot. The actual church walls are not fuchsia!) On either side of the shepherd, were panels with undulating vines, that reminded me of cuttings of ivy my mom had in little bottles on the kitchen window sill. The window was full of growth, burgeoning nature! Above these central panels, were symbols integral to our faith, integral to nature itself: the Chalice and the Host – The Sacrament of the Altar, the 10 Commandments – The Law of God, and the Dove of Peace – In the Old Testament, the messenger sent to Noah signaling the rebirth of vegetation after the flood symbolizing our trust in God and in the New Testament, the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the God’s Church. Above the Shepherd, the Word of God made flesh, in the uppermost circle of the window, is the eternal Word of God, Holy Scripture. What a splendid gift this hymn is! What a joy it was to be given these memories and to transform them into a musical gift to be returned to our Lord at the offertory as an act of thanksgiving! Here is the hymn text, if you are not familiar with it:

Beautiful Savior, King of Creation
Son of God, and Son of Man!
Truly I’d love Thee, Truly I’d serve Thee,
Light of my soul, my Joy, my Crown.

Fair are the meadows, Fair are the woodlands,
Robed in flow’rs of blooming Spring;
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer;
He makes our sorr’wing spirit sing.

Fair is the sunshine, fair is the moonlight,
Bright the sparking stars on high;
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer,
Than all the angels in the sky.

Beautiful Savior, Lord of the nations,
Son of God, and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, Praise, adoration,
Now and forevermore be Thine! Amen.

Above the high altar in the church of my childhood there is a 3 paneled window which shows in its center the ascending Christ, hands outstretched as if presenting the massive altar in the sanctuary below reminding us that from it by the eating and drinking his Body and Blood in Holy Communion, he is indeed always with us: Glory and honor, praise, adoration, now and forevermore be Thine!


Brian Michael Page said...

That Schönster Herr Jesu tune - is that the one most hymnals now call "St. Elizabeth", or is that the other one from Hymnal 1940/1982 that's in F minor?

Jason Pennington said...

Hmmm...In the recesses of my memory I recall somewhere seeing that tune being called St. Elizabeth. I can't remember where now. I'm not sure what the key is in Hymnal 40/82. In the Lutheran Hymnal (1941), it's in C. Adoremus has the tune, but it's called "Schoenster Herr Jesu". They have it in D with some extra added notes to fit the text. I just looked in one of my German hymnals. There, the tune is just like what we know as "Crusaders' Hymn" (God's Blessing Sends us Forth), with four consecutive quarter notes at the beginning of the second phrase.

Motherhen said...

This is why good music at Mass is so important to me. I want my children to remember things like this, associate those memories with the wondrous miracle we receive every week at Mass.

Music penetrates the deepest parts of our memory. It only takes one or two notes of a song and I can be transported 30+ years in the past.

Jason Pennington said...

Don't say that too loudly, Paula! Some pundits might imply that you want to turn back the clocks! As a wise priest I worked for once often said, "For so many Americans, history begins at sunrise and ends at sunset."