Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Easter Heart Preparation: Week 1

This Week's Hymns:

Monday: Rock of Ages

Believe it or not, I grew up having no idea what “Lent” was. It wasn’t until I attended a Presbyterian church in college, and they started talking in February about getting ready for Easter, that I realized the importance of preparing my heart for the most important event in the Christian calendar: the commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I was fascinated to read The Stories Behind the Traditions & Songs of Easter, by Ace Collins… let me share some of the things I learned about Lent:

  • Lent is traditionally 40 days of penitence, often observed by fasting, leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and atonement for our sins.
  • In the early church, there was a threefold worship purpose in the time leading up to Easter, though specific dates and durations of time varied from church to church. Christians prepared for Easter by:
(1) training new converts in the meaning of Christianity - they underwent serious instruction by the church leaders (much more in depth than most churches of today) and were baptized on the anniversary of Christ's resurrection
(2) "turning inward and looking at their own shortcomings... searching for ways to put sin behind them and better emulate the Lord in their... lives" (quoted from p. 36 of Collins’ book)
(3) reaching out to those who had fallen away from the church
  • It dates back at least to the 2nd century, and it might have begun with the disciples just a few years after Jesus' resurrection. It is one observance of the church that has remained, for the most part, constant throughout church history.
  • The word “Lent” was finally coined toward the end of the sixth century by Pope Gregory, who may have taken the name from the Anglo-Saxon word leneten, meaning “spring” or “the time when the year lengthens.” He may have also taken the name from other languages of the period that had similar words meaning “to fast.”
  • Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313, and the Council of Nicea met to set standards for worship. In 325 at this council, church leaders established dates for celebrating both Christmas and Easter, as well as dictating the observance of a 40-day fasting period leading up to Easter.
> (40 is a significant number throughout Christ's life and Biblical history - it's how long Jesus fasted and was tempted in the wilderness, how long Moses fasted when he was given the 10 commandments, how long Elijah once fasted, how long the Flood lasted, how many years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, etc.)
> "In honor of the Resurrection, Sundays are eliminated in the 40 days of Lent (no fasting). It is inappropriate to fast on a Sunday, because, to a Christian, each Sabbath is a little Easter!" So Lent is 40 days when Sundays are not included.
  • The first day of Lent is called Ash Wednesday: we express repentance, embracing our helplessness and need of God, by putting ashes on our heads. Traditionally the ashes are from last year’s Palm Sunday branches.

Even though I haven't been raised in a tradition that makes a big deal about Lent, I'm coming to see the value of this season - recognizing our sins really helps us to better understand God's love for us. Thanks to Net Hymnal, I will be bringing you a hymn (and a few facts and observations) for every day this week.

Wednesday, February 13:
"O Come and Mourn with Me"

Mourning is not really something that’s talked about these days, at least in our culture. 

I love how this hymn makes the scene of Jesus' crucifixion come alive for me - I can see the people around Him, hear the words he agonizingly spoke, and witness aspects of His physical suffering. 

But I especially identify with the last few stanzas of the hymn, which plead with God to break my hard heart and actually see this as more than just a scene to take in; trying to understand how much Christ suffered for me should bring me to tears. I have to realize that my "weak self-love and guilty pride" are equivalent to Pilate and Judas' sins, which ultimately led to His crucifixion.  

What a contrast in the first line of the last stanza! "O love of God! O sin of man!" Yet God's love overcomes our incredible sin, and because of Him, we experience victory!

Thursday, February 14: 

What a powerful depiction of our ever-wandering hearts! This hymn is very effective in helping me realize my sinfulness and need of a Savior. And as it says, “Not till we knew our guilt and shame / Did we esteem our Savior’s Name.” 

Finally in the last stanza, the author prays that God will help all of humanity to finally realize that we can do nothing without Him! 

This was written for Good Friday meetings at Clapton Congress Hall in London around 1914. 

Friday, February 15: 
the Savior Dies”

This hymn is full of incredulous questions: Why would God ever die for man? She even describes such grace as “surprising.” 

The last 2 stanzas are self-reflection and prayer: The author asks herself how she can look at all Jesus has done for her and remain callous and insensitive. 

She finally begs that God will “warm this cold, this stupid heart” so she can fully grieve the pain Jesus went through and love Him more fully.

Saturday, February 16:

Not only does this beautifully tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it also holds a charge for Christians. He asks God to give us grace so “that we, with our hearts in heaven, here on earth may fruitful be.” In other words, God has saved us not just so that we can join Him in heaven one day, but so that we can “harvest” this earth and bring more people to heaven with us. 

The tune to this is the same as “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners.” And yes, the author of this hymn was the nephew to the famous poet William Wordsworth.

Sunday, February 17: 

Like many popular Christian songs of today, this describes Jesus breaking the “chains of death” (or “bursting [them] in twain,” as the case may be). 

But it takes Jesus’ victory a step further, also portraying Him returning as the conquering hero, with His Bride (the church) at His side, the angels singing His praises, and the prospect of reigning forever a reality.

Monday, February 18: “Rock of Ages”

Finally, we come to a hymn you may have actually heard of! But did you know that this hymn was actually written as part of an angry theological battle? Charles Wesley taught that “it was possible for a truly devout believer to attain a state of heavenly perfection here on earth and thus live without consciously sinning.” Toplady, a Calvinist, believed, on the other hand, that salvation only came through God’s grace and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Through sermons, essays, and angry letters, these two debated in the 1770s.

Toplady wrote this hymn specifically to contradict Wesley’s theology: “Could my tears forever flow, could my zeal no languor know, those for sin could not atone – Thou must save, and Thou alone.” He even used Wesley’s own words against him! (“In a hymn of his own, Wesley had described Jesus Christ as a, ‘Rock struck for me’ and had continued, ‘let those two streams of Blood and Water which once gushed out of Thy side bring down Pardon and Holiness into my soul.’”) After two stanzas of theological rebuttal, however, we see the third and fourth stanzas as a personal affirmation of his belief. Toplady was suffering from tuberculosis at the time this was written, and he died within 2 years. (source: Hymns of Faith & Inspiration)

About 8 years after the hymn was written, the vicar of Blagdon, Toplady’s former parish, told a lovely, but inaccurate, tale about Toplady searching for refuge during a sudden storm, hiding in a rock, and suddenly being inspired to write this hymn. You can find that story, and several others, on NetHymnal’s page about this hymn.

Tuesday, February 19: 

The scene at the tomb is vividly described here in poetic fashion with the refrain containing the command to “wake, sweetest strains of music,” to tell Jesus’ triumphant story and “drive away all sadness.” 

I think it's interesting that in verse 1 the first two lines contrast with the joy that comes in the last two lines, then in verse 2 the first line is all that is remaining of the scene before the resurrection, and the final verse is simply jubilant all the way through. It's as though the evil is gradually being pushed back line by line in each verse.


Tune in next week for more hymns and thoughts about the Easter egg and Easter bunny!

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