BEHIND THE HYMNS
O Canada -
No doubt we all recognize our first hymn today. It is our national anthem. The words to the opening verse are slightly different from the ones we are used to singing and even different from the revision just passed by Parliament on January 31 of this year.
The composer of the tune was Calixa Lavallee who was born on December 28, 1842 in Vercheres, Quebec which was then known as Canada East. He was the son of a woodcutter and blacksmith. His father later became an instrument repairman, bandleader and music teacher. After moving to St. Hyacinthe, his father worked for the famous organ builder Joseph Casavant and led the town band.
Young Lavallee showed great talent as a musician and was playing the cathedral organ from the age of eleven. He left for the United States a few years later and did not return to Canada until 1872. He then devoted himself to the establishment of a conservatory of music in Quebec. In 1880 he composed the music for O Canada at the request of the Congres national des Canadiens-Francais.
The original words for O Canada were written in French by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier. While his main employment was as a judge, his poetry was well known and respected. The French version of this anthem has never changed.
The English version was also written by a judge – the Honourable Robert Stanley Weir. Weir wrote what basically we still use today in 1908. It was slightly modified in 1927 but it was not proclaimed officially as the national anthem until the National Anthem Act was passed in 1980.
Verse 2 was written by Albert Watson. I couldn’t find any biographical information on him. This verse is a prayer to God imploring God to guide our country and people with wisdom and to grant us faith and freedom. It is the hope and prayer of the author that no oppression weigh us down or cause our reputation as a country to be sullied and prays that justice rule from shore to shore, from lakes to northern lights. Certainly we know that it is a difficult task to ensure justice for all peoples regardless of race, religion or country of origin but that indeed needs to be our goal if we are to forge ahead as a nation and give leadership to the world that also marks us as people of faith and commitment to God. In the chorus we find these words: “May love alone for wrong atone.” It is a powerful statement and one that challenges us all regardless of what we believe.
God of the Sparrow
Our second hymn was written by Jaroslav Vajda (pronounced vaheeduh) who was one of the leading hymn writers of the 20th century. He was born in Lorain, Ohio, the son of a Lutheran pastor of Slovak descent. He also was a Lutheran pastor serving bilingual churches in Pennsylvania and Indiana. Later he became the book editor for Concordia Publishing House. He didn’t write his first hymn until the age of 49.
God of the Sparrow is one of the most popular new hymns. Jaroslav was commissioned by Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood, Mo., “to compose a text that would provide answers as to why and how God’s creatures and children are to serve him. The Law of God demands perfect love from every creature, the love of God and the Gospel coax a willing response to live an expression of gratitude.”
Note that the hymn has no punctuation and no rhyme, yet each of the six verses are perfectly balanced: the first two lines offer a glimpse into the actions of God in the world and the bond God has with God’s creatures while the last two lines ask two rhetorical questions: “How does the creature…” The lack of a question mark gives one the sense that these questions are not so much expecting an answer as making a statement of profound wonder about the relationship between the Creator and the Creator’s creatures.
It can also be noted that the first two verses focus on God as revealed in the natural world through creatures of the air and the sea and events such as earthquake and storm. The third verse reminds us of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ through the image of the cross and the empty grave. In verses 4 and 5, we find biblical images that speak of the relationship of God to people: God of the hungry, of the sick, of the prodigal, of the neighbour and of the foe.” The final verse speaks of God as the loving heart to which we, as God’s children, will respond by saying “Home”.
The tune for this hymn was composed by Carl Shalk, a Lutheran organist and composer. He recognized the poem’s potential as a hymn and wrote the music specifically for it. The hymn was first sung at an annual meeting of the Hymn Society in July of 1987.
Upon Jaroslav’s death in 2008, Carl commented: “Ultimately, the texts of Jaroslav Vajda (vaheeduh) are a sign to God’s people – a sign of hopefulness, expectation and promise that the Holy Spirit still gives us songs to sing along our pilgrim way until the time when all our singing is joined to the last great song of the Lamb in eternity.”
God, who stretched the Spangled Heavens
While we still sing many of the older hymns written at a time in history when our understanding of the world was different, we need to recognize that when our understanding of the world changes, we need to develop hymns that reflect that understanding and how we see God through these changes. This is my Father’s world will long remain a cherished favourite as it offers us the comfort of an ordered universe in which everything is in its place and God is clearly in control.
Many of our hymns on themes of the natural world imply an extension of the cosmology of the ancient world in which a 3-story universe provides the basis for our assumptions. In this view, the dome of the heavens with the firmament of the stars rests upon the earth, which, in turn, is supported by the underworld resting on the pillars of the earth. This view assumes that the earth is the centre of the universe. Nicholas Copernicus reoriented our understanding of the universe in the 16th century with his proof that the earth revolved around the sun. This should have changed the course of hymns, but parts of the church universal did not accept his teachings for centuries. It took the space race of the 1960s to firmly establish that we no longer could restrict our understanding of the natural creation to the 3-storied universe. Our last hymn today – written in 1967 - was among the first to employ the imagery of the space age.
The author, Catherine Cameron, notes that “the hymn was written over a period of several months at a time when I was experiencing a new sense of direction, growth and creativity in my life.” It appeared first in Contemporary Worship 1 in 1969.
Note the paradox between the first verse and the next two verses. In verse one, the author celebrates humanity’s “inventive powers” that come as a result of being made “in God’s likeness.” Verse two contrasts the purposeful move into space with the void of life in “modern cities” where lonely people are often “lost to purpose and meaning, scarcely caring where they go.” Verse three, written at the height of the Cold War, contrasts “the ecstasy of winging through untraveled realms of space” with the earth-bound reality of the power of the atom, which provides us with the choice of “life’s destruction or our most triumphant hour.” Verse four appropriately concludes with the prayer: “Great Creator, give us guidance till our goals and yours are one.”