Hymn: A song, praise, or poem directed to God. Associated with a religious service with connotations of traditional (rather than contemporary) worship.
It went in phases. First went the wooden pews with their thin red cushions, old and sturdy and uncomfortable. Then went the hymnals, stacked into great heaping piles at the back of the sanctuary. Big projection screens went up, flanking the pipes of an organ from a bygone era.
Someone suggested that “sanctuary” was an antiquated term; we started calling it the “worship center.” The church choir disbanded in favor of a worship team.
During the last of the responsive readings, I was old enough to read along in the program. “It sounds so boring,” I moaned to my parents on the way home from church. I was fifteen: smoldering in my fire for Jesus. “Why can’t they put a little feeling into it?”
I liked my worship loud against electric guitars. I wanted my heart to quicken with the drums, to lift my hands with the crescendos of a repeating chorus.
I wanted prayer to be impromptu, a spontaneous bursting forth of my whole, full heart to God. Good riddance to the Lord’s Prayer and the other tired lines in the hymn books; they were too old and frail to convey my passion.
The changes suited me just fine.
I didn’t understand that there would be a day when I would have no emotion left, no passion, no overflow of my tired heart. In that desperate moment, the praise songs began to sound tinny and hollow to my ear. The evangelical-speak that once sounded so fresh and new began to sound like marketing.
But at Christmas, we take them out: our hymns, our liturgies. We dust them off, speed them up, add a drumbeat. Or we alter them artfully, adding acoustic rifts, new phrases.
We leave the words untouched for the most part, complete with their Thees and Thous, their old phrasing, odd vocabulary. There is something timeless about them; something eternally beautiful, endlessly relevant.
I read them now and find that they are not frail, but strong, full of mystery, full of hope:
O come Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
And it’s not about nostalgia, but rather a sense of ancient community, a long, wide heritage of faith. A thousand Christmases in a hundred thousand cities, churches, homes. All those people, holding all those tiny candles, singing the old words:
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
The world is new, changing, moving, and we move along with it. We upgrade, replace, move forward. We create. We use the new technology available to enter into the mystery of God’s love in different, beautiful ways. We try to say it differently, stack together new metaphors and similes to describe it all.
But someone is posting the Evening Prayer in my Twitter feed. Liturgy colliding with technology. And it is so old and beautiful and sturdy and true, and it feels like a hand-me-down sweater worn by so many before me.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, oh Israel!
I wrap the words around my cold places. I let them warm me as I move on toward Christmas.