Monday, September 2, 2013

Tacky Hymns 35

If you're joining this thread late, our analysis of the tackiness (in the context of Lutheran worship) of the hymn selection in the 2006 hymnal Evangelical Lutheran Worship began here. After that you will want to find the posts numbered 28 to 34 on this thread to catch up to where we're at, which is hymn 500. And that hymn is tacky enough to get a whole post devoted to it alone.

500 "Now We Remain" (first line: "We hold the death of the Lord deep in our hearts") is allegedly a communion hymn by Roman Catholic songwriter David Haas (b. 1957). It begins with a refrain which, after the first line quoted above, adds: "Living, now we remain with Jesus the Christ." I get that Christ is a title rather than a name; still, it sounds so awkward with an article in front of it, especially after the name Jesus, that I feel the only good excuses for that awkwardness are (a) when you're translating a foreign-language text within the constraints of the original meter, and (b) when the context specifically concerns Jesus' fulfillment of messianic prophecy. I know, you can't please everybody. But whenever an author freely chooses that phrase, a voice in the back of my mind asks why. To most folks apart from Scots and Tolkien fans, the phrases "Robert the Bruce" and "Theoden King" probably sound about equally awkward. But in our language the name and title "Jesus Christ" are a well-known formula, and "Jesus the Christ" sounds like the author either couldn't cope with the meter he selected for himself, or has an abnormal compulsion to correct common idioms like "I could care less." He probably also pronounces the t in "often" and spells "hubris" with a y. If I don't want to start hating him, I'm going to have to assume he's just a clumsy versifier. But enough about the first two lines...

The hymn's four stanzas are laid out as a single through-composed melody, with "Refrain" inserted at the end of each stanza; this is, again, because of a level of irregularity, or complexity, in Haas's setting of his own text that makes it impractical to put all four stanzas under the same staves. The question "Is he struggling to make the meter work?" leans further toward an affirmative answer in Stanza 1, which concludes: "dead became living, life from your giving." The rhythm of Stanza 2 gives you two full bars to ponder at leisure the phrase "something we've touched" while trying not to snicker, at least one phrase before it becomes evident that we're singing a paraphrase of 1 John 1:1. Stanza 3 says, "He chose to give of himself, became our bread; broken, that we might live," etc. Again, as in several previous communion hymns in ELW, the idea that Jesus personally becomes the bread does not necessarily, or clearly, imply that the bread becomes His body. In fact, while I would consider the reverse to be necessarily the case (i.e. if you're taking His body and blood by mouth, you're getting the whole Jesus), I am unimpressed by this "He became bread" lingo. It seems too likely that this language will give comfort to people who repugn the idea of Christ's bodily presence in the sacrament.

A super-sized Stanza 4 brings the hymn to its denouement: "We are the presence of God; this is our call; now to become bread and wine, food for the hungry, life for the weary; for to live with the Lord, we must die with the Lord." Did you take all that in? You might want to read it again. What this hymn has given us so far is a vision of the Lord's Supper that is mostly a symbolic or spiritualized representation of what Christ did for us on the cross; only a thin thread of meaning ("something we've touched... life-giving Word") suggests that we actually make bodily contact with Christ in this sacrament; it adds not a single word on how the sacrament applies God's forgiveness to us; and now, already before it has even said a clear word about bread and wine becoming Christ, it declares that we become bread and wine by this mystical fellowship, to feed the world. Restricted to the terms of this hymn, the sacrament hasn't really fed us, yet we are supposed to feed others; it hasn't taken food and given us Christ, yet it has taken us and given food to the world. It hasn't fully committed itself to accepting the miraculous mystery of the sacrament on the terms in which Christ delivered it to us; but it commits itself fully to a miraculous, sacrificial transformation of which the Lord nowhere speaks.

It is, to bring it all to a point, a hymn that expresses the Lutheran church's new theology of the eucharist previously noted in ELW's liturgy of the sacrament. Which, in many ways, is like the old theology of the sacrament of which the Lutheran church cleansed itself at the time of the Reformation. It is a hymn that restores the late, great Sacrifice of the Mass; not, though, in the sense that Christ is being offered again for the sins of the communicants, but in the sense that the communicants are offering themselves to God and to the world as a sacramental vessel of Christ. It can only work in a strange church that neither Christ nor any Old Testament prophet nor New Testament apostle would recognize as his own: a church where there are no sinners needing any forgiveness, no sick or lame or blind or deaf or dumb or lepers or palsied or dropsied or demoniacs needing to be healed or relieved of their suffering, no dead needing to be revived, no mourners needing to be comforted, no poor needing to be fed, no spiritual or fleshly problems to address except a need to charge our batteries to go out among those less empowered than we are and zap them with Jesus JuiceTM.

Of course there are poor and sick and needy people in ELW's worldview—where it comes to addressing social justice issues—when the opportunity presents itself for the church to dabble in a sphere of activity that isn't primarily concerned with the forgiveness of sins. But when anyone is pining, starving, struggling with sin and temptation, this church is not for them. Why? Because its liturgical theology does not aim to deal with sin; it aims to close sales on a triumphalistic time-share of the person of Christ, embodied in us and doing wonderful, exciting things through us. If you want medicine for the disease of sin, death, pain, and woe, you have to go to a church that (first) recognizes their existence, and then proposes to address them with forgiveness applied through oral reception of the body and blood of Christ, according to His ordinance and promise. In other words, if you come to a Lutheran church looking for help with these things, and you see this hymnal in the pews, turn around and leave, and keep looking.

Am I doing this hymn, and this hymnal, an injustice? Already after 500 hymns, I think the preponderance of evidence suggests not. So there is a line in Stanza 3 in which Christ gives himself, "broken, that we may live... pain for our pain." But is a memento of that historical act, once so long ago, all that the sacrament is good for? Surely not, if even this hymn (and the liturgical formula it reproduces) goes on to say more. But alas, that "more" is not something that holds up against the Lutheran confessions, the writings of Luther, or the position that Lutheranism has historically occupied regarding the Lord's Supper. One of the reasons Lutheranism is still a thing, over 500 years after the Reformation, is the fact that Lutherans never gave up fighting for this teaching of the Lord, recognizing it to be more important than external unity even with other Protestants, for some reason which the minds behind ELW no longer seem to grasp. Perhaps, where they are concerned, there is no further need for Lutheranism as a discrete communion. Perhaps that, in fact, is one of the hidden messages encoded throughout this entire hymnal.

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