10 February 2006

Lutheran Hymns & Prayers to the Dead

I've sung (and loved) these hymns for years. Yet only in the past 3-4 years have I really taken notice of what I've sung. But, I would guess, that is not so unusual. Otherwise familiar stories (like the Good Samaritan) would not cause us "ah-ha" moments when we see something we hadn't seen before--even though we could recite the story verbatim.

Two hymns, in particular, have intrigued me recently. I'm intrigued not as much by the particular words as by who is addressed by those words. These hymns are "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones" and "Oh, How Blest Are Ye Whose Toils Are Ended."

What's intriguing is found when I ask this question: "To whom are we speaking when we sing the words in these hymns." For "Ye Watchers," the answer is that we are not addressing God at all. Rather, we are speaking to the angels (stanza 1); the Blessed Virgin Mary (stanza 2); the Old & New Testament saints (stanza 3); and then either the "friends" standing next to us or the "friends" who have preceded us in death (stanza 4). In either case, we're not speaking to any member of the Holy Trinity. Rather, in at least three if not four of the stanzas, we're speaking to "dead folks"--those who are alive in the Lord even though their years on earth have ended. And throughout the hymn, we are entreating or praying for them to reamain faithful in their prayers to the Holy Blessed Trinity.

In "Oh, How Blest," we are likewise speaking to "dead folks"--in this case, those dear to us who have preceded us in death (i.e., the Faithful Departed)--until we reach the final stanza. In the first five stanzas, we are not asking anything of the Blessed Dead as much as we are rejoicing at their heavenly repose while bemoaning our continued mortality. In the last stanza we finally address Our Lord Jesus, begging Him to come soon to release us since in Him alone do we receive the "joy and rest appointed."

In both of these fine hymns, we are addressing the blessed dead. In the first, we pray to the saints asking them to continue their intercessions to God. In the second, we proclaim to the Faithful Departed our joy that they are released from the cares of this life, and our desire to be reunited with them quickly.


Rosko said...

Fr. Fenton,
You bring up some very interesting observations here. I'm not sure what implications you think they have for the everyday lives of the saints on earth, but it is interesting you read that these hymns address the saints instead of the Blessed Trinity in their main stanzas. I look forward to seeing what else you have to say.

Harry W. Reineke IV

fr john w fenton said...


Thank you for visiting and for your comments. Let me respond with two thoughts.

First, what I've written is not "my read" of the hymns, but what the text plainly says. (I realize you probably meant that, but I just wanted to clarify.)

Second, one implication for the everyday lives of the Christian is that these hymns remind us of the intimate relationship all those in Christ--living and departed--enjoy. For me, at least, knowing that I retain a lively relationship with the saints and blessed dead is as important as experiencing that same lively relationship with fellow believers on earth. By no means does this overshadow my communion in God through Christ by the Spirit. But it does comfort me to recall that our life together as partakers of the divine nature is neither individual nor only with those those who, like me, are still chained to mortality; but that it also includes those who have been released everlastingly from death and enjoy "that for which we still endeavor."

cheryl said...


I have a question, and I hope I'm able to make myself clear enough... But what would you say to those who might reply, "we address things all the time that are either too general to elicit a response, like, "all the kings of the earth (ex. Ps 68:32)" or are uncapable period, like animals, stars, ect. (ex. Ps 148:3; Ps 69:34)" ?

I ask because this was what was said to me a year or so ago, when I brought these very hymns up in response to, "can we invoke the saints in heaven?"

I realize that you may not be taking it that far...and if I've strayed too far from the topic...I apologize.

fr john w fenton said...


If I understand correctly, you're asking if telling the saints to praise the Lord is no different than telling fire, hail, snow and all creation to praise or bless the Lord. What an interesting question!

Please excuse me if this sounds sophist or paradoxical, but I would say the answer is "yes" and "no." It is "yes" because, as the Psalmist notes, all creation is to bless and praise the Lord because He is their Creator and, in His Son, redeems all creation.

However, note the significant phrase: "in His Son." Man is the climax of God's creation chiefly because he is created both in God's image (i.e., Christ, who is the image of the Fahter) and in His likeness. For this reason, the redemption of the cosmos occurs *through* the redemption of mankind--which is located in the redeeming act of God-in-the-flesh. The fullness of this redemption is the participation of man in God (2 Pt 1.4). Rocks, trees, skies, etc. don't partake of the divine nature since they were not made for this.

Therefore, the answer is also "no" because entreating the saints is unique from entreating other created things. Unlike telling the rocks to praise God, entreating the saints (among other things) encourages us to believe that the fullness is possible since they are now living it; and that this fullness is precisely the unending doxology of the cosmos through men.

Finally, while we've never heard the rocks praise the Lord, we have heard the living do so and have the assurance from the Scriptures that those who die trusting in the Lord are even now praising Him in the same way that they did before death. So we're "egging them on," so to speak, in a different way than we "egg on" the created things--a way that is different because, among other things, their praying (and prayers) encourage and strengthen our faith.

I hope I've heard your question rightly.

Thanks for visiting.

Stephen van der Hoek said...

Fr Fenton,

I found your comments on addressing the saints in hymns very interesting. How about especially the second-to-last verse of "O come, all ye faithful"? (ie Sing, Choirs of Angels, sing in exultation, sing, all ye citizens in heaven above). This well known carol is sung by Christians and holiday-seasoners alike! Another hymn for your list, perhaps?

From Stephen.

cheryl said...

I hope I've heard your question rightly.

Yes. Thanks Father.

Thanks for visiting.

The pleasure is mine. I'm extremely glad that I'm having this opportunity (via your blog) to read more of your writing.

fr john w fenton said...


Thanks for adding to the list. You're quite right: in that famous ChristMass hymn we are imploring, entreating, and praying the saints and angels to do what they do--to pray the Lord's mercy for us and all creation.

My list wasn't intended to be exhaustive. However, if others have more suggestions...