HYMN FOR PENTECOST 21 By Gracious Powers
Bonus: hymn for Saint Luke's Day, October 18
German: Von Guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen
Norwegian: Av gode makter verna, som eit under
Text: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) Tunes: Siegfried Fietz/C. Hubert Parry/Russell Schulz-Widmar
(For reasons of copyright I cannot put the text here, but you can see it and hear it on this link.)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred for his suspected cooperation with the group that tried to assassinate Adolph Hitler in 1944. Apprehended the year before, on April 5, 1943, he was first sent to Tegel prison, and then finally Flossenburg where he was executed on April 9, 1944, just as the Allied forces were closing in on Berlin.
A star student of theology, he had been destined to be a leader in the German church from his early days as a student. In 1930, he studied in New York at Union Seminary and enjoyed the time immensely, especially his acquaintance with Reinhold Niebuhr and Frank Fish, an African American student who introduced him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and Adam Clayton Powell where he learned to know and love the African American spiritual and understand the need for justice. He returned to Germany just as Hitler’s ascent to power was beginning. From the first he opposed his party and rule, especially the anti-Semitism which resulted in the Holocaust. In 1933 he and others began forming the group which became the Confessing Church in 1934.
He continued to fiercely oppose Hitler and the Nazi party, during the war working with the resistance against Hitler. This opposition did not pass unnoticed. He was forbidden to teach at the University of Berlin. He began teaching seminary students in Finkenwalde, at an underground seminary. Finally he was apprehended.
During his time in prison, he wrote letters to his family and friends, which when collected as Letters and Papers from Prison was widely read along with his major work, The Cost of Discipleship. The great sentence from that rings through the story of his life: "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."
The day before his death, when he was being led away by his jailors from the worship service he was conducting, he said, “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”
The hymn for today was written in 1943. It captures the paradoxes of the Christian life—as Bonhoeffer began facing his very likely execution, along with his fears, he became more and more confident and firm in his faith that God was in charge. Despite his terror, he still believed God was gracious and loving. Bonhoeffer's hymn explicitly admits the terrors of the time and the trembling of our souls in the face of tyranny and its violence against its citizens.
Bonhoeffer’s hymn, written in a Christmas greeting to his fiancée and family, seems more and more appropriate and encouraging. Even in the midst of his suffering he knew that a gracious hand is guiding and leading us into the light. When there is nothing else, no other option but death, Bonhoeffer came to see that the powers of God are the most gracious and lasting. God is faithful. To know that is to know that the life Christ gives, as Bonhoeffer confessed before going to his death, begins every day, and most clearly, as we face the end.
John Bunyan’s pilgrim experienced doubt, even as he was going down through the waters crossing into heaven. Even then, he found the wicked one making him wonder if his sins were really forgiven. It terrified him. His companion Hopeful reminded him, “These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters are no sign that God hath forsaken you; but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which hitherto you have received of his goodness, and live upon Him in your distresses.” (Pilgrim's Progress.)
The wicked one is skillful at making us look at our own sins and weaknesses rather than Jesus who makes us whole. We should remember that as Bonhoeffer did, while facing his own terrors, that it was the gracious power of God in Christ that never fails.
Bonhoeffer wrote this poem in a Christmas letter of 1943 to his finance Maria, a kind of hymn for the ending and beginning of the year. He had turned to writing more and more poems while in prison. After the publication of Letters and Papers from Prison, and the poem became well known, over 70 composers set it. The most popular tune in Germany is by Siegfried Fietz. And it is the top nomination for the new German hymnal today. There are several tunes in the United States—one in With One Voice, a tune by Hugh Distler, also a martyr to the Nazis. I am partial to the Russell-Schulz-Widmar version, an anthem, which you can see and hear via the link. It has quotes from "A Mighty Fortress" in it, plus a lovely obligato among other things.
Siegfried Fietz sings his version
Animato Choir and Animato Symphonic with Fietz’ melody
Georg Schroeter group singing Fietz’ tune
Chinese Immanuel Church/Fietz tune
C. Hubert Parry’s tune by the Chicago First Methodist Women's Quintet and Organ
Trinity Little Rock/Parry’s setting
Russell Schulz-Widmar’s anthem
Monday, October 18, is St. Luke's Day. This is from my collection A Treasury of Faith: Festivals and Martyrs. (Wayne Leupold Editions, 2020.) I had a lot of fun with them, thinking of the wonderful children's hymn from the Episcopal tradition, "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God." I learned it as a teenager while accompanying a children's choir in St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Salem, Oregon, loving especially the way the kids sang about the "Fierce wild beast."
St. Luke, St. Luke, He Wrote Two Books
St. Luke, St. Luke, he wrote two books,
The books of Luke and Acts
A Gentile born in Antioch
A doctor, that's a fact!
He told us how our Lord was born,
and gave us Mary's song,
Old Simeon's joy, the piercing sword,
The one for whom he'd longed.
Luke gathered up the things he'd heard
So we could all believe
That Jesus was the living word,
God's gift that we received.
In Acts he told us how the church
Was born in wind and flame,
How Paul and Peter went to work
To preach our Savior's name.
He watched with Paul impris’ned in Rome
Then went to live in Greece,
He died an old man in his home
They buried him in Thebes.
His symbol is a winged ox
The beast of sacrifice,
Who served his master on the block
And saw the birth of Christ.