Venite, exultemus

Commemoration of Chad of Lichfield

O come, let us sing unto the Lord;*

let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation.

Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving;*

and show ourselves glad in him with psalms.

For the LORD is a great God;*

and a great King above all gods.

In his hand are all the corners of the earth;*

and the strength of the hills is his also.

The sea is his and he made it;*

and his hands prepared the dry land.

For he is the Lord our God;*

and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.

— Psalm 95:1-7 (KJV, with markings from the BCP 1928, p. 459)

I grew up singing hymns: “Amazing Grace,” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” “In the Garden,” “At the Cross” and, most frequently, “Just as I Am.” We sang them all so often that it was easy for me to memorize them. Even 60+ years later I can still probably sing many of them (at least in my mind since the voice has gone to pot) without too much difficulty.

I remember the first time I walked into an Episcopal Church. It was a brick church, rather than the wood and plaster Baptist church across the street from my house. The service was read from the prayer book in gorgeous, plummy King James English, like the Bible we read at home and church. And the music, well, that was the clincher. It was rich, some of it familiar foursquare harmony and some of it totally different with lots of words sung on the same notes but with changes of pitch at the end of the line. It was my first exposure to Anglican chant and, for me, it was one of the things that said, even at that first visit, that the Episcopal Church was going to be a big part of my life in the future. I fell in love on that visit, and even now, almost half a century later, it’s been an enduring love. Sometimes it’s been a painful relationship but something that has always drawn me back to it.

When I officially became an Episcopalian we used the 1928 prayer book and the 1940 hymnal. At the little Episcopal church overlooking the river where I worshipped when I was at home, we did Morning Prayer three or four Sundays of the month and Holy Communion once, so we used to sing the Venite, exultemus (Venite, for short) nearly every Sunday. What with singing it so often, it didn’t take long for me to learn it, as well as the Benedictus es and the Jubilate Deo, the other two standard canticles we sang every week. You know, I learned a lot of scripture as a Baptist, but as an Episcopalian I learned that chanting was one of the easiest and most reliable ways of learning scripture, as well as enabling me to pull them out of my brain even years later when I needed the comfort of familiar words and encouraging phrases in a way that evoked happy and prayerful experiences.

Reading the lessons for this morning, I was overjoyed to run into an old friend, but something was wrong. It wasn’t long enough. I remember more verses being sung before ending with the Gloria. So I dug out my 1940 hymnal and, sure enough, there was more.

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;*

let the whole earth stand in awe of him.

For he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth;*

and with righteousness to judge the world, and the peoples with his truth.

— (Ps. 96:9,13)

There, now that’s better. It seems to complete the thought so much better than the verses that follow the first seven in Psalm 95:

Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts*

as in the provocation, and as on the day of temptation in the wilderness;

When your fathers tempted me,*

proved me, and saw my works.

Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said,*

It is a people that do err in their hearts, for they have not known my ways.

Unto whom I sware in my wrath,*

that they should not enter into my rest ( 95:8-11).

Not quite so easy to chant, much less fit in with the exquisite praises that went before, but then, that’s how psalms seem to go, almost bipolar in their composition, a mixture of joy and sorrow, praising and cursing, confidence and fear. I think that’s one reason Psalms are such an important part of our liturgy. For many, they’re the best (and possibly the easiest to understand) parts of scripture because they tend to speak to the human condition in all its goodness and its rottenness as well. Many folks can recite very little scripture off the top of their heads, but I venture to guess most of them have the 23rd Psalm down pat if not a paraphrase available at a moment’s notice.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the psalms, but when I remember bits like the Venite, I am a believer. Maybe it is being in touch with history and tradition both scripturally and musically, maybe it’s just because music has always been such an important part of my life and the church feeds that part so beautifully, but this is one of the psalms and canticles I hold on to in my mind and my heart.

So much has changed in the nearly 50 years since I my confirmation, my official birthday as an Episcopalian. I’m glad to say that music is still a very great part of the service. Even though we still on occasion sing the psalms in Anglican chant, we don’t do the familiar ones like the Venite. We’ve seemingly moved on to different kinds of music and, yes, we sometimes sing “Amazing Grace” and “Just as I Am” like we did in my Baptist church but we also do Cwm Rhondda (in several incarnations such as “God of Grace and God of Glory” and “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”) and Hyfrydol (“Alleluia! Sing to Jesus” and “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”). We may perversely use the name given to the tune rather than always using the first few words of the hymn, but we sure don’t mind re-using a great tune more than once! Still, each hymn has a focus, the same emphasis of either speaking of or a direct appeal to God, and isn’t that sort of the same thing the psalms do? And, like the psalms, the hymns seem to have human emotion and character inserted in them from time to time. Perhaps that’s what makes them memorable and accessible.

This morning I will probably have the canticle and the tune I learned to chant it (Walter) running through my head. I can think of a lot worse pieces of music, and perhaps it will be like a more-or-less constant prayer rising, even if I’m not totally consciously thinking about it. Come to think of it, isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing anyway, living in prayer? Aren’t we all?

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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