HYMN FOR TRANSFIGURATION SUNDAY How Good Lord to be Here
Text: J. Armitage Robinson (1858-1933) Tune: POTSDAM by Johann Schop (1590-1667).
1 'Tis good, Lord, to be here! Your glory fills the night; Your face and garments, like the sun, Shine with unborrowed light.
2 'Tis good, Lord, to be here, Your beauty to behold, Where Moses and Elijah stand, Your messengers of old.
3 Fulfiller of the past! Promise of things to be! We hail your body glorified, And our redemption see.
4 Before we taste of death, We see your kingdom come; We long to hold the vision bright, And make this hill our home.
5 'Tis good, Lord, to be here! Yet we may not remain; But since you bid us leave the mount, Come with us to the plain.
This hymn differs from most as it is written from the point of view, or at least the language, of a known person, Peter. Few hymns speak like that, but it is entirely appropriate for us to speak with Peter's words and see what they mean from the inside. It begins with the words of Peter "It is good, Lord, to be here," and then he suggests that he build three booths. That suggestion is problematic. And typical for Peter. Does he want to extend the moment? (Most of us would have.) Does he want to honor Moses and Elijah as much as Jesus? That is a problem too, which will be critiqued when the light blinds them and then they see Jesus only. While he is babbling on, God interrupts him. "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased: Listen to him!” Is that also a rebuke of chatty Peter whose usual rash behavior shows he misses the point. Poor Peter! He always just misses the point. A warning to the church he led. It is easy to miss the point and always turn it to one’s own benefits.
Peter in this scene reminds me of the person in every group who will anxiously listen to the observations of others and then interrupt, saying, “Even better, I…” and turn the conversation to what he or she wants to do. God finally speaks. Joseph Sittler, a revered figure in American Lutheran theological circles in the 70s and 80s, once came to speak to a group I was part of. In the question period after his talk, someone asked a question that went on and on, and pointed to the accomplishments of the speaker. Sittler peered through his coke bottle thick glasses and said, “What is the moral of this report?”
Our speech betrays us. Not just its accent, but what we say and how we turn it to our own advantage tells others a lot about us. Peter's utterances give us insight into him.
This hymn does imagine what would be better, contemplating Peter’s words, and correcting them. It would be nice “to make this hill our home (build booths...?) Yet we must not remain.” We have work to do.
Before that, and most of all, we have to listen to Jesus. This means we have to soak up his word in regular Bible study to hear what he says. When Jesus tells us that he will be with us whenever two or three are gathered in his name, he is telling us to gather with others to study his word. He will be there in the word we read and in the words we say to each other.
For the past ten years I have led a Bible study that meets every other week. At the end of each session, I am filled with wonder. It is not my job to say what the words mean, but give some enlightenment to their context, the way Scripture moves toward the fulfillment of the prophecies in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. What always fills me with thanksgiving is how our conversation brings to life the truth of the words as they live in us. I don’t have to say what they mean—together we wait for the transfiguration that comes as we wonder about Christ's word as we live our daily lives.
The Law and Prophets are always there in our study, but at the end what we see is Jesus only, transfigured, so we behold the light of all creation shining before us. And bidding us then, to go down into the valley, where there will be hell to pay, suffering, death and sorrow. Which we can do because we have seen who he is for a brief ecstatic moment and can face anything knowing we have seen our redemption shining before us. We have seen the Lord!
HYMN INFO Joseph Armitage Robinson, the writer of this text, grew up in poverty. He had thirteen brothers and sisters. He was English and served as Dean of Westminster from 1902-1911 where he was said to have improved the services. He left there to become Dean of Wells where he worked until his death in 1933. He was regarded as an erudite, but somewhat eccentric New Testament scholar. He translated works from the early church as well, especially a work by Ireneaus. He held many positions associated with Westminster and Cambridge. This is his one hymn. He wrote it in 1890 to fill out the poor selection of hymns for Transfiguration Sunday. The 1904 version of Hymns Ancient and Modern included it and it was picked up there by many traditions to add to their hymns for the Transfiguration. This is a 1905 caricature of Robinson from Vanity Fair. The most popular tune is Potsdam by Johann Schop. A native of lower Saxony, he was a well known musician, a composer and virtuoso on the violin. In 1615 he became musician for the court of King Christian IV of Denmark. His tunes are still highly regarded.
Potsdam tune https://youtu.be/-HexN-t9VWk
Concordia Publishing House https://youtu.be/ukBohe-va6o
Jazzy version https://youtu.be/ClzOcJa9tGA
Carlisle/more popular in England https://youtu.be/8wNCM8Gw-8o
Chris Brunelle singing with guitar https://youtu.be/UJReSsGKVv0
Organ version of Carlisle https://youtu.be/mwKEvPCiu2E
NB! I know of few resources for Lenten meditation richer than the Passion Hymns by Iceland's greatest hymn writer from the Baroque era, HallgrÍmur Pétursson. They are sermons which mine the depths of Scripture to show us who Jesus is and what he suffered for us. They begin with Jesus and the disciples going to Gethsemane until the resurrection. They are available here. https://kirkjuhusid.is/products/25576-hymns-of-the-passion-passiusalmar-in-english?_pos=2&_sid=6de747994&_ss=r