History of Hymns: 'As We Gather at Your Table'
By Allison Shutt
“As We Gather at Your Table”
By Carl P. Daw Jr.
The Faith We Sing, 2268
As we gather at your table,
as we listen to your word,
help us know, O God, your presence;
let our hearts and minds be stirred.
Nourish us with sacred story
till we claim it as our own;
teach us through this holy banquet
how to make Love’s victory known.*
*1989 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For me, there is nothing more compelling and inspiring than engaging in congregational song in worship. This embodied act invites all in attendance to share fully in an outward physical expression of inward grace. When we engage in congregational singing, we are not only participating in the proclamation of Word or doctrine, but we are also connecting horizontally to neighbor, vertically to God, and across the spans of time with the whole communion of saints. It is no wonder that music and congregational song accompany ritual actions such as Holy Communion. Singing during Communion enhances the congregation’s participation, further embodying the symbolism of the bread and cup as we, who are many, become one in song.
The hymn first appeared in the first collection by Episcopal Priest Carl Daw (b. 1944) A Year of Grace: Hymns for the Church Year (1990), from which it has been chosen for at least twenty-five hymnals and supplements. Daw, a native of Kentucky, found his way to Virginia attending the University of Virginia in Charlottesville for his master and doctoral studies (Watson and Young, “Carl P. Daw Jr.,” n.d.). After teaching English at the College of William and Mary, Daw received his M.Div. from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Subsequent to his ordination as an Episcopal priest, Daw served congregations in Virginia, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania (Brink, Carl P. Daw Jr., n.d.). Daw also served on the text committee for The Hymnal 1982 and as the executive director for the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada from 1996–2009. In addition to A Year of Grace, he has authored numerous hymns compilations including New Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1996), Gathered for Worship (2006), and Praise Rising into Song (2016). Most recently, he has been working on metrical paraphrases of all 150 psalms, Praise, Lament, and Prayer (2018, 2022).
Eastern Shore Chapel Episcopal Church (Virginia Beach, Virginia) commissioned Daw to write the hymn “As We Gather at Your Table” in 1989 for the parish’s tricentennial celebration.
Poetic and Theological Analysis
The rhyme scheme ABCB and Trinitarian structure undergird the poetic organization of the hymn. Daw devotes one stanza to each member of the Trinity. However, looking within each stanza, we also find allusions to the other persons of the Trinity. The most prominent example is Daw’s personification of Love representing Christ in stanzas one and three. Stanza one primarily addresses the Godhead, yet we see Love as being victorious, a clear reference to Christ’s victory over death through the Resurrection. Further, in the third stanza, in which the Holy Spirit is the primary addressee, Love is triumphant and welcoming. This exultant theme is a reference to the triumph of Christ on the cross (stated at the end of the second stanza) as well as Christ the host who extends us an invitation to the Communion Table. Love does not appear in stanza two only because Christ is the addressee. This stanza is “a reworking of the dismissal, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,’ from the Book of Common Prayer post-Communion prayers (Daw, 1990, p. 160). Thus, the author infers that the presence of the Holy Spirit who sends the congregation forth, imparting them with Christ’s compassion.
The goal of this hymn, steeped as it is in Trinitarian theology, is to connect intimately Word and Table by interweaving imagery of both. Daw intentionally mixes Word and Table to elevate the centrality of preaching and the Eucharist and to promote “a deep conviction that we are fed through hearing God’s Word read and preached and that we proclaim the Good News by sharing the consecrated Bread and Wine” (Daw, 1990, p. 160). For example, Daw uses table imagery, “As we gather at your table,” followed by a reference to preaching, “as we listen to your word.” The repetition of “as we” immediately establishes a connection between the two acts, setting the tone for the rest of the hymn. The verbs “gather” and “listen” indicate an embodied faith, a theme that continues further in the stanza as the congregation claims the faith as their own, modeling the life of Christ as witnessed through worship. Daw continues to weave Word and Table together as the congregation is nourished with “sacred story,” a reference both to the preaching of a sermon as well as the Great Thanksgiving in which the story of Christ’s life and sacrifice is retold. Daw’s use of alliteration helps to underscore key points in each of the stanzas.
Continuing with the theme of embodiment and modeling, the second stanza begins with “worship” being turned into “witness,” as the congregation is encouraged to emulate Christ as we “forgive” as Christ “forgave” (a reference to one of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer), so that we may invite the “last and least” to the table in the third stanza. The “last and the least” are children of God who hold within them the imago dei, an allusion at the end of stanza two. It is worth noting that these images of God are not limited to humans and the imago dei. Instead, the stanza mentions the “world you died to save,” allowing for the whole order of creation to be restored in Christ.
The third stanza (based on Matt 22:1–10; Luke 14:16–24) nicely bookends this hymn, as the act of summoning in the first line complements the act of gathering in the first stanza (Daw, 1990, p. 160). Here we find the hymn comes full circle as the journey from the table to the world, returns to the table. It is through Word and Table that the congregation is equipped to go out into the world to extend God’s love. This love establishes community and pulls us back to worship. Responding to the occasion for which the hymn was commissioned, the author inserts the motto of the celebration, “Repeat the sounding joy,” in the third stanza. In doing so, he pays homage to Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalms 96 and 98 sung at Christmas, “Joy to the world.” and invites all to participate in the eschatological banquet “with saints and angels to repeat the sounding joy” (Daw, 1990, p. 160). Through this text, Daw ultimately conveys the centrality of Word and Table in establishing connections vertically to God and horizontally to neighbor.
Though David Hurd (b. 1950) wrote the tune EASTERN SHORE CHAPEL to accompany Daw’s text, his tune seems to be available only as an octavo through GIA Publications. The numerous hymnals that contain this hymn written in 220.127.116.11 D substitute Hurd’s melody for popular hymn tunes such as HOLY MANNA, RAQUEL, or IN BABILONE, which Daw suggests in A Year of Grace (Daw, 1990, p. 160). Other popular tunes paired with this text include, according to Hymnary.org, NETTLETON, BEACH SPRING, PLEADING SAVIOR, and ECCE, DEUS. NETTLETON seems to be the most prominently printed tune followed by RAQUEL and HOLY MANNA. The Faith We Sing pairs this hymn with RAQUEL, a tune written by Mexican American church musician Skinner Chávez-Melo (1944–1992). Chávez-Melo wrote the hymn tune to accompany another of Daw’s texts (“Surely it is God who saves me”), which was to debut in The Hymnal 1982. However, Chávez-Melo’s tune, written to honor his close friend and mentor, Raquel Gutiérrez-Achón, was ultimately paired with another text (“Sing of Mary, pure and lowly”) (Silhavy, “Skinner Chávez-Melo,” n.d.).
RAQUEL is in A-flat Major, containing several intervallic leaps that are immediately balanced with stepwise motion. The tune is composed of two phrases that begin with the same melodic figure. Within these two large musical phrases there is a smaller melodic phrase, one measure long, that is repeated (mm. 4–6, and mm. 11–12). This tune, like NETTLETON, is set in triple meter and begins with an anacrusis. This rhythmic meter slightly alters the trochaic poetic meter of the text, increasing the emphasis of some syllables, by deemphasizing others. The triple meter with an anacrusis places the stress primarily on the third and seventh syllables of each line. Paired with Daw’s text, this most often aligns with either verbs such as “gather,” “listen,” “worship,” or important nouns such as “Christ,” “Spirit,” “guests,” and “feast.” These imposed musical accents serve to support the poetic meter and highlight major themes of the text, enhancing the overall meaning. This accented syllabic pattern is different when paired with a tune in duple meter such as HOLY MANNA or IN BABILONE. The duple musical meter preserves the poetic meter of Daw’s text at the expense of its meaning. Therefore, one should be aware of how tune choice affects the overall impact of the hymn.
Emily Brink, “Carl P. Daw Jr.,” Hymnary.org. https://hymnary.org/person/Daw_CP (accessed May 20, 2021).
Carl P. Daw, Jr., A Year of Grace: Hymns for the Church Year (Carol Stream: Hope Publishing Company, 1990).
Hymnary.org, “As We Gather at Your Table,” https://hymnary.org/text/as_we_gather_at_your_table (accessed May 20, 2021).
Michael Silhavy, ”Skinner Chávez-Melo,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/s/skinner-chávez-melo (accessed May 20, 2021).
J Richard Watson, “As We Gather at Your Table,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/a/as-we-gather-at-your-table (accessed May 20, 2021).
J. Richard Watson and Carlton R. Young, “Carl P. Daw, Jr.,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/c/carl-p-daw,-jr (accessed May 20, 2021).
Allison Shutt is a graduate of the Master of Sacred Music program, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where she studied hymnology with Dr. Marcel Steuernagel. A native of Davidson, North Carolina, she is pursuing bivocational ministry as a middle and high school band director and seeking ordination as a deacon in The United Methodist Church.