Flipping Through the Hymnal

The hymns and songs of the church help me understand the timeline of the year. When I flip through the pages of the Lutheran Service Book, I notice the different sections of hymns. The hymnal is not organized in a progression of hymns from favorites towards clunkers. Organizing a hymnal from favorites towards disappointments would require a flexible binding because of the variety of opinions of favorites. The hymns of the church support both the life of the congregation moving though the church year and the life of our members as we move through our lives. The church moves each year through the birth of Christ to the End Times. As followers of Jesus, we also move from our baptisms, through difficult times and celebrations, and conclude with the joy of the resurrection into the kingdom of God.

Martin Luther Chapel, Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines

The Church Year

The first section organizes the hymns by the movement of the church year from Advent through the End Times. This section also includes the hymns for the feasts and festivals that will occur throughout the church year. My favorite hymn in this section is “Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia.” I love how this hymn echoes in our home every Easter with its powerful refrain, “Let us sing praise to Him with endless joy.” The tune from this hymn is from Tanzania and the rhythm gives me the encouragement that this good news is for all the nations.

Person and Work of Christ

The second section of hymns praises God for the person and work of Jesus Christ. These hymns give the Church the opportunity to put to melody praise and thanksgiving for our redemption and justification. In this section I enjoy singing “By Grace I’m Saved.” This hymn begins every verse with the words “by grace,” and each verse celebrates the different ways God’s grace changes our lives.

The Christian Church

The third section of hymns gives voice to the activities of the Christian Church. In this section I find hymns that celebrate the Word of God and the Sacraments. I find it difficult to highlight just one hymn in this section. Each page takes me to another hymn that reminds me of different moments in my work as a pastor. If I had to highlight one, the hymn “What Is This Bread” invites us to receive the wondrous love of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. I think this hymn is a wonderful study of the mystery of God’s love that Jesus reveals for us in this meal of bread and wine, body and blood.

The Christian Life

The fourth section of hymns highlights the personal life of a Christian with hymns about trust, hope, prayer, stewardship, mission and witness, and marriage. I enjoy singing “Listen, God is Calling.” I like that this hymn has a call and response pattern that gives the song a pattern of participation instead of just observation. The leader starts with the word, “Listen.” The people answer, “Listen, God is calling.” The leader and the people encourage one another to hear God’s offer of forgiveness, comfort, and joy.

Times and Seasons

The fifth section highlights hymns that support morning, evening, harvest time, and the New Year, which are all opportunities for us to sing in thanksgiving to God. I remember fondly singing, as a lullaby, to our children the hymn, “Abide with Me.” I also sing this hymn at the bedside of a person approaching death. I have confident hope in the words, “In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.” Where no other helper will assist me, I know that God will be my shepherd through life and death.

The Service

This next section includes hymns for the beginning of the service, the close of the service, and also biblical canticles. The canticles are songs from the Holy Scriptures that help us sing along with Simeon, Mary, Zechariah, and other faithful saints that have gone before us. At the close of the service, the hymn “Go, My Children, with My Blessing,” provides a benediction full of promise. I appreciate the closing hymns of a service that keep me singing in my heart throughout the rest of the week.

Nation and National Songs

The final section in the hymnal is a small collection of hymns that support community and nation with trust that God is sovereign over both the church and the state. This section is not a songbook of secular patriotic songs. These hymns are Christian prayers and praises to God. I know that during patriotic holidays I receive requests for a number of songs that are not in our hymnal. At St. Paul Lutheran Church we have developed the tradition of singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic and God Bless America, neither of which are in our hymnal, because these are songs that remind us of times in our country when we have been reminded to rely on God. Of the three hymns in this section, I most enjoy singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

I would like you to take some time and look through the The Lutheran Service Book and share with me your favorite hymns from each section. You can find this hymnal in our pews. I would also be interested in hearing from you your favorite hymn that is not included in our hymnal. You can place in the comments some of your favorites. I will focus on contemporary songs in a future article.