This week concludes our countdown of St David’s favorite hymns; as in the last several weeks, I invite you to read notes pertaining to this hymn – which needs little introduction! – written when another by the same author, John Newton, was sung earlier this year (5 July). See that service on our YouTube page.
This Sunday we hear Our Lord answer the Pharisee’s question ‘Which mitzvah in the Torah is the greatest?’ with the words familiar to Episcopalians as the ‘Summary of the Law’: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…’ And, he adds, ‘a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The shapers of our lectionary paired this passage with verses from Leviticus 19: ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy’, and after exhortations to justice, truth, and forgiveness, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.’ The Collect, borrowing the famous formulation of the Apostle, is related: ‘increase in us…faith, hope, and charity…and…make us love what you command’.
Our Sequence hymn, ‘O Spirit of Life, O Spirit of God’ , in particular addresses the interrelated love of God, love of the divine Teaching or Law, and love for one’s neighbor. After an acknowledgement in the first stanza of the Spirit’s role as Paraclete and (in the classical Western formulation) her procession from the Father and the Son, we pray in subsequent stanzas for a number of things: first, to ‘increase our faith in our dear Lord’. In the third stanza we ask the Spirit to ‘make us to love thy sacred word’ – which we can take to mean, or include, the commands or teaching of both Testaments – and in the fourth, not just to adore or revere that word, but to be enlightened – to be changed – ‘by that same word’. Thus interwoven with these requests are prayers ‘to know the Father’s love’, and for ‘the holy flame of love…that charity may warm each heart’.
We are assisted in these prayers by a very beautiful tune, also known as ‘O Jesulein süß’ from its association with a Christmas song beginning with those words. The melody first appeared in the early 17th century in a Roman Catholic collection of religious song, but is probably more famous from its arrangements by Samuel Scheidt and especially by J.S. Bach, a version of whose harmonization is found in our Hymnal. We also hear this tune in a setting for organ by 20th-century Belgian composer Flor Peeters.
An entirely different kind of tune from the Welsh tradition undergirds (equally fittingly in its way) our opening hymn, ‘Thy strong word did cleave the darkness’ . This 20th-century hymn is a celebration of the divine holiness, majesty, and power shown forth in (in the first three stanzas respectively) the creation, salvation, and sanctification which God has wrought and continues to work. The first stanza reminds us that, long before the Ten Commandments or any others, God first commanded, ‘Let there be light’: and by the divine utterance – which Christians call the Word and identify with Christ – the infinite wonders of the universe came to be. The third reassures us of the holiness and righteousness which God imputes to those who, as Abraham did even long before either Law or Gospel were known, heed God’s call.
The intertwining of these strands – faith, hope, love; creation, salvation, sanctification; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; love of God, love of neighbor, love of self – in our hymns and Scriptures suggests that God’s Law is nothing less than the creating and sustaining fabric of all that is, encompassing everything from the fathomless depths of cosmology and quantum physics to the endless wonder of the living world to the mysteries of the human heart and the justice, mercy, and peace with which we are to order our lives and societies. At the center of all this, we are told, is love, and we are called in turn to follow, rather than resist, this Way of Love; of fundamental, profound respect for God, and of ourselves and our fellow creatures as God sees us. Christ – who came not to abolish, but to fulfill, this Law – and his saints show us the Way; the Spirit assists us; and in this hallowed company, ‘glorious now, we press toward glory’ as we journey home into the heart of God.