Music can change the world because it can change people. Bono
Music and song have an amazing way of winding deep into the human psyche. And while there are memorable speeches made by men that stick in the minds of many (Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for example…“Four score and seven years ago” or Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech), music lyrics tend to remain in people’s memories much, much longer than any oral presentation can. Thus, music and song have been used quite effectively throughout human history in aiding our minds to remember important truths that otherwise might be lost if only spoken about. So it is with the great hymns of the Christian faith. When you and I sing the words of a great hymn, the chances are greatly increased that we will remember those powerful words as compared to that same text being read or spoken.
In 325 AD, church leaders from around the then-civilized world convened in the small town of Nicaea in Bithynia (modern-day Turkey) to formulate a consensus of belief and practice amongst Christians. There was a big theological problem going on in the culture of that day… a problem that remains even to this day. It seems that a very influential church leader named Arius, who was stationed in Alexandria, Egypt, was teaching his followers that Jesus, while divine in nature, was not co-equal with God the Father.
Now, while this little fact might seem minor to some; in truth, one of the most unique beliefs that separate Christianity from other major religions in the world is the fact that Jesus of Nazareth, while indeed, a separate entity from God the Father, clearly states that He and the Father (and the Holy Spirit) are One! Other religions believe that there are multiple gods working together for common purposes, while others will insist that there is only one true God. But orthodox Christianity holds to a very unique belief that the three entities of the Divine (Father, Son, and Spirit), while manifest in three persons, are all united in one corporate God-head, working together as one for the common purpose of redeeming a fallen creation back unto Himself.
So the early church leaders, gathered in Nicaea in 325 AD, agreed together on a common document we now call the Nicene Creed. Words that cement in place our common belief as Christians that Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Spirit, and God, the Father are indeed One, co-existent and inseparable from the Beginning to the End.
Now, let’s fast forward in time to the earliest years of the 19th century. Most of the church world throughout England was singing from what was called the Psalter, since it was forbidden by Anglican authorities for any parish to be singing music other than the metrical pieces found there.
But these were exciting times in England. A move of God was sweeping across the land and many were writing new songs that were helping God’s people grasp this move of the Spirit and hold it deep in their hearts. Reginald Heber was one of those young Anglican pastors who had heard the songs being written by John Newton, William Cowper, and others, and he wanted his parish to be singing some of these powerful new songs as well. In a letter written to his supervisor in 1809, Heber asked to purchase some copies of The Olney Hymns so he could place them alongside the Psalters in the pews. In that letter, Heber dreamed of a new collection of hymns that would be associated with the Epistles and the Gospels, and would be sung before and after the reciting of the Nicene Creed. That idea was rejected, but that didn’t stop Heber from writing hymns anyway.
In October of 1820, Heber once again asked for the authorization from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London to publish a collection of both his hymns and others, enlarging on what Heber called “the powerful engine of hymns” being sung amongst the Dissenters (Wesley, Newton and others). But once again, the church turned down his request. Sadly, it was only after his death in 1826, then a missionary to India, that his 57 hymns (written between 1811 and 1826) were published in a work entitled, Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year. It was in that 1827 publication, Heber’s final hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty (1826), composed around the themes found in the Nicene Creed, first appeared for others outside his own parish to sing.
By the early 1860’s, composer John B. Dykes had added a new musical arrangement to Heber’s hymn, which he entitled Nicaea, in recognition of the amazing document written by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The results have been astonishing. Hymn historian, Albert Edward Bailey, writes about Heber’s classic in this way:
No hymn has greater dignity and uplifting power; none is more thoroughly liturgical, fit to be sung by vast multitudes in grand cathedrals, while the organ rolls its thrilling thunders through long-drawn aisle and fretted vault. The hymn consists almost entirely of epithets – words that seek to define the nature of the God we worship. He is Lord, God, the Almighty, the Holy, merciful, mighty, the one who was and is and is to come; His glory hidden in darkness; unique, perfect in power, love, purity, the Triune – both one and three, incomprehensible though that may be to mortal mind. These are powerful words, filled with the emotion with which centuries of Christian teaching and worship have charged them. They are conjuring words, evoking the visions of John’s Revelation where all the angelic hosts join with cherubim, seraphim and the Church Triumphant in adoration, while the stars and the sea; the whirlwinds and the thunders furnish the orchestration.
My prayer: Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee; Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty. God in three persons, blessed Trinity!
Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea; cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee, which wert and art and evermore shalt be.
Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide Thee, though the eye of sinful man, Thy glory may not see; only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee, perfect in power, in love, and purity.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! All Thy works shall praise Thy name, in earth and sky and sea; Holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity!
For Your name’s sake. Amen.
My questions to ponder: So in a culture full of many religious views, where the full divinity and the full humanity of Christ is so often questioned; how can I hold to the historical mystery of the Triune God, where Jesus of Nazareth is co-equal to God, the Father, while the Holy Spirit is not overlooked or short-changed in the process? What songs of faith might be written in our generation to help this important Triune truth to be fully grasped by the people of God?
So what is God speaking to you today as we ponder together 30 Great Hymns of Faith?
Between now and Easter 2016, we will be sharing with you this blog series we call Thirty Great Hymns of Faith. In order to keep all 34 blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our Thirty Great Hymns of Faith home page for ease of use. ENJOY!
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