Sunday, November 8, 2020

Rejoice, O Zion! Sing!

Rejoice, O Zion! Sing! – Hymns for the Lutheran Service Book One-Year Lectionary and Other Occasions
by Alan Kornacki, Jr.
Recommended Ages: Now and Henceforward

Missouri Synod Lutheran Pastor the Rev. Alan Kornacki, Jr. of Campbell Hill, Ill., sent me an advance proof of his book, which is the basis of my review. Since I'm starting off with disclosures, I should also disclose that Pastor Kornacki is a friend of mine; I even preached at his church a couple of times, when I still lived in St. Louis and was on the LCMS clergy roster. I was a beta reader for the book before it reached the proof stage. I composed a couple of the original hymn tunes in it and harmonized a couple more that Pastor Kornacki had written. I've been following developments in his hymnwriting career with interest for a number of years, via his blog and social media, including a Facebook group for Lutheran hymnwriters. I have discussed the ins and outs, ups and downs of hymnwriting with him, perhaps more than any other fellow hymnwriter currently working in Lutheran circles. I even did a little typesetting for the original tunes written for his texts by Theo Kavouras and the Rev. Robert Mayes, the latter of whom is also a dear brother in the ministry whom I know from all the way back at the seminary and who composed two or three tunes for my own hymn texts.

The bottom line of all this disclosing is that you can take my opinion of this book for what it's worth, under the circumstances. I can't pretend to be coming at it afresh or with a wholly unbiased mind. But at the same time, I might as well get this out of the way: Pastor Kornacki, or rather his work product represented in this book, fits my idea of what kind of hymn writer contemporary Lutheranism needs better than any other single creative writer that I know of. And if you think I'm either unaware of a lot of the alternatives or just easily satisfied, you haven't read this thread.

ROZS (that's an initialism for Rejoice, O Zion! Sing!; try to keep up) has 102 original hymns by Pastor Kornacki and, I'm happy to say, he hasn't stopped writing since he called it soup; a second collection is already in the works. Before you ask why the church needs another hundred-plus hymns, let me remind you of something I said in an argumentative essay about my own first collection, Useful Hymns:
(I would like to) redirect the way hymns are being introduced in today's church, away from "springing hymns that have not been discussed or tested on the church through the latest synodically approved pew hymnal" and toward "authors putting their own stuff out there and seeing what people make of it." ... Like creating art music, writing excellent hymns is not something we should leave up to other ages of history or other religious communities. I have a conjecture that an active culture of hymn-writing is as vital to the health of the living church at any time as an active culture of yeast is to a commercial bakery.
Hymns 1-74 of this book comprise one or more hymns for each Sunday of the Church Year according to the LSB one-year lectionary. So, a good use of this hymn collection is to provide a thought-provoking alternative "hymn of the day" (or two or three) keyed to the introit and Scripture lessons planned for Sunday's Divine Service in a liturgical Lutheran congregation. Also, it could provide devotional material for families, divinity students, ministers and teachers to meditate on between Sundays. Hymns 75-81 add liturgical feasts, festivals and saints' days to the list of topics for meditation and singing. Specifically, there are hymns for St. Stephen's day (Dec. 26), the Circumcision and Name of Jesus (Jan. 1), the Visitation (May 31), the Martyrdom of John the Baptist (Aug. 29), St. Michael and All Angels day (Sept. 29) and the Reformation (Oct. 31). Hymns 82-102 are "general texts for the Church," with topics including Baptism, Communion, matrimony, prayer, morning and evening, the anniversary of a congregation, "Cross and Comfort," "Baptismal Life," Life Sunday, the holy ministry and the death of a pastor. This last section also features hymns on the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32), the Venite (Psalm 95), and Jesus' "seven last words" on the cross.

Now, by way of evaluating Rev. Kornacki's work, let me at least start by paraphrasing some of the feedback I sent him (among constructive suggestions about punctuation, page layout, etc.) when I was beta reading it.
  • I love Pastor K.'s tune selections. At times as I read through his book, I caught myself hearing the music in my mind's ear before I looked at what tune he picked and almost every time, it was the tune in my head.
  • Hymn 23 ("Through faithful preachers You have planted," for Sexagesima Sunday) is better than the hymn originally set to ICH WILL DICH LIEBEN. That's what I call grace, giving a tune a better text than it deserves. Maybe this is its chance.
  • Hymn 24 ("The mighty Word goes forth today," also for Sexagesima), has a line in it saying, "Repent! Be washed in Satan's bane" – an awesome description of Baptism.
  • Hymn 26 ("Lord, teach me so to count my days," for Ash Wednesday) is a beautiful pentitential psalm inspired by the imposition of ashes.
  • Hymn 36 ("Oh, Pilate fixed three crosses," for Good Friday) is a paraphrase of Romanos the Melodist's allegorical dialogue between Satan and Hell, meditating on how Jesus' death on the cross looks so very like defeat but is, in fact, our victory over sin, death and hell.
  • Hymn 42 ("Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer," for Easter V) is a wonderful metrical paraphrase of the Litany, an ancient prayer that pretty much covers everything the Church prays about.
  • Hymn 82 ("Christ said, 'Bring the little children'") is an eloquently simple, brief hymn addressing the issue of infant baptism.
  • Hymn 83 ("In Babylon we weep") is a poignant expression of hunger for the Lord's Supper.
  • Hymn 92 ("Before I formed you in the womb I knew you") addresses the sanctity of life, including that of the unborn, in powerful, prophetic terms. Which is to say, biblically faithful ones.
  • Hymn 100 ("Oh, be present, God of mercy"), of which I told its author, "This is a precious piece. I mean that unironically," is a prayer for nighttime that vibrates with trust in God's protecting presence through all the dangers of the hour(s) of darkness.
  • Rev. Kornacki has a gift for economy and for directly getting to (and sticking to) the purpose of a hymn – a virtue I prize highly in a hymnwriter. There are one or two of my own hymns (saying nothing about anyone else's creative efforts) that, when I read them today, leave me wondering what I was thinking about. Not so with Pastor Kornacki.
Finally, here are the exact words with which I concluded my beta review, addressed to Rev. Kornacki: "Your hymn writing hits all the notes (no pun intended) that I think are required to represent all that a Lutheran hymn should be." Theologically (i.e., regarding doctrinal content), it is faithful to the doctrine that accords with the pure word of God, and rich in biblical language and imagery. Spiritually (i.e., regarding the character or tone color that it fosters in the worshiping soul or body), it is Christ-centered and constantly pulls the focus off of sentimental feelings and pious imagination and onto the promises written in the blood of Christ and entrusted to the church in word and sacrament. Artistically, I think it meets and exceeds the level of skill and taste that it has taken me more than twice as many hymns to reach; indeed, some of his hymns are aimed at the same target as certain hymns of mine, and I think they may have struck closer. To put a polemical point on it, I regard this book as an antithesis, not to say antidote, to Gracia Grindal's reductionist answer to the question "What makes a hymn Lutheran?" in the Reclaim hymnal. Praise the Lord!

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