Saturday, March 5, 2011

Liturgical Irony

I grew up a pastor’s kid in North Dakota. Our church didn’t bother with the “new” hymnal and stuck with TLH. The liturgy never changed. By the age of 10 I had stopped using the hymnal on Sundays for everything but the hymns. It was a great way to grow up. No matter what else was going on in my life that was a constant. Regrettably our little country church only had communion once a month and on high occasions like Christmas, Maundy Thursday, or Easter. Still, every time we had communion my father picked communion hymns, one before the consecration, one for the distribution and one after the benediction. A typical first Sunday of the month would have us singing “Draw Nigh and Take the Body of the Lord” before the sacrament. “Soul Adorn Thyself with Gladness” or “I Come O Savior to Thy Table” and we would end the service with “Oh Lord We Praise Thee.”

Our church restricted communion to those who had been confirmed, and that didn’t happen until after the eighth grade. Thus for most of my years at home, I sat in the pew and sang all of these hymns. “I Come O Savior to Thy Table” was an early favorite of mine. I remember singing the refrain: “May Thy body and Thy blood be for my soul the highest good” before I was in kindergarten. It was one of the few hymns that I could sing with the congregation before I could read. Later it was a big deal for me to get to sing that phrase all 15 times. This was not all that frequent of an occurrence. First there was the infrequency of communion and the fact that this hymn wasn’t sung every time. Add to that it was a distribution hymn so singing the entire hymn depended on enough people being in church to commune. Then the right organist had to be playing; one that didn’t feel the need to play an interlude every five verses to give our voices a break. You also lost the chance to sing them if you were communing, but this wasn’t too much of an issue for my family since we sat in the front (well, four or five pews back from the front, but no one sat in front of us) and was usually the first to commune and thus in the same table as the organist. The organ was just off the chancel. The most I would miss was the first stanza depending on how fast the organist got to the bench and how quickly she started playing. The last communion Sunday before I was confirmed everything came together and I got to sing all 15 versus.

Fast forward to now and I am glad to say that I have attended churches that offer communion every Sunday. But with this wonderful gain there has come some personally regrettable losses. First the liturgy keeps changing. This often happens with the church season and while I’ve become familiar with most of the orders in the hymnal, gone are the days where I can abandon the hymnal for everything but hymns. The second thing is now that communion is every Sunday I rarely sing communion hymns. Pastors use the distribution hymns to emphasis the theme of the Sunday and if several hymns are used he may toss in one communion hymn. The only service where I can count on singing them is Maundy Thursday. Couple this with a new hymnal and the regrettable practice of messing with the words and now when I do sing one of those old often repeated in my childhood hymns, I invariably end up frustrated by the changes. If I sang them more often I’d eventually get over this, or at least think about what the hymn is conveying instead of being angry at synodical busy bodies who felt the need to mess with something for some high minded reason like this word or that more accurately reflects the original form of the Latin or German or is a less archaic English word, completely disregarding the notion that some faithful Lutheran may have memorized this hymn in his childhood and isn’t going to appreciate the nuances. Alas, now that I get communion every Sunday I rarely sing about it and when I do, rather than it being a joy, for now, I just get annoyed.


lhg edited and approved

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