Icelandic: Nú hverfur sól i haf
Text: Sigurbjörn Einarsson (1911-2008) Tune: Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson (1938-2013)
1. The sun sets in the sea Diminishing the light. I thank you, God of grace Who gives us day and night, My working day, my dream, my night.
2. You are awake, o God, Protecting life that´s weak In all the whole wide world. The star of hope we seek, The star of hope of heav´n we seek. 3. As day leads into night Let hope and life break through Where hate and sorrow reign, Where we´re forgetting you, On earth where we´re forgetting you. 4. Come night with grace and peace, Be near us, God of love, Come with your healing pow´r To all the pain of life, To all the human pain of life. Tr. Per Härling
(Some of you may have noticed that every Saturday I present a morning or evening hymn. It is my pleasure to introduce you to an Icelandic hymn for the evening written by Sigurbjörn Einarsson, the bishop of Iceland from 1959-1981.)
Here we have a typical evening hymn with the setting sun, prayers for safety through the night, for God to set things right and watch over the world and the sleeper. But it is also clearly Icelandic. The sea is where the sun sets and the stars are close. Anyone who has been in Iceland will remark on the light so drenched with the salt mists of the Atlantic playing in the air, and the northern lights. The stars set one reeling back on one's heels, as they shine above one in the sky with a clarity most of us never see anymore, covered as they are by the light spill of cities.
The Vikings, whose religion was a hard one, knew the sun, the stars and seas well, and gave them divine attributes. Christians do not. They regard these wonders as created beings under the rule of the creator. In fact, the rolling spheres, while majestic and evidence of our creator, do not care for us. We can praise God for them, but not worship them. Scripture is very careful about this, refusing to name them sun or moon—deities of the Canaanites. In Genesis 1:14-19, the sun and moon are referred to as the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night. And the stars. But they do not rule over us. God does.
With the hymn writer we can thank God for giving us our vocation and rest for our bodies—all creation is made to work for life. We intercede with God, who does not sleep and guards us through the night, for the weak, and for our hopes and dreams. And, as all evening prayers do, we pray that God will comfort the sorrowing and "let hope and life break through." After that, grant us a quiet night of sleep with the request that God bring peace to the human pain of life.
Many of us who are reading this are really too old to do more than give money to those in need, but we can pray. This hymn gives us the words that seem especially apt for these days and times when we feel so helpless.
There is a television ad for a service that can help the elderly in their homes. A man says that he used to be a helper and got things done, but now he has to be helped. He is glad for the help he has found. We might finish his story with the resolve to pray for those in need, in sorrow and pain, and despair so that hope breaks through. We still have the power to pray, a great help for others. This hymn gives us a beautiful way to exercise that power every night: Pray without ceasing!
Iceland is known for its poets. Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) was the greatest writer in Europe at his time. Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674) whose Hymns of the Passion are some of the greatest Lutheran hymns of his day, created a corpus of hymns still fundamental to Icelandic faith and letters. Sigurbjörn Einarsson, the writer of the text, was an accomplished poet in this tradition. He wrote this hymn on his retirement as bishop in 1981.
Einarsson was born to farmers in western Iceland and early on showed promise as a student. He went to Uppsala University in Sweden where he studied theology and history of religions, classical languages and the New Testament. He returned to Iceland and received his BA in theology. He then returned to Uppsala in 1939 where he studied New Testament. When WWII broke out he had to go home to finish his studies. Later he would continue at Cambridge University and Basel, Switzerland.
He served as pastor in the Hallgrímur church and then was appointed as professor of theology at the University of Iceland where he served until he was named Bishop of Iceland. All this time he was writing poetry and hymns. He translated Augstine's Confessions into Icelandic and continued preaching and lecturing. His son Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson a leading musician in Iceland taught most of the contemporary musicians there. He wrote the tune for
this as well as the very popular tune for "Hear me heaven’s Smithy." (See HYMN 70 and 19) I have been privileged over the past decades to know Karl, another one of eight gifted children, who also served as bishop of Iceland from 1998-2012. He and I worked on the translation of the Passion Hymns published last October and is available below. A poet and fine preacher himself, he has spent the last years translating Marilynne Robinson’s books into Icelandic. I am grateful for my connection with this gifted family and want to share whatever I can of their wonderful literary and scholarly heritage so rich from that little land.
Solo by Guðbjörg Hilmarsdóttir in Reykjavik Cathedral
Jazz version Gunnar Gunnarsson and Sigurður Flosason
Second version by Hamrahlíðarkórinn
link to my translation of the Passion Hymns