Music Notes | Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

‘We the Lord’s people’ [51] is a remarkable modern hymn for the Lord’s Day by John Bowers, a Church of England priest. The directness of its diction and the absence of rhyme mark it, within the realm of English verse, as a modern work; the use of the 11 11 11 5, or 5 6 5 6 5 6 5, metre (that is, a dactyl + trochee alternating with three trochees) also frees it from the singsong straitjacket of much English hymnody. The graceful tune to which it is set is the triple-meter version of a more freely rhythmic, chant-like melody found at Hymn 34, both the work of Richard Wayne Dirksen, sometime organist/choirmaster of the National Cathedral.

The first three stanzas focus successively on the holy people, the sacred space, and the sanctified time that come together to constitute the Sunday liturgy – which of course culminates in the Eucharist, the subject of the fourth stanza, omitted with reluctance on this occasion for obvious reasons.

The first stanza largely paraphrases I Peter 2.9, in which the radical expansion of the ekklesia (the solemn assembly of those in covenant relationship with the Lord) signalled by the outpouting of the Spirit at Pentecost and Peter’s vision of Acts 10 leads the writer of the epistle to describe the body of Christians not only as a people and nation chosen by God, but as a whole kingdom of priests (cf. Revelation 1.6 and 5.10). The Hymnal editors substituted ‘anoint’ for our hymnist’s ‘create’, making more explicit the reference to Holy Baptism and thus bookending the hymn with the two dominical sacraments.

The second stanza stays with I Peter 2, backing up a few verses to capture another image of the Church: ‘living stones’ constituting a ‘spiritual house’. The Greek word translated ‘house’ can, as in English, mean not only a building but also a household or a family or lineage. It is also used in Scripture to speak of the Tabernacle and Temple of Israel, and I suggest that all those meanings are at work both in I Peter and in the first line of this stanza: ‘This is the Lord’s house, home of all his people’. That is, the building which the Church calls home is the ‘house of God’, which is the ‘home of all his people’ (thus our hymnist simply and deftly brings together two sometimes competing theologies of sacred space). But the Church itself – the body of the faithful – is also ‘the Lord’s house’: we are of the household and lineage of Christ, by adoption (as St Paul would say), and we are the place where the Lord dwells, indeed the very Temple and sanctuary of God (I Corinthians 3.16). The rest of the stanza lists some of the roles of the Church (and her buildings) – school, refuge, rest, haven – and some of those we might find therein – the faithful, the sinner, the pilgrim, the weary. All of these, says our hymnist, presaging a theme that has become more prominent in recent years, ‘find a welcome’.

The third stanza rehearses the various layers of meaning comprehended by Sunday, the Lord’s Day: the First Day of creation, Easter Day, the Day of Pentecost – another reference to the (continual) renewal, expansion, reconstitution of the Lord’s holy people. The Hymnal editors, however, wished to broaden the scope of this list even further and to tie this stanza to the final one, and so for one of the original phrases they substituted ‘sign of heaven’s banquet’, a reference to the Eucharist and to the eschatological ‘Eighth Day’ (that is, the day beyond the seventh, beyond the cycle of the week, even beyond perfection), the eternity to which the Sacrament points. And each of these, as the poet of Psalm 118 says, is ‘day of God’s own

making’, ‘day for rejoicing’.

Though we cannot come together physically to celebrate the Sacrament, we are still God’s holy and beloved people; when we take the opportunity to worship, pray, and serve, we sanctify that time; if we will let them be so, our homes severally and together become sacred space. And as we learn to see the Lord in these particular instances, even as we do in the Eucharist, we learn to seek him far and wide, and, we pray, come eventually to know him as he is.

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