Preparing for Worship

by | Mar 22, 2024 | Preparing For Worship

This morning in worship we will sing the familiar hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. This hymn was written by the father of English hymnody, Isaac Watts, and is considered by many to be his crowning achievement. While originally intended as a communion hymn, it has become a popular congregational choice during the season of Lent as it helps focus our attention toward the cross. In the years since its composition, the text has been set to several different hymn tunes, but the one most commonly associated with it now, and the one we sing this morning, is Hamburg.

Hamburg was composed by Lowell Mason, a leading figure in 19th century American church music. It is an adaptation of a plainchant melody, and Mason indicated that the tune was based on Gregorian chant. The simple melody contains only five tones, and while it can be appreciated by congregations for its ease of singing, some have called the tune a less than ideal match for such a rich text. The argument is that the words Watts penned should be more celebrated with a grand tune as were many of his other hymns like Joy to the World and O God Our Help in Ages Past.

Others have argued that the simplicity of the tune pairs perfectly with the text, as it allows the words to receive the full focus they are due. Rather than the singers of the hymn getting caught up in melodic flourishes that might require a good bit of vocal acuity, they are able to meditate on the text and truly consider what the hymn is asking of them: to respond to a love so amazing that it demands their life, their soul, their all.

This complex text paired with such a basic melody serves as a reminder of the depth, beauty and truth that can be found in simple things. A cup of coffee with a friend. A stroll in the park. Washing the dishes. There is no activity so mundane or ordinary that God cannot be revealed in it. Because as Frederick Buechner reminds us: all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.