I have a friend who claims that churches which sing only quickly learned, easily understood songs display a lazy, self-centered faith. I wouldn’t go that far, but just to make sure our faith remains as robust as possible, we are going to spend the next six weeks singing a song that will take good bit of work.
During Epiphany the preaching will focus on the words of the Lord’s Prayer, one phrase at a time. Like Heidelberg Catechism question and answer 119–129 (Psalter Hymnal, page 916), we will focus in detail on the Lord’s Prayer, from the opening “Our Father” right down to the final word, “Amen.”
Psalter Hymnal 562 uses the Heidelberg Catechism as a starting place for a musical meditation on the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, Clothed with Majesty,” written by Marie Post, turns each question and answer into a verse of a hymn—eight verses in all. I understand that for some of you an eight-verse hymn sounds about as appealing as a trip to the dentist. Relax! We won’t sing all 8 verses at once, but instead sing only the verses appropriate to the day’s theme.
Still, this hymn will require a much greater investment than many of the songs we sing in worship.
The hymn comes to us via Luther, who wrote a setting of the Lord’s Prayer, “Vater Unser,” to an anonymous tune of his day. It was a favorite of J.S. Bach, who used the tune in a number of cantatas, organ preludes, and in the St. John Passion, which is the source of this Psalter Hymnal harmonization. It is a difficult tune, and Bach’s harmonization, while lovely, is not at all easy to sing. The lyrics, too, are thick with meaning. For many of us, this will present a real challenge. But that’s not all bad, is it? Like anything worth doing, worship has its moments of joy and ease, and it also has times that require discipline.
The music that we sing in church is one avenue of experiencing the deeper, more disciplined side of prayer. Songs from different traditions—the historic church, the global church, the Pentecostal church—all help us to step outside ourselves and experience our faith with new ears. They allow us to be shaped by the “great cloud of witnesses” rather than simply doing what comes easily to us.
My hope is that the spiritual discipline of engaging this text and tune throughout Epiphany will give us deeper insight into prayer itself. That we won’t skim over the surface of the Lord’s Prayer, but that this song will help us dig in at a deeper level–to wrestle with God like Jacob did. This Epiphany, take the opportunity to memorize “Our Father, Clothed in Majesty,” learn one of the harmony parts, or study the Lord’s Prayer section of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Christ’s prayer is a model of simplicity, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy!
Can’t tell Bach’s chorale from boxed coral? Contact Greg Scheer (firstname.lastname@example.org).