Our opening hymn today only gives us information on the translator and the author of the tune, but it is believed that the words of this hymn were composed by none other than Bernard of Clairvaux who was born of well-to-do parents in central France -- in what we now know as burgundy wine country -- near Dijon. But he didn't grow up as a spoiled rich kid. His parents, especially his mother, Aleth, taught him the virtues of justice, mercy, and affection for others.
His mother's death, when he was seventeen, affected Bernard profoundly. He began to experience a more profound conversion and a call to study theology. He entered a Benedictine monastery in 1112 A.D. His talent was soon recognized, and three years later he was asked to establish a monastery at Clairvaux. That was a successful venture, and a number of monasteries were established throughout France under his leadership. He became a confidant of Popes and a preacher to the King of France. In spite of these remarkable achievements, the focus of his life remained twofold: Knowing God and serving the needy.
Edward Caswell, the translator of this hymn, was the son of an Anglican priest and entered the Anglican Church as a priest but chose to enter the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church after the death of his wife. He devoted the rest of his life to serving the poor, the sick and little children. In his spare moments, he busied himself with translating the old hymns from Latin to English.
Of the many hymns that reflect on the person of Jesus this is one that celebrates not only the joy of being conscious of Jesus in this life but also the joy of knowing that a time will come when our spiritual relationship with Jesus will be realized in a face to face encounter and the opportunity for the believer to find rest and peace in the presence of Jesus. Bernard reflects on the fact that nothing in this world no matter how wonderful the voice or how precious a memory may be, nothing can be sweeter that to hear the name of Jesus. For Bernard, Jesus is the one who brings hope to every heart that feels the pain of sin and separation; he is the one who encourages the meek and who is ever kind to any who have fallen – be it a physical or spiritual fall. Jesus is good to all who seek him and what is it that those who seek will find with Jesus? For Bernard the end of our seeking is the love of Jesus. But for him that love is beyond any description that we might express by speech or in writing. It is a love that only can be truly known by those who know they are loved by Jesus.
To know we are loved by Jesus is the ultimate truth for Bernard and it is that love of Jesus that allows us to live our lives in relationship with Jesus as Jesus becomes for us our greatest joy in life knowing that the love of Jesus will ever be ours both now and even in eternity.
Our second hymn was composed by Catherine Cameron and set to an old tune by William Moore called Holy Manna. Catherine Arnott Cameron was born in 1927 in St. John, New Brunswick, the daughter of a New York minister, Dr. John Sutherland Bonnell. In an interview with hymnologist Harry Eskew, Catherine reflected on her interest in poetry and music: “As a child and teenager with a gift for writing poetry, I was troubled by the mismatch between words and music in some of the hymns sung in our church,” she said. “I thought that one day I might write a hymn that was a harmony of poetry and music.” The author notes “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 (1969) and has been a staple of hymnals ever since.
The hymn certainly is a reflection of our modern society and its struggles to balance the advances of science with the need to be aware of how our choices impact the world and its people.
While recognizing that we have great powers of inventiveness that we share with God who created us in his likeness, we can struggle with how to use those powers in ways that will enhance the lives of people and not leave them devoid of hope or purpose. The goal for us as Christians is to be part of the advancement of science and technology while at the same time not losing sight of the effects and changes science and technology can have on the quality of life of people. In the last verse, the author sees the great challenge that lies before us but reminds us that our goal is ever to be in service to others while not failing to honour God. Whatever we say and whatever we do, may we be guided by the wisdom of God so that the goals we seek may ever be in line with the vision of God.
John Lamberton Bell (born 1949, Kilmarnock, Ayrshire) is a great hymn-writer but also a Church of Scotland minister, a member of the Iona Community, a broadcaster, and former student activist. John works throughout the world, lecturing in theological colleges in the UK, Canada and the United States, but is primarily concerned with the renewal of congregational worship at the grass roots level.
As with so many of his hymns, John strongly sees the call of God as one to all believers. Clergy may have a part to play in the community life but the call to follow is not exclusive to them. Will you come and follow me has grown in popularity over the last number of years. What may surprise many of you to know is that the hymn is now 30 years old. The challenge is to answer the call of God to follow and to trust that God will be there as we answer that call.
What seems on the surface to be a simple hymn with a lyrical tune, John touches to the depths of our being with the probing questions: will you leave yourself behind; will you love the “you” you hide inside; will you quell the fear; will you let me answer prayer; and will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around - easy to sing but not so easy to answer. But John’s hope is that Jesus’ summons to us will be answered by us as we turn and follow knowing that our lives will never be the same. We are encouraged to let the love and footsteps of Jesus show us where we are to go and then we will be able to move and live and grow in Jesus and Jesus in us.
Our closing hymn was composed by Omer Westendorf, one of the earliest Roman Catholic composers of music in English. Omer got his start in music publishing after World War II, when he brought home for his parish choir in Cincinnati some of the Mass settings he had discovered in Holland. Interest in the new music being published in Europe led to his creation of the World Library of Sacred Music, initially a music-importing firm that brought much of this new European repertoire to U.S. parishes.
While more properly to be used as a hymn after communion, sent forth by your blessing focuses us as Christians on the life that we are to live as we leave the time of worship and resume our everyday lives. It is the prayer of the hymn that the seed of God’s teaching and the grace of God will inspire us to work for the coming of the kingdom of God and that we will find purpose in our lives. In the final verse the author encourages us to share our faith, to reveal our care for others through the love we come to know from God and to embrace as neighbours all those in the world no matter what their race. In this way we may give honour to Christ and be seen as his people.
While the first hymn today celebrated the great joy that a believer has from knowing the love of Jesus and being in relationship with Jesus, the other hymns have focused on how we, as Christians, can make our faith in God real in the world. May we not forget that what we learn of God is not just for this time and this space; may we not forget that we are being sent into the world as God’s people and so may we ever seek to honour God with our living and ever remain conscious that we are to bear the name of God and so follow the example of Jesus wherever we may go.