Two Holy Week Hymns

As a worship planner, I try hard not to put my own musical preferences over my congregation’s. However, during certain liturgical seasons I insist on singing a short list of songs that are my personal favorites. This could be considered selfish, but they’re all really good songs, so in a way I’m doing everyone a favor. In any case, during Lent and Holy Week any church of mine will sing “What Wondrous Love Is This” (MP3) and “Ah, Holy Jesus” (MP3).

What Wondrous Love Is This” is from the Shape Note tradition. Like the best of these early American songs, the tune is beautiful but slippery (what key is this in, anyway?), the words are simple yet deep as death, and it loses much of its charm when it moves from the stark Shape Note harmonies to the sweeter harmonies of modern hymnals. People keep writing new arrangements of the song, but I don’t think anyone will ever get it right. It is a song of elusive perfection.

Knowing that I, too, would fail to pen the perfect arrangement of the song didn’t deter me from composing one. I decided to transplant the song from its original folk tradition to a more modern folk tradition of guitar and voice. I’ve been singing this arrangement for a number of years and finally recorded it this afternoon. I also wrote a piano arrangement that we sang at COS a few weeks ago. (You can email me for the PDF.)

Ah, Holy Jesus” is a song that has fallen out of favor in modern hymnals. That’s too bad, because Johann Heermann’s text and Johann Crüger’s tune are a one-two-Holy-Week punch to the heart. Without being overly sentimental, the hymn personalizes Jesus’ crucifixion and forces the singer to take some responsibility for Jesus’ suffering. This is a song I discovered in the old Presbyterian hymnal when I first began music ministry at Bellefield Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. I still remember riding the bus into town trying to memorize the song before the Good Friday service.

Even though I know I’m treading on hallowed ground–re-harmonizing Crüger’s music–I’ve continued to sing this folk version through the years. The last time I sang it at COS, an older man–a real straight shooter–came up to me and told me, “You need to know that was a horrible rendition of a great song.” I can’t remember if he went on to describe it as despicable, deplorable, or a sacrilege, but you get the point. Interestingly, that got me written into his will in a roundabout way. It said, “No guitars or drums at my funeral.” I actually liked this man a lot. You knew exactly where he stood on things, and he didn’t seem to harbor any lasting malice–he just didn’t want me messing up a perfectly good hymn or funeral with guitars.

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