Danish: Jesus, det eneste
Finnish: Jeesus, sä ainoa
Norwegian: Jesus, det eneste
Swedish: Jesus, det renaste
Text: Ole Theodor Moe (1863-1922). Tune: Caroline Volla Sørlie (1869-1953)
1. Jesus, the only one,
Purest and holy one,
Greatest of names we can ever express!
Filled with bright clarity,
Filled with God’s charity,
Filled with God’s pow’r and the truth we confess.
2. When troubles come my way,
I’m never cast away,
Out of your loving and holy embrace.
When friends abandon me,
Lord, you remember me,
Call me by name for you've saved me by grace.
3. Hear as I sing my song,
Lord, as you lead me on,
Wherever, whenever it serves you best.
Always upholding me,
Teach me, embolden me,
After your will while I’m here as your guest.
4. You are the only one,
Purest, and holy one,
Give me the holiest and purest of hearts.
Save me from hurt and harm,
Free me from all alarm,
Take me at last where you shine like the stars.
Tr. Gracia Grindal 2011
Sometimes the hardest hymns to translate are the simplest ones. Like this one, with its frequent rhymes, sometimes three syllable long. It is a quiet, fervent, devotional prayer to Jesus. It was written by Pastor Theodor Moe, who, on hearing a sermon in 1904 in the Bogstadveiens Chapel, in Oslo, thought of a melody by Christian Sinding, “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” in a musical play. The melody then gave him a form with its tight rhyme scheme to use for the hymn. This frequently happens: when students want to start writing hymns, they usually write words to a tune they know and love. That helps them get the meter and accents right. They can sing it as they write. Songwriters like John Ylvisaker very often wrote their songs in this way: setting words to a tune. That sometimes makes for a much better song than when someone writes a text first and then asks a musician to set it.
One of the really odd things about English, given that it has such a huge vocabulary, is that it is so rhyme poor. Think of how few good rhymes there are for God, love, faith or hope? Whereas in other Germanic languages, with fewer words, rhyming is much easier, such as Norwegian: herlighet, (glory), kjærlighet, (love); dåp (baptism), håp (hope), etc.
So this hymn was a challenge to translate and be in any way close to the original. Some think Moe was also remembering a Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary—many hymns to Jesus in the Protestant tradition, like "Lo! How a Rose," do have those roots. This hymn's pure devotion to Jesus, however, comes through loud and clear.
One hears the voice of complete obedience and surrender in it, a pure giving over of one’s will to the Lord. That is perhaps why it has been sung at funerals. In the last line we commit ourselves into the Lord's hands. Giving oneself over to the one who goes before, the Shepherd, guide, or caregiver is easier, maybe, when we begin to feel our powers waning. Sometimes we just want someone else to do what we need to have done and no longer have the will, strength or heart to do.
It reminds me of a novel by John Cheever, Falconer. I am not recommending it, it is pretty grungy, but a grown man is escaping prison where he has been sentenced for murdering his brother. He has hidden in a body bag to be carried out into freedom. As he is lifted up, he wonders at the feeling of being carried and the blessing it is, an old memory from childhood that he could not experience in his full adulthood.
A similar, more decorous, story was told by Bishop Bergraav, the famous bishop of Norway who led the Norwegian clergy in their opposition to the Nazis. The story goes that a little boy was going down the mountain with his father to get some things in town. On the way down they had to cross over a raging stream on a rickety bridge. On the way back, the boy expressed his fear about returning over that same dangerous path in the dark. His father assured him he would take care and took him in his arms. The boy fell asleep. When he awoke, it was a bright morning, the sun shining through the curtains into his bedroom.
That, the bishop said, is what death meant to him. The hymn asks for the Lord to carry us into heaven. "Take me at last where you shine like the stars." Our Lord will carry us over the flood and give us rest in the mansions of light.
This was written almost on the spot after Moe heard the sermon and thought of the tune which helped him write it. The text was published in Bymissionæren/The City Missionary that year. Moe served the Kristiania Intermission for five years, after which he was called to Rødenes in Østfold. In 1915 he moved to Aremark where he served until he suffered a stroke. He left his pastorate, but continued working on his writings until his death. In 1906 he led the establishment of the Blue Cross organization in Norway, working closely with the Innermission society in Oslo.
Sørlie, the tune writer lived in Oslo most of her adult life. A housewife and mother, she participated as a member of choirs in both the Cathedral and Trinity church, while directing the choir at the Norwegian Crematory organization. Although she composed other tunes, she is known only for this one today. She wrote it in 1905 soon after the text appeared. Although the original tune has been included in the latest Norwegian hymnal, this tune is the favorite and is very popular throughout the Nordic countries.
Anders Olsen Steinberg/see the Norwegian text here
Finnish/Soile Isokoski/soprano solo
Prima Luna/Jazz version