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Meditations on Lenten Hymns

These meditations on frequently used Lenten hymns will help you plan worship for Lent.

"I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say"

Despite his intimidating name and physical appearance, Horatius Bonar (1808-89) was a great lover of children and was concerned about how little the children understood of the metrical Psalms that were sung in the Scottish church of his day. "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say" was one of the over 600 hymns he wrote to address the needs of the churches he served. Interestingly, John B. Dykes (composer of "Holy, Holy, Holy" and "Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee") uses the somber key of G minor to present Jesus' invitation to our weary, thirsty and dark souls in the first half of each verse; in the second half of each verse when the invitation has been accepted and the soul satisfied, Dykes uses the happier key of G major. Take some time this month to read Jesus' invitations to you as recorded in the Gospels (Matthew 11:28John 4:10,13-14; John 8:12) and reflect on your response to Him.

"Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love”

“In every age the church has a double task, to speak God’s Word and to live God’s life.” This was the radical philosophy of Tom Colvin, author of “Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love.” This philosophy led him to be a missionary in Malawi, Ghana and inner city London. He was also associated with the Iona community for nearly 50 years before he died in his hometown of Edinburgh in 2000. Part of this work was to help the African church express itself in its own musical language and then help them bring their own unique worship expressions to the world church. His most famous hymn, and the one which best summarizes his life’s work is “Jesu, Jesu.” Notice the radical overturning of social norms: Jesus is the Master who acts as a slave, our neighbors are of all colors and found both near and far. What better hymn to sing as we approach the upper room, where Jesus dons a towel to serve his disciples?

"Jesus, Lover of My Soul"

It would be hard to find a hymn that has made such an imprint on the heart of the Christian church as Charles Wesley's "Jesus, Lover of My Soul." From the time Wesley put pen to paper until today it has been treasured by Christians the world over—that is, all but his brother John.

It seems that John Wesley, who served as the editor of Charles' hymns, felt that the imagery in this hymn was too intimate for use in mixed congregations, so it wasn't included in the Methodist Hymnbook until nine years after his death. In light of the hymn's overwhelming popularity it may seem that John's assessment was too harsh, but his critiques were instrumental in dividing the wheat from the chaff of Charles' 6500 hymns.

This hymn originally bore the heading "In Times of Danger and Temptation," which leads many to believe that it was inspired by Charles' near shipwreck on his return from America, where he spent a discouraging year as secretary to Governor Oglethorpe of Georgia. Other spurious stories exist about how the text came to be, like the one that says a sparrow being chased by a hawk sought refuge by flying into Wesley's coat, which made him think about the way we seek refuge in God. Another tells of the night the Wesleys were chased from a revival meeting by an angry mob; while they were hiding in a spring house, Charles sharpened a piece of lead into a pencil and wrote down the immortal verses.

Colorful anecdotes exist not only about the hymn's creation, but about the effect it has had on believers since it was written. One of those stories in connection with the Civil War is recounted in Amos R. Well's A Treasury of Hymn Stories:

In a company of old soldiers, from the Union and Confederate armies, a former Confederate was telling how he had been detailed one night to shoot a certain exposed sentry of the opposing army. He had crept near and was about to fire with deadly aim when the sentry began to sing, "Jesus, Lover of My Soul." He came to the words,

Cover my defenseless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.

The hidden Confederate lowered his gun and stole away. "I can't kill that man," said he, "though he were ten times my enemy."

In the company was an old Union soldier who asked quickly,

"Was that in the Atlanta campaign of '64?"


"Then I was the Union sentry!"

And he went on to tell how, on that night, knowing the danger of his post, he had been greatly depressed, and, to keep up his courage, had begun to hum that hymn. By the time he had finished, he was entirely calm and fearless. Through the song God had spoken to two souls.

Below is a frequently omitted third verse of "Jesus, Lover of My Soul":

Wilt Thou not regard my call?
Wilt Thou not accept my prayer?
Lo! I sink! I faint! I fall!
Lo! on Thee I cast my care:
Reach me out Thy gracious hand!
While I of Thy strength receive,
Hoping against hope I stand
Dying, and behold I live.

“Lift High the Cross”

Am I the only one who finds Palm Sunday liturgically awkward? Here we are in the middle of Lent, waiting patiently for Easter, when suddenly there is a short burst of festivity before we head into the darkest week of the church year. It seems wrong to add our voices to the crowd of palm wavers when we know they (we?) will be calling for Jesus’ death in five short days. The poignant tension between Christ’s triumphal entry and his impending betrayal and crucifixion are captured well in the hymn “Lift High the Cross.” On the one hand, Sydney Nicholson’s tune is a triumphant march that captures all the excitement of the Palm Sunday procession. On the other hand, George Kitchin’s text fixes its unswerving gaze on the cross, the ultimate symbol of loss. The text and tune together synthesize a powerful theology of the cross, in which victory is won through weakness and life is gained through death. It is also a call for us to follow Jesus faithfully, even when the path will be dark and painful.

“O Come and Mourn with Me Awhile”

Holy Week calls us to watch as the Lord of Life walks obediently into the greedy arms of death. Each year we identify again with those who betray Jesus, those who wash their hands of the whole affair, and those who observe in fear from a distance. Hopefully, we also identify more and more each year with Christ’s willing offering of his life. The relentless phrase “Jesus, our Lord, is crucified” is amplified with personal reflections on the crucifixion: “A broken heart, a fount of tears, Ask, and they will not be denied; a broken heart love’s cradle is.” May Jesus’ crucifixion break our hearts again so that love may be born in us anew.

"Peace, Perfect Peace"

I first heard this text set to a tune by Wiley Beveridge of the Fisher Folk, and didn't know it was a traditional hymn until I stumbled upon it in our hymnal (The Hymnbook, 1955). Although the tune "Pax Tecum" (Peace Be With You) won't go down in history as the finest melody ever written, its use of only two notes in the first phrase does convey a sense of stability and tranquility that reflects the words.

The words were written by the editor of The Hymnal Companion to the Book of Common Prayer, Bishop Edward Henry Bickersteth (1825-1906). Bickersteth was vacationing in Harrogate, England where he heard a sermon on Isaiah 26:3: "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee." The preacher discussed the fact that Hebrew text used the word peace twice to indicate absolute perfection.

This idea was still on Bishop Bickersteth's mind when he went to visit a dying relative that afternoon. To soothe the man's emotional turmoil Bickersteth opened his Bible to read about peace from Isaiah 26:3. He then jotted down the hymn "Peace, Perfect Peace" just as they appear in our hymnal today and read them to the man—perhaps the last thing he heard before Jesus called him "to heaven's perfect peace.

“Restore My Soul”

David doesn’t mince words in Psalm 51. Unlike many of our confessions, there are no excuses, no fancy words and no qualifiers. It is an honest and humble “I’m sorry.” Andi Rozier follows the simplicity and honesty of Psalm 51 in his song, “Restore My Soul.” The beautiful English folk tune “O Waly, Waly” sets the tone for the verse of this prayer song. It is answered by a newly composed refrain that reminds us that a renewed soul can only come through the cross. As we continue our journey to the cross, let’s be honest to ourselves and to God. We have been sinful from birth. We are transgressors without excuse. But we are also redeemed at great cost and forgiven with great love.

“Throughout These Lenten Days and Nights”

Crucifixion, penance, self-denial and ashes. Lent is certainly a journey into the valley of the shadow of death. But it is never without hope. We journey with Christ to the cross, but we also know what lies on the other side: resurrection, forgiveness, feasting and new life. James Gertmenian’s text powerfully captures both the shadows of the Lenten journey and the dazzling light of our Easter hope. Let’s use the hymn to mark time during this Lenten season, as we follow Jesus to the wilderness, cross, grave and resurrection.

“What Wondrous Love Is This”

When Amy and I lived in Tallahassee we fell in love with shape-note singing. There is a raw beauty to the nasal singing style and the rugged harmonies of these early American songs. “What Wondrous Love Is This,” from the 1844 Sacred Harp is a perfect example of the style. This is no syrupy love song. It is a full-blooded hymn that pulls together both the heavenly and the earthly. In a way, the song is very like our spiritual lives. We don’t become more heavenly by disengaging from the world. Christ’s incarnation teaches us that we take part in the heavenly through the simple things of earth—singing, loving, eating. May the hunger of Lent teach us to savor the Bread of Heaven!

“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”

One Sunday afternoon the young Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was complaining about the deplorable hymns that were sung at church. At that time, metered renditions of the Psalms were intoned by a cantor and then repeated (none too fervently, Watts would add) by the congregation. His father, the pastor of the church, rebuked him with "I'd like to see you write something better!" As legend has it, Isaac retired to his room and appeared several hours later with his first hymn, and it was enthusiastically received at the Sunday evening service the same night.

Although the tale probably is more legend than fact, it does illustrate the point that the songs of the church need constant infusion of new life, of new generation's praises. With over 600 hymns to his credit—many of them classics like "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"—Isaac Watts has rightfully earned the title, "the father of English hymnody." This hymn, which is known as Watts' crowning achievement, was first published in Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707 and was matched with such tunes as "Tombstone" and an altered version of Tallis' canon called "St. Lukes." For many years it was sung to "Rockingham" written by Edward Miller, the son of a stone mason who ran away from home to become a musician, later becoming a flutist in Handel's orchestra. In recent history the hymn text has settled in with Lowell Mason's "Hamburg," an adaptation of a five note (count them!) plainchant melody. Besides writing thousands of hymn tunes he was a church choir director, the president of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, and a leading figure in music education.

Though “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” was intended originally as a communion hymn, it gives us plenty to contemplate during this Lenten season as our focus is on the cross of Christ. The hymn is said to be based on Galatians 6:14 (“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”) which is evident in a verse that Watts eliminated from later editions of the hymn:

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er his body on the tree;
Then am I dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Perhaps Watts eliminated this verse in order to focus more attention on our response to Christ’s crucifixion than the crucifixion itself. Notice how he starts with contemplation of the cross and the fact that all our worldly achievements and possessions pale in comparison. Next he shows that Christ went to the cross out of love for us. In the most powerful image of the hymn, he affirms the deity of the suffering Christ with the brilliant juxtaposition: “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown?” And the last verse shows that the only proper response to this amazing love is complete devotion.

Take some time during Lent to meditate upon, or even memorize, the words of this hymn and see if it works in you a new understanding of the depth of Christ's love. Here are some related verses:

Phil. 3:7: But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.

Gal. 2:20: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

"Vexilla Regis Prodeunt" (The Royal Banners Forward Go)

Venantius Fortunatus wrote this hymn in honor of the founding of the monastery of Poiters. It is believed to have been first sung on November 19, 569 as part of a procession that brought the most revered relic of the Catholic church, a piece of the cross of Christ, from Constantinople to the French monastery. Nowhere is the work of the cross so poignantly portrayed as in these immortal lines.

The royal banners forward go;
The cross shines forth in mystic glow,
Where he in flesh, our flesh who made,
Upon the tree of pain is laid.

Behold! the nails, with anguish fierce,
His outstretched hands and vitals pierce!
Here, our redemption to obtain,
The mighty sacrifice is slain!

Where deep for us the spear was dyed,
Life's torrent rushing from his side,
To wash us in that precious flood
Where mingled water flowed and blood.

Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song of old;
"Amidst the nations, God" (saith he)
"Hath reigned and triumphed from the Tree."

O Tree of beauty! Tree of light!
O Tree with royal purple dight!
Elect on whose triumphal breast
Those holy limbs should find their rest!

On whose dear arms, so widely flung,
The weight of this world's ransom hung:
The price of human kind to pay,
And spoil the spoiler of his prey.

With fragrance dropping from each bough,
Sweeter than sweetest nectar thou,
Decked with the fruit of peace and praise,
And glorious with triumphal lays,

Hail, Altar! Hail, O Victim, thee
Decks now thy passion's victory;
Where life for sinners' death endured,
And life by death for man procured.

Other Hymns and Songs for Lent

"Ah, Holy Jesus" 
"Forty Days and Forty Nights"
"Friends in Faith
"The Glory of These Forty Days
"Go to Dark Gethsemane
"Lord, Who throughout These Forty Days
"O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High"  
"There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood" 
The Way of the Cross Leads Home”