Singing the Old, Old Story
I have to confess that my heart sinks when we sing a song in church that's less than 30 years old. Hymns are one of the only remaining doors through which names, sounds, and words from the church's past enter congregational life, and I can't help feeling that each time the worship pastor passes over an old song in favor of a more recent creation, that door creaks toward shutting. Part of my frustration is personal (I've never been a big chorus fan), but mostly I miss the rich tradition we're steadily losing.
Five hundred years ago this week, on January 13, 1501, the first vernacular hymnal was printed in Prague. It featured 89 Moravian hymns in Czech, some penned by martyred reformer Jan Hus (the subject of our current issue). Though several of the hymns were based on Gregorian chants, for the most part the collection broke with Catholic tradition. Catholic worship at the time included only music written in Latin and sung by professionals; Moravians helped re-introduce the custom of congregational singing in a language all could understand.
Moravian, or Hussite, hymns often focused on themes central to the reform movement. Battle hymns like "Oh, Ye Warriors of the Lord" united communities, lifted soldiers' spirits, and proclaimed reforming beliefs. Other songs highlighted the Moravians' strong feelings about Communion—mainly that lay people ought to be able to receive the cup as well as the bread. One of Hus's hymns on the subject, "Jesus Christ, Our Blessed Savior," still appears in some Lutheran hymnals. It includes these stanzas:
Jesus Christ, our blessed Savior, Turned away God's wrath forever; By His bitter grief and woe He saved us from the evil Foe. As His pledge of love undying He, this ...