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Essay

Dark, Year-End Hymns

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What is it about the end of the year that makes us turn to stout and solemn hymns? While the TV shows us people wearing funny hats and blowing noisemakers, The Twelve waxes about beautiful, solid, and semi-morbid hymns. Jim Bratt recalled, “Hours and Days and Years and Ages” from the New Year’s Eve worship of his boyhood, and Debra Rienstra reflected on “Abide With Me.

Is this what it means to be “counter-cultural”? Or is it just a sign of getting old?

My hymn for the end of the year is “Through the Darkness of the Ages.” How’s that for a catchy and convivial title? Written in 2000 for the new millennium, I came to know it through our congregation’s hymnal, Worship and Rejoice (Hope Publishing, 2001), where it is set to the well-known tune “Abbot’s Leigh.”

The hymn itself is sturdy, swarthy, and grand. But it is the back-story about the author that I find almost equally wondrous. In some weird way, it is so quirky and humane as to balance the gravity of the hymn.

It seems that St. Paul’s Cathedral in London sponsored a millennium hymn writing contest. The winner received—drum roll here—a cut-glass bowl. (Why can only the Brits come up with these things? We definitely need more contests where winners receive cut-glass bowls!) 

The winner was one Hilary Jolly. My knowledge of her comes only from some quick snooping around the internet. Based solely on naive stereotypes, in my mind’s eye I see her as someone like “church-lady-to-singing-phenomenon” Susan Boyle, “walkies” dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse, or Downton Abbey cook Mrs. Patmore. Jolly is described as a 50-ish year old widow. Her husband committed suicide and one of her two children is chronically ill. In one place she is said to be a “retired typesetter” and in another a “part-time church cleaning lady” who grew up hearing her mother recite poetry while cleaning the house. She became a Christian in her mid-thirties, after, in her words, “one of those Damascus road experiences we’re told not to expect.”

Her thoughts on hymns and hymn writing are playfully profound and probably merit mention in any homiletics class. After selecting a passage of scripture, she studies it closely and prayerfully. “Scripture spills into poetry, because what is being communicated is so beautiful,” she says.

Of her method for writing “Walking my dog in the green places by the river on the edge of Cambridge, with my head full of scripture and music, juggling rhymes and wrestling with St. Paul to turn his more prosaic pronouncements into poetry, has become life’s greatest pleasure.”

And of the role of hymns in worship she says, “People go away from church singing the last hymn—as I do most Sundays, when I ride home on my bike. If hymns and songs say something theologically wrong, that’s stuck for life.”

Thank you Ms. Jolly, and a blessed new year to you all.

 

Through the Darkness of the Ages

Through the darkness of the ages,
Through the sorrows of the days
Strength of weary generations
Lifting hearts in hope and praise
Light in darkness, joy in sorrow,
Presence to allay all fears,
Jesus, you have kept your promise,
Faithful through two thousand years.

 

Bounty of two thousand harvests,
Beauty of two thousand springs:
He who framed the times and seasons
Has vouchsafed us greater things.
Word of God who spoke creation
Speaks forgiveness, speaks to save,
Gathers still his ransomed people
In the life he freely gave.

 

Countless flowers have bloomed and withered,
Countless noons are sealed in night,
Shattered thrones and fallen empires,
Realms and riches lost from sight.
Christ, your kingdom still increases
As the centuries unfold.
Grain that fell to earth and perished
Has brought forth ten thousand-fold.

 

Master, we shall sing your praises,
Man of sorrows, God of power,
For the measured march of seasons
Shall at last bring in the hour
When, as lightning leaps the heavens,
You return to lead us home,
You have promised, “I am coming,”
Swiftly, our Lord Jesus, come.

 

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

2 Comments

  • Enjoying the blog. Thanks for this. It is a better than average hymn. On the other hand there are lots of psalms that capture the same ideas. As we come to the end of the year (we have an Old Year's service tonight) might it be well to sing, e.g., Psalm 3, which affirms our experience but also lifts us out of it via the concrete acts in salvation history?

    But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,
    my glory, and the lifter of my head.
    4 I cried aloud to the Lord,
    and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah (Psalm 3:3-4, ESV)

  • Kris DeWild says:

    Here is my favorite old year/new year hymn; it was written by Frances Whitmarsh Wile (b. 1878). The commonly used tune is FOREST GREEN.

    All beautiful the march of days, as seasons come and go;
    The Hand that shaped the rose hath wrought the crystal of the snow;
    Hath sent the hoary frost of Heav’n, the flowing waters sealed,
    And laid a silent loveliness on hill and wood and field.

    O’er white expanses sparkling pure the radiant morns unfold;
    The solemn splendors of the night burn brighter than the cold;
    Life mounts in every throbbing vein, love deepens round the hearth,
    And clearer sounds the angel hymn, “Good will to men on earth.”

    O Thou from Whose unfathomed law the year in beauty flows,
    Thyself the vision passing by in crystal and in rose,
    Day unto day doth utter speech, and night to night proclaim,
    In ever changing words of light, the wonder of Thy Name.

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