August 18, 2019

Behind the Hymns – God the Holy Spirit

Passage: Jeremiah 23:23-29 and Luke 12:49-56

Today we are looking at hymns celebrating God the Holy Spirit.

When the Spirit of the Lord moves in my soul – 398
Our first hymn today has no known author for either the words or the melody. The melody is listed as traditional. It sounds Jewish and puts me in mind of similar tunes of a Yiddish origin. The words are traditional Spanish but when exactly they were first penned is unknown. Andrew Donaldson has provided us with the English translation.

The spirit of the Lord has been with the world since its first formation. It was the spirit of the Lord moving over the face of the deep, bringing forth order out of chaos. It was the spirit of the Lord that called successive generations of leaders for the people of Israel and it was that same spirit that was embodied by our Lord Jesus Christ and then given to the first disciples from the very breath of Jesus before his ascension.

When the spirit of the Lord moves us in our soul, we can sing, we can pray, we can dance, and we can praise just as David the shepherd did so long ago. Time passes and yet certain truths remain the same.

Breathe on me, breath of God– 389

Breathe on me, breath of God was written by Edwin Hatch with music by Robert Jackson. Edwin Hatch was born in Derby, England in 1835 and died in Oxford, England in 1889. He spent 10 years in ministry in Canada, first as anAnglican priest, in Toronto, Canada West, then as professor of classics at Trinity College until 1862. Between then and his return to Oxford, England in 1867, he served as rector of the High School of Quebec and professor of Classics at Morrin College, both in Quebec City. While he wrote other hymns, this is his most famous.

Breathe on me, breath of God puts me in mind of that scene in the upper room after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. John describes how Jesus came among them even though the door was locked out of fear. With no bells or whistles or tongues of fire or other such wondrous signs, John relates how the very breath from the risen Lord was breathed into the disciples empowering them with the same Spirit that was in Jesus and in the Father – the very spirit of the living God.

Of course, we all know that many things need to be given to us repeatedlyas we often let go of those things that we are most in need of. And one thing we are most in need of is the sense of new life and new hope that the Spirit of God brings. How could we possibly love what God loves or do what God wants without that spirit, that breath of God breathed into us.

Only with the continual presence of the spirit and the spirit’s wisdom can we hope to approach a purity of heart or hope to be wholly God’s people. And in the end the last great hope is that the breath of God will be with us at our last and that breath will carry from this world to the next to live the perfect life of God’s eternity.

Spirit, spirit of gentleness – 399

Our next hymn of the holy spirit is a more modern one having been written in 1995. Despite its relative newness, the gentle flow of its melody combined with its message has helped to make this a new favourite for many people. James Manley is the author of both words and melody. He was born in Massachusetts in 1940 and was ordained to the ministry of the United Church of Christ in 1966.
The chorus speaks to the need for the spirit of God today as much as in the past. The first image is that of a gentle breeze as the spirit seeks to find those lost in the world wandering in the wilderness. The second image is that of the spirit stirring in us moving us to action and not a static faith. Its movement reminiscent of the wind that sweeps the sea.

James begins the story with the movement of the Spirit in creation. He then remembers the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt to the promised land – a pivotal event in the life and history of God’s chosen people. In the third verse, he traces the history of the Spirit and its presence in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ – from stable to hill. He finishes by noting the Spirit’s involvement with those who were sent by God to city and town and village to spread the word of God’s forgiveness and salvation.

In the last verse, he sees the spirit calling from tomorrow – a sign that the spirit of God is not just with us but ahead of us so that tomorrow already has the presence of God. In its final words, there is a hope that we will continue to look for the spirit’s guidance allowing us to not be caught in ancient ways but seeking ever for the where the spirit of God will lead us as we seek to not discredit the faith of those who went before us but also boldly step into the future allowing God to speak and we to listen and follow.

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart – 382

For our closing hymn, we go back in time to the 1800’s for a hymn by a man named George Croly. George was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1780 and was ordained in the Roman Catholic church where he served the church in Ireland until 1810 when he moved to London. He served two parishes there from 1835 until his sudden death while walking on the street of Holborn near his parishes in 1860.

Spirit of God descend upon my heart. Certainly, the heartfelt prayer of a pious man. This whole hymn is a sincere prayer from the heart as George seeks to express his great desire to not only have the spirit of God present in his life but to be taught to feel the presence of the spirit, to be able to bear the struggles of his own soul, to be able to face his doubts, quell his desire to rebel against God and to be patient when prayer remains unanswered.

In the last verse, he goes further asking to be taught to love the spirit, to be able to love God as the angels love with an all-encompassing passion for God. And reminiscent of the eternal flame that would burn above the altar, George asks that his own heart be the altar and that the flame of the Spirit might burn above it.