In Lent we encounter many hymns with emphases on the reality of sin, on the need for repentance, and on the fruits of forgiveness. One example relates back to the metaphysical poet, John Donne (see The Kalendar), being no. 140, Wilt thou forgive that sin, a poem of Donne’s set to music contemporary to his life, and a poem which gives a good example of the accented rhythm of speech encountered in metaphysical poetry.
The number of hymns appointed just on a seasonal basis for Lent is small, and what is striking about them is their age. At least in the current hymnal, the Lenten theme has not resulted in newer hymns. Three of the twelve seasonal hymns are from the 6th century. Perhaps this reflects the trials of that age? If so, how can we reflect in our own age on the universal need to turn to God?
A hymn sometimes encountered in Lent is no. 692, I heard the voice of Jesus say. The words are set to a Thomas Tallis (d. 1585) melody in common meter which can make these words sound a bit like poetry by Donne. This melody reflects the Elizabethan church emphasis on church singing being “understanded of the people,” with one syllable per note, and presents the interesting question of how much 16th century liturgical practice influenced the development of English poetry in the 17th century. A final hymn to consider is 637, How firm a foundation, written late in the 18th century and set to a contemporaneous melody. In the first hymnal in which this hymn was published the words are attributed to “K.” The identity of the author is not known, but it has been suggested to have been Richard Keen, a Baptist preacher in London. In most hymnody, the hymn is better known in the setting found at no. 636, to an American folk melody, but in The Episcopal Church it is more often sung to the 18th century melody, “Lyons”. The hymn instructs in how and why we can, in fact, turn to God. In contrast to those who consider God’s teaching to be folly (1 Cor. 2.14), those who have received the Holy Spirit in Baptism can be guided by Scripture. We may often struggle in this, but we do not dismiss the Bible just because it may be difficult to understand or difficult to relate to our lives in a given circumstance. “K.” writes:
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word! (v. 1)
In other words, because we are (in Baptism) “set aside” and marked as Christ’s own (and to be holy means to be set aside for God), we “saints” can apprehend that there is a foundation for faith in our encounter with Scripture, with God’s word. The author completes this thought:
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
To you that for refuge to Jesus have fled?
Because we have been incorporated into Christ in His Church, we can understand that God speaks to us, that the Word is living. We don’t have to just “seek” truth, because we have found this truth, Jesus (Jn. 14.6), and we can, therefore (in the words of v. 2), “be not dismayed” knowing that God is our God, and that He keeps His promises to be with us. When we pass through “fiery trials” (v. 3), God promises, “my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply”.
Lent may be a time of trial, but we are never tried alone. We journey together, and God journeys with us. We can sing, heartily, the words of this hymn:
The soul that to Jesus hath fled for repose,
[God] will not, [God] will not desert to its foes.
That soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake,
[He’ll] never, no, never, no never forsake.