Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lord Jesus, Thou the Church's Head

This morning at Mass for the entrance hymn we sang "Lord Jesus Christ, the Church's Head" as it appears in Lutheran Service Book (hymn 647).  I rather like this hymn, quite despite the fact that it is a product of the Pietist Movement of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Its author, Johann Mentzer, was born in 1658, the same year in which both Oliver Cromwell and his antagonist Edward Sexby died.  Mentzer died in 1734, the year in which Daniel Boone was born.  More importantly, however, Pietism was still in full swing.  What's so bad about Pietism?  It spawned Methodism, the Brethren, and a less than genuinely Lutheran strain of Lutheranism which pervades major churches like the LC-MS to this day.  For evidence of the Pietist influence on the LC-MS, one need look no further than the fact that in most LC-MS homes-of high class and low-it is Zinzendorf's table prayer that is prayed each day (a prayer which I tolerate but will not use).  Within Mentzer's close circle was no less an archpietist than Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf himself.  

Nevertheless, Mentzer seems to have been a faithful pastor, and one to whom personal suffering was not unknown, having to mourn, for example, the death of his wife, a death which left him with six young children.  Suffering or affliction, both worldly and spiritual, is a key ingredient in the making of a true theologian, and in this case, a theological poet and hymn writer.  I like to put it this way: the Gospel is best appreciated and proclaimed by men who know the Blues.  And although Mentzer was a Pietist, I would gladly take a good Pietist hymn (a good Pietist hymn is one which, despite its historical context, is substantially Lutheran) any day over the dross of the succeeding centuries (which populates too much space in our hymn books).

Though we sang the hymn this morning in its modern bastardized form in LSB, I would share with you a better translation, that of William J. Schaefer in The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941.
Lord Jesus, Thou the Church's Head,
Thou art her one Foundation;
In Thee she trusts, before Thee bows,
And waits for Thy salvation.
Built on this Rock secure,
Thy Church shall endure
E'en though the world decay
And all things pass away.
Oh, hear, oh, hear us, Jesus!
O Lord, let this Thy little flock,
Thy name alone confessing,
Continue in Thy loving care,
True unity possessing.
Thy Sacraments, O Lord,
And Thy saving Word
To us e'er pure retain.
Grant that they may remain
Our only strength and comfort.

Help us to serve Thee evermore
With hearts both pure and lowly;
And may Thy Word, that light divine,
Shine on in splendor holy
That we repentance show,
In faith ever grow;
The power of sin destroy
And all that doth annoy.
Oh, make us faithful Christians!
And for Thy Gospel let us dare
To sacrifice all treasure;
Teach us to bear Thy blessed cross,
To find in Thee all pleasure.
Oh, grant us steadfastness
In joy and distress,
That we Thee ne'er forsake.
Let us by grace partake
Of endless joy and glory.
But should we really be praying that the Sacraments and the Word may remain our only strength and comfort?  We rightly confess in the Small Catechism that Christ alone is our comfort.  Let's look more closely at the context of that reference in the Catechism.  In preparation for going to Communion, we have the Christian Questions, question 16 of which is as follows:
Q. Why ought we to remember and proclaim His death?
A. That we may learn to believe that no creature could make satisfaction for our sins but Christ, true God and man; and that we may learn to look with terror at our sins, and to regard them as great indeed, and to find joy and comfort in Him alone, and thus be saved through such faith.
The Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, when faithfully kept, teaches us to find our joy and comfort in Christ alone.  The same goes for the other sacraments and the Word of God, each in its own way.  For He is their content.  Johann Mentzer is right after all.  It is in the external Word of God and in His sacraments, or what Saint Paul calls God's mysteries, that Christ promises to give us all strength, all comfort, and all true joy in this life. 

We need more hymns of this quality (theological and poetic) in the church.

No comments: