Tag Archives: Sacrament

Hymn #146: Gently Raise the Sacred Strain

Gently raise the sacred strain,
For the Sabbath’s come again
That man may rest,
And return his thanks to God
For his blessings to the blest.

Why do we worship?

Why do we take a day off each week and spend it in church, singing hymns, listening to sermons, engaging in prayer, and doing any of a number of things that take the place of something much more fun? We could be watching football with friends, taking a drive through the country, or going to the movies. Surely anything would beat sitting through church, right? Worse yet, once church is over, we’re not supposed to come home, peel off our Sunday clothes, and run out and catch up with all of those fun things we set aside for a few hours. We’re supposed to stay home and spend the day with family. Ugh, right? Sundays are so restrictive!

Well, while it may feel that way sometimes, we might do well to remember that “the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” Sundays aren’t designed to punish us, or to make us feel constrained or miserable. The Sabbath is designed for us, and specifically “that [we] may rest.” It’s a day for us to rest from our labor, but also from the hustle and bustle of our lives. We spend the day in quiet contemplation, thinking about the ways we have been blessed and returning our thanks unto Him who gave us those blessings. That’s not to say, of course, that we are to sit at home all day ticking off blessings until it’s time to go to bed. We can find plenty of good ways to fill our time and still keep the Sabbath a holy day. But we are to rest, not only as a way of rejuvenating ourselves for the coming week, but also as a way of taking time out of our lives to remember the Lord. That might mean sacrificing things that others enjoy on Sundays, whether that’s playing golf with friends, going to brunch at a nice restaurant, or anything else.

I’m struck by the fact that we raise the sacred strain “gently.” So much of what we do in the gospel is with kindness and softness. There’s no need to declare our Sabbath activities from the rooftops. We go about our days quietly, gently, and with meekness. We “partake the sacrament in remembrance of our Lord.” We do our best to keep Sunday a “holy day, devoid of strife.” And perhaps most importantly, we make our day emblematic of our lives by making it an offering to the Lord. He asks for one day out of seven to be His, and we offer it to Him willingly. So too do we offer our lives to Him, and on the Sabbath we rededicate ourselves to that offering by partaking of the sacrament. “We bring our gifts around of broken hearts as a willing sacrifice,” we sing in the third verse, “showing what his grace imparts.” We submit our hearts and our wills to Him, and when we meet on Sundays, we have the chance to see that sacrifice in others, and we can see the blessings that dedication to the Savior brings. That inspires us to redouble our efforts in His service, knowing what we can become as we give ourselves to Him.

We learn of Him on the Sabbath, and we learn how to become more like Him. By partaking of the sacrament–the only ordinance we take part in more than once in our lifetime–we remember the magnitude of the sacrifice He made for us, and we remember that we have taken upon us His name, and that through that name and sacrifice, we can be made clean again. We worship the Lord because He made it possible for us to return to that purified state, and we dedicate our Sundays each week to give ourselves the chance to contemplate that fact. It’s something that can take more than a couple of hours each week, and it’s why worship isn’t something that is restricted to a meetinghouse, but is constantly before us.

Holy, holy is the Lord.
Precious, precious is his word:
Repent and live,
Repent and live;
Tho your sins be crimson red,
Oh, repent, and he’ll forgive.

Hymn #187: God Loved Us, So He Sent His Son

Jesus Christ teaching

Today’s hymn, “God Loved Us, So He Sent His Son” is a commemoration of the great Atonement, when Jesus Christ offered his life as a sacrifice for sin. For all sin. It emphasizes the perfection of Christ, his role as our Savior and exemplar, and the covenant we make in partaking of the bread and water that we will always remember him.

This Atonement is the key part of God’s plan to save and exalt us, his children. It provides a way for us to learn from our mistakes instead of being condemned by them. It makes divine forgiveness possible. To the believing soul, it is easily identified as the most important event in the history of the world.

It’s critical, though, that while the Atonement itself is given to us freely, the greatest blessings it makes available to us are only available if we take action ourselves. Each of the following phrases reminds us of our own role in receiving this divine gift:

To show us by the path he trod
The one and only way to God. (verse 1)

That in his off’ring I have part (verse 3)

In word and deed he doth require
My will to his, like son to sire, (verse 4)

Learn conduct from the Holy One. (verse 4)

Partaking now is deed for word
That I remember him, my Lord. (verse 5)

To receive true forgiveness, we must enter into an agreement with Christ: He shows us the way and we follow him. We are trained by Christ—we enter into a sort of apprenticeship with him. Though we may be weak and imperfect, as we “learn conduct from the Holy One” we will find the “one and only way to God.”

This is a beautiful, contemplative hymn. If we ponder the lyrics as we sing, it will guide us toward a more sacred experience as we partake of the sacrament.

And yet, despite all this, the line that stands out to me the most is the very first one: “God loved us, so he sent his Son.” In October 2003, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland gave a conference talk that I’ve never forgotten titled “The Grandeur of God.” He suggested that everything Christ did, up to and especially including the Atonement, was intended to demonstrate to us not just his own love, but the love of our Heavenly Father. Take a moment to read (slowly, please!) what Elder Holland said:

Jesus did not come to improve God’s view of man nearly so much as He came to improve man’s view of God and to plead with them to love their Heavenly Father as He has always and will always love them. The plan of God, the power of God, the holiness of God, yes, even the anger and the judgment of God they had occasion to understand. But the love of God, the profound depth of His devotion to His children, they still did not fully know—until Christ came.

So feeding the hungry, healing the sick, rebuking hypocrisy, pleading for faith—this was Christ showing us the way of the Father, He who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, long-suffering and full of goodness.” In His life and especially in His death, Christ was declaring, “This is God’s compassion I am showing you, as well as that of my own.” In the perfect Son’s manifestation of the perfect Father’s care, in Their mutual suffering and shared sorrow for the sins and heartaches of the rest of us, we see ultimate meaning in the declaration: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”

Indeed, God loved us, so he sent his Son. I hope we’ll follow him.


Hymn #184: Upon the Cross of Calvary


With three verses that begin with “upon the cross,” it’s not surprising that this hymn is mostly about the crucifixion and Jesus’ death. And, like most sacramental hymns, it’s not surprising that we sing not only about death, but also about the Savior’s (and our) eventual triumph over death.

We sing in the second verse that His death “unlocks the passageway into eternity.” That’s not strictly true if you define “eternity” as simply the hereafter–we’re all headed to the spirit world after we die whether there was an Atonement or not–but if you choose to understand it as eternal life, and specifically one like the Father’s, then we start to understand a little more clearly. It’s worth mentioning, as we did yesterday, that His sacrifice provides us not with a free ride back to the Father’s presence, but rather opens a path for us to walk back home. It’s up to us to take the steps necessary to travel that path.

The third verse phrases the flip side of death nicely, I think. We’re tempted to always think of death as a negative thing as mortals. Death separates us from each other, and we associate it with pain, both physical and emotional. We have an instinct rooted deep within us to avoid and fear death in order to survive. It’s only natural that we wouldn’t want to deal with death any more than we have to. And yet, the phrase “but, dying, brought new birth” helps us to look a little past those connotations. Just as death is another step we take toward this corruptible putting on incorruption, so too did the Savior’s death bring the whole human race one step closer to to putting on immortality. Through resurrection’s miracle, all the sons of earth can shout, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” His death, and more specifically His sacrifice on our behalf, allows us to be reborn spiritually. We can cast off the natural man and become saints through the cleansing power of His Atonement, provided we are willing to walk the path He has laid out for us as He taught during His life.

Those teachings, incidentally, would have been for nothing had He not been willing and able to make the ultimate sacrifice He did in the garden of Gethsemane and upon the cross of Calvary. The words He spoke were lovely. I could read the Sermon on the Mount for the rest of my life and be content. And yet those words, beautiful, inspiring, and poetic as they are, only gained meaning and force after the Atonement was completed. The first verse makes this plain:

Upon the cross of Calvary
They crucified our Lord
And sealed with blood the sacrifice
That sanctified his word.

We are taught that “where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.” The willingness to die for one’s belief lends credibility and force to those beliefs. For the Savior, not only that is the case, but in fact, had He not been willing to die, everything He taught would have been utterly false.  Teachings such as “I am the resurrection and the life” become meaningless. Everything He taught gained meaning and significance as He fulfilled His mission on earth on Calvary. In so doing, those teachings became holy. His sacrifice sanctified His words.

When we sing this hymn, we are reminded of the suffering of our Lord, but also of the meaning and significance His death carries. It sanctified all of His teachings, and as we follow those teachings and adopt them into our lives, walking the “passageway into eternity” we sang about in the second verse, it sanctifies us, too. It makes us pure, more like Him, and able to walk that path back to life eternal.

Image credit: “Calvary Crosses,” flickr user Waiting For The Word, CC BY 2.0

Hymn #194: There Is a Green Hill Far Away

It’s a short hymn with only eight lines, but despite its brevity and simplicity, it packs a punch. The lyrics “we may not know, we cannot tell what pains he had to bear” speak volumes, as do the lyrics that complete that thought: But we believe it was for us He hung and suffered there.

The Atonement is unfathomably deep and impossibly broad, and we can’t hope to understand it in its fullness. And that’s alright, because we aren’t asked to. We can understand how it applies to us personally. We can make use of it in our own lives, striving to repent and exercise faith in the One who has made it possible to become clean again. For me, it’s overwhelming to think of the staggering magnitude of the Atonement and the suffering the Savior endured on the cross and in the garden of Gethsemane. I feel so inadequate when I try to think of that. So I don’t think of that. Instead, I can think about how He suffered for me, and while that’s still an overwhelming thought, it’s more personal, and somehow more manageable for me.

There’s a lovely bit of wordplay in the third verse that I’ve noticed every time I’ve sung this hymn for the last ten or fifteen years. I don’t know that it appears in other languages (wordplay is notoriously difficult to translate), or even that it’s intentional, but I’ve always liked the double meaning that can come from these words:

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin.
He only could unlock the gate
Of heav’n and let us in.

The lyrics ostensibly refer to the fact that there was only One who was able to suffer the consequences of sin for everyone, thus allowing us to return to the presence of the Father. And yet you can just as easily read a different meaning into that word “only.” While it’s true that He only could unlock the gate, it’s also true that He only could unlock the gate. He cannot force us through, nor will He. He paid the terrible price to open the door for us, but it’s up to us to make that first step. Both readings impress themselves on my mind when I sing this hymn.

The lyrics of the fourth verse seem to drive home that same idea. Listen:

Oh, dearly, dearly has he loved!
And we must love him too,
And trust in his redeeming blood,
And try his works to do.

We place our trust in Him. We cannot know that our sins will be forgiven simply by hearing those words. We receive that confirmation as we act on those words, and as we do so, we feel the purifying influence of the Spirit washing us clean. The Spirit brings our knowledge of the power of the Atonement back to our remembrance, helping us to strengthen our faith and trust in the Savior. Our love for Him is strengthened, too.

There’s a double meaning in this verse, too, convincing me further that I’m not simply seeing something that isn’t there in the third verse. We are told that the Savior has loved us “dearly,” and both meanings hold true. “Dear” can refer to deep affection or regard, and that’s certainly true of the love our Savior holds for each of us on a personal level. During those moments of insight when I can feel His love without reservation, I can feel how much He cares about me in particular. I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better description of that love than “dear.” But it can also mean “at a high cost,” and that’s a meaning that brings a gasp to my throat when it comes to mind as I sing. Surely no one paid a higher price for love than our Savior did in the garden of Gethsemane. When he begged the Father to “remove this cup,” we are given the slightest glimpse into the terrible agony He felt. And when we read further the phrase, “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done,” we feel the love He had not only for His Father, but for each of us for whom He suffered.

He has loved dearly, no matter how you choose to define it, and we must love Him, too. And we do, as we place our trust in Him and do the things He has asked. We remember the suffering He felt on that green hill far away, but we also remember the depth of the love that led Him to that hill. And we trust in His redeeming love, and try His works to do.

Hymn #191: Behold the Great Redeemer Die

©2008, Mike Vondran, via Flickr (http://flic.kr/p/5RvC6E). CC BY 2.0

There is nothing more central to our religion than the Atonement of Jesus Christ. His suffering in Gethsemane, his death at Golgatha, and his resurrection in the Garden are the very core of the entire message of Christianity. Without these things, there is no salvation to proclaim, no redemption to offer. Without these things, Christianity has little to give.

It is fitting, then, that as we prepare to make sacramental covenants each week, we remember these central events. After all, the covenants we make when we partake of the sacrament can only have meaning in the context of Christ’s Atonement.

Behold the Great Redeemer Die reviews the events around the death and resurrection of Christ. However, the doctrine of the Atonement is not merely that he died and was resurrected. Rather, it is that through his sacrifice, we can receive forgiveness, strength, and eventually exaltation. If we desire to be spiritually nourished as we sing this hymn, we must do more than merely sing the words—we must ponder how these events apply to our own lives.

Behold the great Redeemer die,
A broken law to satisfy.
He dies a sacrifice for sin,
That man may live and glory win.

What broken law did Christ satisfy? Divine law decrees that no unclean thing can dwell in the presence of God. We all sin, and thus we have all broken the law. By that law, we cannot dwell with God.

Sometimes we get caught up in judging each other, trying to determine who has broken divine law most severely. This misses the point—we have all broken the law, and thus are all in equal need of redemption. Whether you have sinned once or a thousand times, you are still in violation of divine law. It is only through Christ’s sacrifice for sin that man be redeemed. It is only through him that glory may win.

His high commission to fulfill,
He magnified his Father’s will.

Christ was submissive to his Father’s will in all things. His atonement for our sins was not an easy thing; if possible, he would have preferred another way. Yet despite the physical and spiritual pain, he remained true to his Father. How thankful we should be for his faithfulness. How humbled we should be by his sacrifice.

I’ve noticed we have an unfortunate habit in church meetings: we tend to only sing those verses that are written within the music notation. Additional verses listed below the music are only rarely used. We should remember that most hymns were not written with the current print layout in mind. (Until 1889, all official LDS hymnals contained only words, with no printed music.) The text of the hymns is meant to be read as a whole; just as you would not skip over the last third of a novel, we should not discard the last verses of our hymns.

The sixth and final verse is one such verse that we often pass over, and yet it provides meaning to the whole hymn. After recounting the terrible scene of His death, we return to our own preparation for the Sacrament and sing this:

He lives–he lives. We humbly now
Around these sacred symbols bow
And seek, as Saints of latter days,
To do his will and live his praise.

This hymn is written to be a sacrament hymn. It seeks to prepare us to make sacred covenants—covenants to take his name upon us, to always remember him, and to keep his commandments. We remember Christ’s death not just to acknowledge the gravity of the Atonement, but also to bring to mind the symbolism present in the sacramental symbols, the bread and water. The water reminds us of blood shed in our behalf. The bread reminds us of his broken body, risen again. In coming weeks, don’t just “take the sacrament.” Rather, use these symbols to make a covenant with our Father, a covenant that can bring rich blessings to your life if regarded and kept properly.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a question, one that has intrigued me as I’ve written. The very last words of this hymn suggest that as saints we should seek to “live his praise.” What does that mean to you? How might you live his praise? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Image Credit: “Christ the Redeemer”, Mike Vondran, ©2008 via Flickr (http://flic.kr/p/5RvC6E). CC BY 2.0

Hymn #173/174: While of These Emblems We Partake

This is one of two hymns (along with “Tis Sweet to Sing the Matchless Love” in the hymnbook with two different tunes. Samuel McBurney wrote “Saul” (hymn #173) and Alexander Schreiner wrote “Aeolian” (hymn #174), but in either case, the lyrics are the same.

So why include two versions of the same song? When was the last time you even sang the other one in church? And for that matter, which one is the other one? Personally, I most closely associate “Aeolian” with this hymn; when I saw that this was next on the schedule for me, that was the tune I hummed while I thought about the lyrics. I don’t have any evidence to back it up, but I think “Aeolian” is the tune I hear with this hymn most often in church, too. And if I had to venture a guess, I’d say that’s because of the two, “Aeolian” is the more somber and reserved. (“Aeolian” is to be sung “fervently,” while “Saul” is to be sung “reverently,” for what it’s worth.)

The sacramental hymns tend to be serious and almost dark. Many incorporate minor elements to give us a sense of the Savior’s suffering. Each of these tunes uses those elements, and they’re not hard to pick out–just look for accidentals. “Saul” has them in the second phrase (“for us on Calvary’s cross he bled” in the second verse), while “Aeolian” has them in the third (“and thus dispelled the awful gloom” in that same verse). The choice of where to place those accidentals is, well, no accident; the following phrase relieves us of the tension caused by those accidentals by returning us to a major key.

So when you hear that transition from a temporary minor key back into a major, you know that the composer is trying to give you a sense of relief, and that the lyrics those transitions coincide with are also supposed to give you relief, hope, inspiration, you name it. And so it’s interesting that while “Aeolian” (which, again, is the one I feel we sing most often in church) resolves on the final phrase of each verse, “Saul” provides resolution for both the third and fourth phrases. This might be picking at nits somewhat, but I feel there’s a difference between taking hope from the phrase “our hearts and hands are clean and pure” and the phrase “let us remember and be sure/our hearts and hands are clean and pure.” A subtle difference, to be sure, but a difference nonetheless.

If you want to take a larger view of the hymn, it’s worth considering the third verse to see whether it provides tension or release, just as the third phrase in each verse does. The “Aeolian” model would place tension on the third verse, which reads:

The law was broken; Jesus died
That justice might be satisfied,
That man might not remain a slave
Of death, of hell, or of the grave.

Part of our psalmodic culture has us sing about death in a hushed, mourning way. There’s a subconscious fear of death reflected in our music. Think about the last time you sang or heard “Come, Come Ye Saints.” How was the phrase “and should we die before our journey’s through” handled? It’s common for arrangements of the hymn to dip to a minor key on that phrase to reflect sadness and struggle, even though, paradoxically, the following phrase is, “Happy day! All is well!” Death is not to be feared. Death, as Paul tells us, has no sting, and the grave no victory. It is the last enemy that shall be destroyed, yes, but it shall be destroyed. The Savior has won the victory.

The “Saul” model would have this be the release. Yes, Jesus died, but He did so that justice might be satisfied. We are no longer slaves to death thanks to His sacrifice. It’s not His death we sing about, but His sacrifice and the freedom that comes from it. We sing about his victory and conquest of death, even if we aren’t as exultant as we are during, say, hymns about Zion.

And if you don’t believe me, well, just listen to this final verse, which provides release for us in both “Saul” and “Aeolian,” and try to tell me you don’t hear anything about victory:

But rise triumphant from the tomb,
And in eternal splendor bloom,
Freed from the pow’r of death and pain,
With Christ, the Lord, to rule and reign.


Hymn #185: Reverently and Meekly Now


The lyrics were written by Joseph Townsend, but this is the first of the hymns we’ll cover this year whose tune was written by our site’s namesake, Ebenezer Beesley. The tune, fittingly named “Meekness,” adds an extra layer to the hymn that isn’t present in the lyrics. The lyrics, as are common with sacramental hymns, are about the Savior’s atoning sacrifice, the emblems of the sacrament itself, forgiveness, and redemption, and the tune, as is also common with sacramental hymns, lingers in a minor key through much of the hymn, providing a discordant, unsettling feeling, which reminds us of the Lord’s suffering in Gethsemane.

The tune doesn’t stay in a minor key forever, though. Phrases like “sweat in agony of pain” and “oh, remember what was done” are in a minor key to highlight that suffering, but the phrase that follows each of them resolves to a major key, and fittingly, each of those final phrases is about us. The Savior suffered all those things that we might not suffer, provided we repent and turn our hearts to him. Those four phrases (“I have ransomed even thee,” “I have suffered death for thee,” “like a fountain unto thee,” and “that thy Savior I may be”) give us hope and remind us that His suffering was not for nothing, and the peace they bring is only amplified by the resolution of the key on those closing chords.

But take a closer look at those phrases.”I have ransomed even thee.” “That thy Savior I may be.” In this hymn, it is not we who sing to or about our Savior, but our Savior who sings to us. He tells us all that He has done for us, reminds us of the significance of the bread and water to be presented to us after the song concludes, and very gently asks us to “let [our] head most humbly bow” in reverence of the magnitude of His sacrifice. It’s not often that we’re permitted to put ourselves in the Savior’s place when we sing. We get the chance to see ourselves as He sees us. We realize that each of us can be addressed as “thou ransomed one.” We learn that He has no greater desire for us than we should “with [our] brethren be at peace.” And in the fourth verse, we get a sense of the depth of His love for us:

At the throne I intercede;
For thee ever do I plead.
I have loved thee as thy friend,
With a love that cannot end.
Be obedient, I implore,
Prayerful, watchful evermore,
And be constant unto me,
That thy Savior I may be.

We know that He loves us. We learn it from the time we are very small, and we are reminded, at the very least, every Sunday as we sing to Him. But His description of us as His friends is awe-inspiring to me. We are not projects to Him, nor are we inconveniences He is forced to endure. We are dear to Him. The word “friend,” to me, implies not only love, but genuine interest in our lives. He redeemed us because He wants to be with us, and wants us to be able to return to where He is. It is His life’s sole mission to bring us home, and so He ever pleads before the Father’s throne for us. We fall short time and time again, and each time He makes the intercession for us. He stays the hand of justice, promising that we’ll do better this time. And He does it because we are His friends.

He asks nothing more than that we be obedient, prayerful, watchful, and constant, and we promise as much to Him as we take the sacrament of which we sing. We renew the covenant we made at baptism to do those things, and we resolve to try a little harder in the coming week. And as we do those things, we allow Him to become our Savior. We accept His sacrifice for us. We allow Him to take our hands in His and heal us. We allow, as we sing in the second verse, His Spirit to be a fountain to us, cleansing and purifying us.

And we fall short, again and again. But we remember He is our friend, and that His hand is always outstretched to us to help us up so that we can try again.