alt.

At Mass this morning, we sang one of my all-time favorite Advent hymns: “Comfort, comfort ye my people” (Tröstet, tröstet meine Lieben, trans. Catherine Winkworth; the tune GENEVA 42). Perhaps you know it? It was beautifully played and well sung. My joy was complete until I realized how the text had been altered.

Now, let me be clear. I can and do put up with a lot of alterations to hymn texts. I understand there are reasons. But when I saw that “tell her that her sins I cover” had become “tell of all the sins I cover” it brought me up short.

What were they thinking?

I can tell you what I was thinking: It’s like a health insurance plan. A lot of sins (though not all) are covered. Because we are telling of the sins God covers, it implies there are some that are not covered.

Even leaving aside the obvious cavil that we don’t “tell of sins,” (exomologesis is always about confessing God’s mercy) there’s something off here. The difference between telling someone that their sins are covered, and telling – in general – about all the sins that are covered is the difference between news and information.

A surgeon who says to his patient after surgery, “We got the whole tumor,” and a billboard that says “Our cancer hospital treats patients with all kinds of cancer” are not alike. In one case the message is of supreme importance to the person being addressed. It’s a matter of life and death. In the second, it’s information that may or may not come in useful.

My sense of the passage in Isaiah on which this hymn is based is that the prophet has salvific news to proclaim. That news is powerful because it is addressed to the one who needs it. The prophetic utterance to Jerusalem, promising comfort, peace, and remission of sins, transcends its original context not by becoming abstract but by being reimagined by succeeding generations as a message that is addressed to them. Ultimately, Christians heard this message being addressed to them in the coming of Jesus and we hear it today, in the Advent liturgy, in the same way.

I suspect we don’t understand the dynamic of this scripture passage as deeply as we need to. To go beyond the hymn, this brings up an evangelical issue. What is salvation? Do we even need it?

That Jerusalem may be referred to in scripture, or imagined in a hymn text, as a woman (“tell her that her sins I cover”) bothers me not at all. I do mind, however, blurring the message that one’s own sins are covered, because that’s the good news, and that’s important.

31 comments

  1. Speak ye to Jerusalem
    of the peace that waits for them;
    tell her that her sins I cover,
    and her warfare now is over.

    The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal): Tell her that her sins I cover.
    Sacred Song (LitPress): Tell her that her sins I cover.
    One in Faith (WLP): Tell them that their sins I cover.
    Worship 4 (GIA): Tell of all the sins I cover.

    Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELCA):
    To God’s people now proclaim
    that God’s pardon waits for them!
    Tell them that their war is over;
    God will reign in peace forever.

    Glory to God (PCUSA):
    To my people now proclaim
    that my pardon waits for them!
    Tell them that their sins I cover,
    and their warfare now is over.

    ELW and GtG preserved more of the original meaning, and with better poetry, by recasting the whole thing. One may talk about whether it’s an improvement and which of the two is better, but one sees why they went there.

    GIA really botched it up by fiddling just a bit with it.

    I’ve already worked through the Advent section of the new abbey hymnal which is one of my sabbatical projects. I see that I had selected the 1982 version which is the least altered. I’m sure we’ll stay with that.

    awr

  2. Lutheran Service Book (Missouri Synod)
    Speak ye to Jerusalem
    Of the peace that waits for them:
    Tell her that her sins I cover
    And her warfare now is over.

    We use Breaking Bread, OCP, as our hymnal, and unfortunately, it contains the same wording that Rita, is questioning. And you know what? I agree with her.

    I’ll take a look at my Hymnal 1982, tomorrow when I go down to the church.

    Earle

  3. Sorry, Rita, but welcome to our side of the world of traditional hymns:

    Good Christian Friends Rejoice ?? etc etc etc

    Seems to be simply the logical continuation of our de-genderizing everything in our lives.

  4. @Fr Ruff (#4): I’m not sure that I like ELW and GtG any more than W4. ELW suffers from the awkwardness that invariably results from using “God” in place of “he/his/etc.”, and both of them obliterate the Jerusalem imagery of the source text, which in biblical theological terms I find to be a massive problem.

    Like all PC tinkerings I can think of, we end up with a text that is inferior in nearly every aspect, regardless of how the tinkering has been done. Why do some editors persist in mutilating perfectly good hymns and songs?

    1. @Matthew Hazell – comment #5:
      Hi Matthew,

      I have some sympathy with your view, and I hinted in my comments at my lack of enthusiasm for ELW and GtG. I’m glad that the monks in my community, in the listening sessions I held, favored keeping most all the traditional language of 1982 in our new abbey hymnal, unless it is really misleading or obscure.

      But I think your comments are a bit one-sided and on the verge of becoming a rant.

      “Perfectly good” is an overstatement. We’re dealing with human creations here. Hymn texts have been altered through all of history. This is nothing new. Wesley was constantly altering his texts while he was alive. (“Hark how all the welkin rings,” anyone?) We don’t sing “Our God, our help in ages past” which is the original.

      Losing the Jerusalem imagery is unfortunate – but it’s not a “massive problem” of biblical theology. Not every hymn can or should say everything in the Bible.

      There is a reason why editors “persist in mutilating” (I’d put it less polemically, eg. “keep trying to improve”) hymn texts. Language changes. New concerns arise. Theological insights deepen. Justice issues rise to consciousness. Words that seemingly didn’t hurt people in the past now do hurt (some) people. A Christian would want to respond to all this.

      I think ELW and GtG are superior to GIA, because of the problems GIA Rita named.

      We oftentimes stand before many goods, with choices to be made and prices to be paid. I agree with you that the God/God thing in ELW is awkward. But there was another good they obviously had in mind which seems to elude you.

      I think those of us with more traditional views (on this or any other issue) should strive to understand and respect the legitimate concerns of those who think otherwise.

      awr

    2. @Matthew Hazell – comment #5:
      Matthew,

      When you say things like this “Like all PC tinkerings I can think of, we end up with a text that is inferior in nearly every aspect” you are ranting. This is what I mean by ranting:

      * universalizing (“all I can think of”).
      * blaming (“PC tinkerings”) – and sterotyping in order to blame.
      * escalating the claims (“Inferior in nearly every aspect”).
      * using insulting language (“persist in mutilating”)

      Fr. Anthony has very kindly pointed out that there are values on all sides. I agree with this. But I don’t know from what you said yet that you would think that’s true. Rather, it sounds like you think that people who disagree with you on these issues:

      a. are barbarians (mutilate)
      b. are mindless ideologues (PC/ ideology)

      Sorry, but that’s not a true or fair evaluation — and I’m the one arguing for keeping older language in this hymn! Personally, I think there needs to be openness to argument on all sides, and no “one size fits all” prescription. If we lose the “gentlemen” in God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen but gain something better — something more important — I think we should be open to that. Hymns do change. As long as it’s “all or nothing,” we remain in a stalemate.

      P.S. I see you walked back from the word “mutilate” – thanks for that!

  5. I don’t think I ever noticed this wording before, so I checked the hymnal used in the parish I serve; it’s “tell of all the sins I cover.” And I absolutely get Rita’s point, and agree that the old lyric makes a better point. I just wish it scanned the tune as well. “Tell her THAT her sins I cover”–that THAT on an accented beat is fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul. “Tell of ALL…” may not be perfect theology, but at least I don’t want to ding the translator for poor prosody every time I sing it.

  6. @Fr Ruff (#6): Not every hymn can or should say everything in the Bible.

    With respect, I never said that, and I don’t think I ever implied it. However, the reason I think it is a massive problem in this particular instance is because the biblical imagery has been stripped out of the original in all the PC revisions. It was there, and now it’s not. That is a problem.

    “Perfectly good” is an overstatement.

    “Perfectly good” is also British idiom for “satisfactory”. That’s my fault for not being clear enough on an American-based website! 🙂

    We don’t sing “Our God, our help in ages past” which is the original.

    You may not do so in America, but I have certainly sung Watts’ original wording here in the UK on various occasions over the years.

    There is a reason why editors “persist in mutilating” (I’d put it less polemically, eg. “keep trying to improve”) hymn texts.

    But I think we are all agreed that the particular example we are discussing cannot possibly be considered an improvement. Perhaps “mutilate” was a bit strong, but that is honestly how I feel about almost all late-20th/early-21st changes made to hymn and song texts. In my opinion, the deference shown to a particular ideology by some editors more often than not damages and disfigures the poetry and theology in the original text – as has happened in all the cited revisions of “Comfort, comfort ye my people”.

    1. @Matthew Hazell – comment #8:
      Hi Matthew,

      “Not every hymn can or should say everything in the Bible.” – Not to nitpick, but I didn’t say anywhere that you said that. It is I who said that, to make the point I wanted to make.

      I have but a few British hymnals in my collection – I’d be curious how many have “Our God our help” and how many have “O God our help.” But either way, and even if one or the other has the original in this case, lots of hymn texts we both sing regularly are different from the original.

      Pax,
      awr

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #9:
        The English Hymnal (1906) has John Wesley’s “O.” The Lutheran Hymnal (USA, 1941) has Watts’s “Our.” I’ve come to prefer the latter, but I think the general hymn-singing public is probably unconvertible.

  7. Whenever I find myself in a church of a different background, I like to leaf through the Hymnal. Baptist Hymnals that have “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” often completely omit the second verse, which ends, “He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.”

    The best hyms, for me, anyway, teach deep theology in a way that pierces straight into the heart. Just yesterday, we sang “Watchmen, Tell Us of the Night,” sung to Aberystwyth, and the final verse just took hold of me and wouldn’t let go:

    “Watchman, tell us of the night,
    For the morning seems to dawn.
    Traveler, darkness takes its flight,
    Doubt and terror are withdrawn.
    Watchman, let thy wanderings cease;
    Hie thee to thy quiet home.
    Traveler, lo! the Prince of Peace,
    Lo! the Son of God is come!”

  8. Whatever Matthew’s experience may have been, I have never encountered “Our God, our help in ages past” in a hymnbook or worship aid during a service. I can imagine that most folk in a congregation, presented with that, would probably just assume it was a misprint and sing “O God,…” as usual.

    I’d like to express my agreement with Rita’s dislike of the omission of Jerusalem. But because I tend to avoid hymns with the word “ye” in them, I would probably avoid the problem altogether and instead use the late Chrysogonus Waddell’s “O comfort my people and calm all their fear”, even though that text does not refer to Jerusalem either.

  9. Catherine Winkworth’s hymn translation “Comfort, Comfort” has undergone numerous changes in all its stanzas over the past century. By far, the most significant change is the fact that almost no hymnals published in the twentieth century include her second stanza! It was recently re-added in the 2006 Lutheran Service Book:

    2 Yea, her sins our God will pardon,
    Blotting out each dark misdeed;
    All that well deserved His anger
    He no more will see or heed.
    She hath suffered many a day,
    Now her griefs have passed away;
    God will change her pining sadness
    Into ever-springing gladness.

    But that text is not part of Isaiah 40:1-11, so that may account for the stanza not being included for over a century.

    GIA’s altered text for the first stanza (“Tell of all the sins I cover…”) appears for the first time in Worship III (1986), not Worship IV (2011). The text review committee for Worship IV discussed that wording from 1986 but chose not to change it back to the original or to alter it further. I can only surmise that the change was made in 1986 owing to the non-correspondence of pronouns and pronominal adjectives in Winkworth’s original (them vs. her).

    In my opinion a far more serious flaw in Winkworth’s text is her phrase “her sins I cover” for Is. 40:2’s “her guilt is expiated.” I don’t know if Winkworth’s text accurately translates Olearius’ German original, but it appears to be forced to rhyme with “now is over” in the next line. “Covering sins” is a weak , and perhaps misleading, expression for “expiation” or “forgiveness.” The recent alteration in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (see Fr. Ruff’s comment #1) addresses this issue. I just wish, like many others, that the ELW editors had found a way to keep “Jerusalem” in the text.

    1. @Fr. Ron Krisman – comment #14:
      I had assumed sins being “covered” was pretty much straight Reformation theology. Johannnes Gottfried Olearius was Lutheran, wasn’t he? But I see I am wrong in that assumption, and Winkworth was making a rhyme. Here is the German original (no “cover” of sins, nor “expiation”!):

      Tröstet, tröstet meine Lieben,
      Tröstet mein Volk, spricht mein Gott,
      Tröstet, die sich jetzt betrüben,
      Über Feindes hohn und Spott,
      Weil Jerusalem wohl dran,
      Redet sie gar freundlich an,
      Denn ihr Leiden hat ein Ende,
      Ihre Ritterschaft ich wende.

      This discussion is really all about the English text.

  10. @Rita Ferrone (#11): Rather, it sounds like you think that people who disagree with you on these issues: a. are barbarians (mutilate); b. are mindless ideologues (PC/ ideology)

    Well, I understand that people who make the sorts of edits cited above are sincere. I just profoundly disagree with the sort of editing on offer in this instance. As I already said, “mutilate” was perhaps a strong word – but emotions can run high when one chooses to edit for ideological reasons beloved texts that there’s certainly no popular mandate for editing.

    I wouldn’t say such editors are mindless ideologues, but get rid of the adjective and you’re probably closer to my opinion regarding this particular sort of rewrite. Who asked for the elimination of Jerusalem and feminine imagery in “Comfort, comfort ye my people”? Who exactly was consulted over any possible changes to the text in a new edition of a hymnal?

    And, in this instance, we’re certainly poorer for it – as you’ve already expressed very well. The original text has the wonderful imagery – very much in the OT and NT prophetic tradition – of Jerusalem as representative of the people of God, Jerusalem who has wandered from God, yet He will even now forgive her sins if she will repent and turn back to Him. The hymn is a paraphrase of Isa. 40, for goodness sake! Yet W4, GtG and ELW felt the need to flatten and strip out the biblical resonances in the first verse – for what end? To get rid of gendered pronouns? Utterly ridiculous (IMO)!

    Where this sort of editing can be done discreetly, well, I still profoundly disagree with it, but in a pragmatic sense I have less of a problem and am open to being convinced that it might be the best thing to ensure continued use of a given hymn. But when you’re blatantly ruining the poetry and discarding the biblical imagery that exists in the text just so you can claim not to be offending anyone? I get that hymns change, but that’s not exactly progress, is it?

  11. As an addendum – for this will probably be my last contribution to this particular thread – if I’m coming off a little ranty, then I apologise. I will admit that I am a bit of a purist when it comes to this sort of thing, and am also quite passionate in my opinion that biblical imagery in hymns is a great and wonderful thing. So, to say the least, it irks me to see it obscured by modern editors.

    In short, please try and charitably read me as utterly sincere, as opposed to slightly unhinged. 🙂

  12. It’s long interested me that we will have these prolonged discussions about sins covered and so on, but there will be no notice paid to the telling of Jerusalem that her/their warfare now is over. (Really? JERUSALEM?!?!?! The one in Israel?)
    This is sort of a branch office of the selective literalism that gets applied to biblical texts. We will accept with 100% confidence that our sins have been covered, even when it’s enjambed with a text that history and current events prove false.
    Hymn texts are, of course, a kind of poetry. And when we take into account that Catherine Winkworth was working with one particular German translation of a biblical prose text, versifying it, and which text was subsequently translated with all the restrictions of meter and rhyme, etc. – of course we end up with a poetic, and not theology-textbook-precise text.
    The discussion is important, of course, but it seems to me that in zeroing in on the one line and completely ignoring the subsequent one, we are, in a way, having the small discussion.

    1. @Alan Hommerding – comment #19:
      Alan, I get it that you don’t like this discussion and you think we should be having a bigger discussion, but what I don’t get is what you think needs to be in that bigger discussion. Scriptural hermeneutics? Politics in the middle east?

      Are you saying that unless we square the prophet’s message with facts on the ground in the State of Israel today we are engaged in selective literalism to believe in the remission of sins?

      As far as I know, belief in the remission of sins does not depend on this particular text alone, and it’s not literalism to interpret the prophetic message as one which speaks of the promises of Christ — in fact, it’s far different from a literal reading.

      I don’t see what you are driving at here.

      1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #23:
        My understanding is that Alan is critical of those who apply that strictly analytical approach to some perceived ideological issues, but not ones with which they agree.

        My observation: critics of modern hymn editing fall into one of two categories: one, people like you and me who find revisions lacking artistry, and two, people who object to modern developments like inclusive language and the prefer the use of archaisms like “ye,” no matter how well the revisions are done.

        To name a hymnwriter who is unsurpassed in ability to draw Scripture into the text, and do so poetically is Genevieve Glen. She’s the gold standard, imo

      2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #24:
        I don’t see the categories exactly that way. I would seem to fall into your first group because I get angry over modern hymn editing when revisions are not done well (as in Rita’s current example). But because I’ve found that “translating English into English”—making a bugbear of the word “thou”—leads to crude and amateurish revisions so much of the time, I seem like the people in your second group, urging near-100-percent abstinence from the practice. On the other (the third?) hand, I agree that inclusivizing language in hymns is based on considerations of justice and shouldn’t be dismissed as silly P.C.ness. Can you come up with another group for people like me, Todd? How many of us are there?
        I think the 1982 Hymnal handles the issues well. Literary integrity is respected, sexist language is usually revised tastefully, and the Episcopalians I know seem pretty happy with it. I hope the monks at St. John’s continue to rely on it.

      3. @Paul R. Schwankl – comment #29:
        It seems, then, that we are largely in alignment. I think I was addressing more Alan’s postings in that last comment.

        I think poets and artists with language can accomplish good things with editing old texts, and preferably, creating new ones as well. I don’t believe in creating idols of things and tools, even things and tools I personally like or from which I’ve benefitted spiritually.

    1. @Earle Luscombe – comment #20:
      I wouldn’t do anything differently – poetry uses hyperbole all the time. My fascination is with the extreme analytic approach to (perceived) problems in one line, but not applying that same type of analysis to what appears elsewhere.

      1. @Alan Hommerding – comment #21:
        Alan, I know you are very thorough and conscientious when considering hymn texts. But are you saying I’m suppressing discussion of other lines? Is it out of bounds to talk about *anything* if you don’t talk about *everything*? If that’s where you are going with this, I would have to disagree. In the blog format, unless it’s a full review, it’s quite normal and helpful to talk about one issue.

        You say you are interested in why one line, and not the same analysis elsewhere. OK, I can tell you why my post did not take apart any other lines. Focus. Brevity. I knew other people would bring up other items, as they have: “Ye” “Jerusalem” etc. As for having an “extreme analytical approach” I would not see this discussion as extreme. I would say it is altogether typical of many Pray Tell discussions in which particularities are considered, and people bring up various facts that bear upon the issue that’s on the table. Often a single fact connects up with myriad other subjects, as it has here. One fact is enough to start a discussion. It’s not the limit of the discussion, it’s only the starting point.

        If you want to talk about the warfare line, why not? You’re free to bring that into the thread. No one is stopping you. But you seem to be suggesting there is something noteworthy about the fact that it wasn’t in the post, and there I suspect you are reading more into this than is warranted.

  13. Rita – I didn’t mean my observations to be any sort of direct criticism of you. My sincere apologies, because – as I read back – I can certainly see why you would think that. It was not my intent, though I clumsily didn’t make that clear. I truly am sorry.
    In an earlier post, I used the expression “selective literalism” but should have amplified that by noting that in hymnic theology of the very late 20th c., this sort of thing tended to happen a lot. One particular line or device (royal imagery was often a favorite target) would be the focus, but the text as a whole – or another line/device that was equally archaic or whatever – would not receive similar scrutiny. It often reminded me of Jack Shea’s definition of theology: Faith scrambling for respectability.
    In the That-Wacky-Paraclete department (coincidence division), at our WLP editorial staff prayer this morning I was the reader – and the scripture was Isaiah’s comfort passage! Actually, the passage says God has paid TWICE for Israel’s sins; they aren’t merely “covered.” (There’s that hyperbole again!) I think that “sin twice-covered” or some other poetic expression would have been really great for that hymn text.

    1. @Alan Hommerding – comment #26:
      Thanks, Alan! Now I see what you were getting at. That’s a fair concern, and I understand you now.

      Interesting item about our sins “twice covered”!

  14. I’ve told the Holy Spirit a MILLION times to stop using hyperbole – but She just doesn’t listen!
    🙂

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