HYMN 326 February By Day the Giant Trees Stand Still and Quiet
Danish: Om dagen står de store stille træer
Text: Lisbeth Smedegaard Andersen Tune: René A. Jensen/Christian Præstholm
1. By day the giant trees stand still and quiet
And bear the light of heaven in their branches,
While all around is stillness
In these bright winter days of bitter cold
As hoarfrost breathes its rime on woodland pathways.
2. These brief short days pass by with measured steps
And move around the people with cold fingers
Who walk all by themselves;
As midnight shades the trees of heaven white
With images of stars within their branches.
3. But now beneath our feet, the crust of winter,
The seed we thought was dead begins to flourish
And send out tiny rootlets.
They know the light will soon be moving north.
Hear! Life is pulsing underneath our footsteps!
4. It speaks with our dear Lord’s own precious words,
A parable of fields and waiting farmland
In quiet rest through winter.
The seed is growing deep within the earth
And like God’s kingdom, hidden from our vision.
5. Invisible, but yes, it’s there in all
Like summer in your senses in these mornings.
The winter world is ending
So you can be the salt to all the earth
And in your hands bear all the light of heaven.
Tr. Gracia Grindal
Lisbeth’s hymns on the months fascinate me because she, like our Lord, uses the images of the earth around her to tell how the Gospel works in parables. While the months of the year are not part of the liturgical calendar, they do figure in the way we talk about church festivals. Admittedly most of these are northern images. Christmas is not cold and snowy in the southern hemisphere, and Easter is not springtime there. But it is in the north.
No matter. I grow weary of the literalism that insists we cannot use the images of our own local habitations to show how the gospel works. Aristotle notes that history is concrete, philosophy universal and abstract, but poetry uses concrete images that are universal. Theseus in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night says it best:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
While there are historical facts we know and observe because Jesus was born in Bethlehem and died in Jerusalem, and rose there, facts we should not change, we can and should give the narratives settings and images that each culture and tradition can understand and relate to.
The seed is universal: we all depend on farmers for food and clothing although our young have only a vague understanding of that. Supermarkets filled to the brim by nature's bounty gives them the notion it all happens there.
Farmers are necessary for all crops around the world. They work with nature all the time on our behalf. A universal truth, but the landscapes vary. The snow and ice in this text describe the climate where Lisbeth lives as do those who sing her hymns. For every good reason she uses a Danish setting when she retells the parable of Jesus about the seed having to die in the earth before it can grow.
In doing so she helps us understand the mystery of the kingdom of God. It is invisible as Jesus makes clear in several of his parables, the seed growing overnight, Mark 4:26-27, the yeast, etc. Most people understand that imagery.
What I like even better about Lisbeth’s hymns is that she brings heaven down to earth and gives it a "local habitation." These images of seed, light, farmlands, and salt are not something to ponder in the past, or up above in the future, but something happening around us in our daily lives. Christ is here and among us. Are we aware as we walk on the frozen ground, over the crunchy snow, that beneath our feet a miracle is happening? And that miracle is a parable for an even greater miracle? The kingdom of God. And furthermore, in echoes from the Sermon on the Mount, we have a vocation to be the salt of the earth and hold the light of the world, heaven, in our hands so all can see.
She does this more by metaphor than straight out proclamation, but it attracts and moves one into thinking of one’s relationship to all of creation and the creator who sent Jesus into the world to give us life and make us holy. Does it not change your walk through the park on these days when nature seems dead to think of the miracles occurring all around you as the snow crunches under your feet? Does it not help you walk with gratitude at how rich you are in the Lord, not only for the ending, but for what you have right now in your local habitations where Christ has chosen to dwell? I hope so!
This series of hymns was written in 2008 for a collection of hymns on the months, Himlens lys i dine hender/Heaven's Light in your hands. René Jensen set them all, but the texts are attracting other composers. Lisbeth, a retired pastor in the Danish church, continues to write hymns and meditations and her texts are becoming more and more popular with Danes. She is deeply connected with the Grundvigian tradition and its pleasures in the good work of the Holy Spirit to make life on earth full of joy and she lives that way. She thoroughly enjoys life, loves great art, and is one of the best cooks I know. Today she lives with husband, Jens, with most of their four children nearby and their growing families in Copenhagen. She has just finished a book of meditations and hymns on Kierkegaard’s prayers and has started a new one on faith. She is a national treasure!
Dania Koret, Kirsten Milters, director
Christian Præstholm’s anthem on the text
Christian Præstholm’s anthem on the text