Music Notes | Eighth Sunday After Pentecost

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

Although the Fourth Sunday of Easter in the modern lectionary is always a ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday, featuring relevant selections from the Gospel of John and concomitantly Psalm 23, shepherd imagery also appears at other times. This Sunday we read in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus looked upon the crowds who came to see him as ‘sheep without a shepherd’, and from our perspective – with the context of the aforementioned passages from John’s Gospel – we naturally understand Our Lord to have taken up the role of shepherd to those flocks. In the passage from Jeremiah we read that, in place of ‘shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of [his] pasture’, the LORD promised to ‘raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer…’, and to ‘raise up for David a righteous Branch’. Psalm 23 completes the set of related readings.

This week we will not sing any of the hymn-paraphrases of Psalm 23, but will sing two other ‘shepherd’ hymns. The more substantial of the two, ‘Shepherd of souls, refresh and bless’ [343] is a composite of stanzas by the Scottish Moravian journalist, abolitionist, and poet James Montgomery, a number of whose hymns grace the Hymnal. Beginning with this invocation of the ‘Shepherd of souls’, it ties together several scriptural references: the LORD’s provision of manna and water to the Israelites during their 40-year wilderness journey; Moses’s subsequent reference to the former, ‘one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Deuteronomy 8.3, quoted by Our Lord in response to the Tempter); then the account of the disciples’ encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus and at table (Luke 24). The hymn is thus well suited to use in both Lent and Eastertide, on a ‘shepherd’ Sunday, or indeed at any celebration of the Eucharist. The 19th-century English tune to which it is matched, ‘St Agnes’, is also heard Sunday in an organ setting by 20th-century Belgian composer Flor Peeters.

The petition ‘Savior, abide with us, and spread / thy table in our heart’ is rather like that at the end of another hymn we sing Sunday, ‘Blest are the pure in heart’ [656]: ‘give us a pure and lowly heart, / a temple fit for thee’. Another prayer, not for Christ’s presence but for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, constitutes the text of the Offertory anthem at 11:15, William Wordsworth’s translation of a sonnet by the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti, as set beautifully by 20th-century American composer Jane Marshall. As the text is not printed in the service booklet, it is offered here:

The prayers I make will then be sweet indeed,

if thou the spirit give by which I pray;

my unassisted heart is barren clay, 

which of its native self can nothing feed;

of good and pious works thou art the seed

which quickens where thou say’st it may;

unless thou show us then thine own true way,

no man can find it! Father, thou must lead.

Do thou, then, breathe those thoughts into my mind

by which such virtue may in me be bred

that in thy holy footsteps I may tread;

the fetters of my tongue do thou unbind,

that I may have the pow’r to sing of thee

and sound thy praises everlastingly.

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