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HYMN 163 The Only Son from Heaven

German: Herr Christ, der Ein'ge Gottessohn

Norwegian: Guds son i krubba funnen

Text: Elisabeth Cruciger (1500-1535). Tune: Enchiridion 1524 Erfuhrt

Elisabeth Cruciger

1. Lord Christ, from God forever, The Father’s only Son, From his heart ceasing never, As prophets long had sung. He is the Star of morning, Whose beams afar are soaring Above all other lights.

2. For us, he was incarnate Now in these latter days So we were not abandoned Before eternity. For us death’s power was broken, The courts of heaven opened That life may bloom again.

3. Let us imbibe your mercy, Of wisdom take our fill, And stay within faith’s limits, To do the Spirit’s will. For in our hearts so broken We long to taste your sweetness, Thirst only for your grace.

4. Creator of all creatures, With fath’rly pow’r and right You rule through all the ages, Alone in all your might, Oh, turn our hearts to serve you, Our senses toward your mercy So we will never stray.

5. O slay us with your goodness And raise us with your grace, Make ill our old sick natures And turn to us your face, So here we may adore you With all our being praise you, And sing our thanks to you. Tr. Composite


Luther family singing hymns in their home

Elisabeth Cruciger is the first Lutheran woman hymnwriter. Like Katie Luther, her friend, she had been a nun. A daughter of the Meseritz family, a noble family in Eastern Pomerania, she learned of the Reformation through Luther's close colleague, Johannes Bugenhagen. She came to Wittenberg and lived with the Bugenhagens until she married. She had received a fine education in the convent, so was theologically capable of holding her own in arguments with Luther, which she is recorded as doing in the Table Talk. One of Luther’s favorite students and, later, colleagues, Caspar Cruciger (1504-1548) married her—Luther presided at the ceremony--just as the Luther house was filling with people working on the new German hymns that Luther wanted for his reformation. She understood what Luther was talking about in his desire for hymns that would preach the Gospel and be the Word of God, like all sermons, that would create faith.

The story goes that Elisabeth had dreamt that she had been standing in the Castle Church pulpit preaching. When she told her husband this, he is said to have commented, that she was, in fact, preaching in her hymns. The story cannot be proven—it appeared in the 17th century—but the point of it has always fascinated me. The theologians who told the story thought it was the fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s prophecy “Your sons and daughter shall prophesy,” (Joel 2:28) Her comment inspired the title of my book Preaching from Home about seven Lutheran women hymn writers.

Some scholars say she was working on a German version of a text by Prudentius’ “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” That would be consistent with Luther’s work as well. He took many Latin chants and turned them into German texts with German tunes.

Theologically for me the most interesting stanza is the last one which is frequently avoided or elided: that God should slay our old self and raise up a new one in Christ. That is the old Adam and Eve in us that needs slaying. I don’t know about others, but I weary of my old self, so predictable and tiresome. I need to be raised up in Christ daily to a new life. Some have called it a coup de grâce. A merciful killing of the old and raising up of the new. So that now it is Christ who lives in me. Romans 6:8-9. Good reason to raise our voices to God and “With all our being praise him/And sing our thanks to him."

The hymn in an early edition

HYMN INFO This hymn appeared in one of the very earliest Lutheran hymnals in 1524, the Enchiridion. From 1523 until he died, Luther and his friends worked on producing hymns in the vernacular for their followers. Their work was amazing—many of those hymns are still being sung in the churches today. Luther was musical enough to write tunes with the help of his colleague Johann Walther and several others.

The reason I have chosen this less well-known hymn for this Sunday is to celebrate and teach about Elisabeth Cruciger and also to feature the Bach Cantata BWV 96 based on the chorale. It follows the hymn quite closely. If nothing else, listen to the marvelous first movement with its piccolo solo sparkling above the music like the Morning Star. It is a very joyful piece of music. Make it your Sunday meditation!


The Lutheran Organist

Wouter Bergehuizen Piano BWV 601

Bach Cantata BWV 96 "Herr Christ, Der Ein'ge Gottessohn"

Libretto in English and German for the cantata

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