Julian Freeman is the pastor of Grace Fellowship Church, Don Mills (Toronto) located just a mile west of where I grew up, and has been blogging since the spring of 2005. This appeared at his blog under the title, Who Dieth Thus, Dies Well.
Last night as I was singing to the girls before bed, I decided to sing some older hymns we haven’t done in a while. I sang More Love to Thee and My Jesus I Love Thee and O Sacred Head Now Wounded. As always, it’s a time of worship and contemplation for me as I pray for my girls and hope that the songs will help communicate the gospel to them in meaningful ways as they grow older. It’s just one way I try to speak the gospel to my kids in all of life.
Anyway, as I sang those three hymns, something stuck out to me. All three hymns seamlessly move from the reality of Christ’s finished work to the hope that we have in the face of our own death. These songs sing freely of the unavoidable nature of death, but glory in the hope that we have in the Saviour who has already overcome death.
This is why I love singing hymns: they speak with the freedom of past generations. Our generation doesn’t like to think about death. The church has largely handed over death to doctors and funeral directors and cemeteries. There once was a time when death was an integral part of church life and worship, hence the cemeteries on church property. (Just imagine for a second what it would be like to come to church every week and walk past the grave of family members and church members who had died through the years. That’s a totally different experience than walking into a trendy café type lounge after having your car valet parked. But I digress.)
In any case, death being a part of the cycle of church life and something that people had to face and talk about brought greater freedom and natural impulse to sing about death. It also calls on the worshipper to cling to Christ, feeling the desperation of this life which will inevitably slip away. This is a far cry from singing ‘Yes Lord, yes Lord, yes, yes, Lord…’. I’m so thankful to God for preserving these hymns for our generation. These hymns and those like them provide us with guidance on how to ‘die well’ — a concept almost entirely lost in our day.
More Love to Thee, Elizabeth Prentiss, 1856
Let sorrow do its work, come grief or pain;
Sweet are Thy messengers, sweet their refrain,
When they can sing with me: More love, O Christ, to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
Then shall my latest breath whisper Thy praise;
This be the parting cry my heart shall raise;
This still its prayer shall be: More love, O Christ to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
(Two of four verses. Prentiss wrote this when she was ill and suffering as part of her private devotions. It wasn’t until 13 years later her husband encouraged her to have these words published. Thank God!)
My Jesus, I Love Thee, William Featherston, 1864
I’ll love Thee in life, I will love Thee in death,
And praise Thee as long as Thou lendest me breath;
And say when the death dew lies cold on my brow,
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.
(One of four verses. Amazingly, Featherston was 16 at the time he wrote this.)
O Sacred Head Now Wounded, Bernard de Clairvaux, 1153
What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.
My Savior, be Thou near me when death is at my door;
Then let Thy presence cheer me, forsake me nevermore!
When soul and body languish, oh, leave me not alone,
But take away mine anguish by virtue of Thine own!
Be Thou my consolation, my shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfolds Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.
(These are just three of the original 11 verses. Click here to hear Fernando Ortega’s rendition of the hymn.)