Text and tune: African American Spiritual
1. When Israel was in Egypt's land, Let my people go, Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let my people go. R/Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt's land, Tell old Pharaoh: Let my people go.
2 The Lord told Moses what to do, Let my people go, To lead the Hebrew children through, Let my people go. R/
3 As Israel stood by the waterside, Let my people go, At God's command it did divide, Let my people go. R?
4 When they had reached the other shore, Let my people go, They let the song of triumph soar, Let my people go. R?
5 Lord, help us all from bondage flee, Let my people go, And let us all in Christ be free, Let my people go. R/
By Gracious Powers
German: Von guten Mächten
Text: Dietrich Bonheoffer (1906-1945) Tune: Siegfried Fietz/Russell Schultz Widmar
For reasons of copyright I cannot show you the text, but see it here
MEDITATION People who are suffering oppression and persecution find the story of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt salutary. They know the powers of the state or society can be so vicious that they are deadly. Both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the slaves could use the story and claim God’s powers to keep them through any trials.
Egypt was a place to flee in the early accounts in Genesis. Abraham and Sarah went there for food. Later, Jacob and his family came to Egypt for food where, to their surprise they found Joseph! They and their descendants stayed long after Joseph’s death, and ultimately became slaves. After that Egypt was no longer a refuge, but a hell hole where their treatment became more and more brutal.
God heard their cries and sent Moses to free them and lead them back to the Promised Land. The Exodus became the paradigmatic event in the life of Israel. Being freed from slavery and led by Moses to the Promised Land became the way they understood their own history, and how the early Christians saw theirs. For them, especially in Matthew, Christ was the new Moses leading the people through the Red Sea and the wilderness to the Promised Land.
The story of the Exodus became the narrative of the American slaves before the Civil War. To escape slavery was like escaping Egypt. The spirituals use the imagery of Exodus to describe the flight on the Underground Railroad north. Harriet Tubman, one of the great heroines of the time, was called Moses because she understood her calling to be like his: to lead her people out of bondage. Her escape made it possible for her to organize several journeys back to free other slaves. A devout Methodist, she would cry when they crossed the border into freedom, “Glory to God and Jesus too. One more soul is safe.” She used this spiritual as her code, changing the language to either warn or encourage her group to stop or go forward. Her courage, suffering and victories are legendary, and her faith gave her the strength to go forward.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, who returned from America to live in Germany during WWII, understood it would be his death. In fact his most famous statement is the beginning of his book Discipleship:" When Christ calls us to follow him, he calls us to come and die." Bonhoeffer's following Christ did in fact cause his death. In an effort to free Germany from the terrible regime of Adolph Hitler he supported an assassination plot against the Führer. He was found out and imprisoned. Some of the guards in the prison came to care for him and helped him communicate with his family and friends. His hymn, “By Gracious Powers,“ came from his last Christmas. It shows his complete and utter trust in the Lord to bring him through the terrors of his time.
He did not think that being released from prison was the only way to freedom. He even refused to escape a couple of times for fear of retributions to his family. When it became clear to the Nazis that the Allies were closing in and Bonhoeffer might be freed, they held a trial and the next day, April 9, 1945, he was hanged. As he stepped toward the gallows, he was reported to have said, “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”
His hymn rejoices that God continues to be with him and give him strength through the frightening future he faced. The hymn is joyful, but harrowing, in its recognition of the terrors of his day.
Both Harriet Tubman and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were faithful Christians who had to face the horrors of what human beings can do to each other--as Mary and Joseph did when they fled Herod. They were saving the child from an early death, for a later one. Because they did, we can be kept safe by the gracious powers of God in any situation, and made free to brave anything, even if we suffer the worst..Because of Jesus, as Luther says, they can even take our lives, but Christ is there to give us the kingdom. Give thanks for Mary and Joseph's flight into Egypt. It, along with other incidents, made our salvation possible. Because of Jesus we can face the worst and know we are ultimately safe. He is risen! Death is defeated and we are free!
HYMN INFO The spiritual was well known before the Civil War and used especially in the fight against slavery especially as the Underground Railroad flourished.. Louis Armstrong's many versions are classic.
Bonhoeffer included this hymn in a letter to his mother on New Year’s Eve 1944. It was smuggled out of the prison and published in his posthumous book Letters and Papers from Prison. It captures the terrors of the time. The evil days were hard to bear except for God’s caring for their “frightened souls.” Translated into English by F. Pratt Green, one of England’s most proficient hymn writers, it has become an emblem of the Nazi terrors and faith that looks through the horror to see God’s sun shining ahead. It has over seventy tunes, most of which work, but none has become the favored one.
GO DOWN MOSES Louis Armstrong https://youtu.be/vf6jBP4YXwo
Harlem Gospel Singers https://youtu.be/Uz0sQDhx1rE
Micahel Tippet’s concert version for the Berlin Philharmonic https://youtu.be/HB1cyFiHCUU
BY GRACIOUS POWERS
Organ and text to a tune by Richard Runciman Terry
Richard Schulz Widmar's tune/with music and text of a choral arrangement https://youtu.be/zxfB7vfDQxQ
Surrounded by such gentle Power/Virtual Choir with German beginning with a choir from Silicon Valley Christian Assembly https://youtu.be/tDGx5r2L_-o
Surrounded by such gentle Power-- a different translation