History of Hymns: 'In Remembrance of Me'
By C. Michael Hawn
“In Remembrance of Me”
by Ragan Courtney
The Faith We Sing, 2254
“For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” (I Corinthians 11:23-25, KJV)
Four accounts of the Words of Institution appear in scripture—three in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20) and one from the epistles (I Corinthians 11:23-25). These words are central to the observance of the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or Eucharist, depending on the particular faith tradition. Two of these accounts include the sentence, “Do this in remembrance of me,” found once in Luke (22:19) and twice in I Corinthians (11:24 and 25). Most liturgies base their Communion narratives on I Corinthians, which uses these words after each of the elements, giving extra weight to “remembrance.” In countless churches, Communion Tables have this sentence etched into them, making the phrase visually dominant in the ritual space, even during worship when not observing Communion.
Ruston, Louisiana, native Ragan Courtney (b. 1941), a playwright, poet, and actor, provided a memorable paraphrase and interpretation of the Words of Institution. These words were enhanced with a musical setting by Buryl Red (1936–2015) in one of the most successful youth musicals of the last decades of the twentieth century, Celebrate Life (1972). Both Courtney and Red share Baptist roots, Courtney as an alumnus of Louisiana College (BA, 1964), and Red as an alumnus of Baylor University (BM, 1957). Courtney’s career has consisted of freelance work and positions at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville) as Associate Professor of Church Drama (1984–89) and Director of the Center for Christianity and the Arts, Houston Baptist University. He has published several books of poetry. Dove and Grammy award winner Cynthia Clawson (b. 1948) was the featured soloist on the original cast album of the musical. Clawson and Courtney were married in 1973.
Buryl Red, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, graduated from Yale University (MM, 1961) and was active as a composer, editor, orchestrator, producer, and consultant in venues throughout the United States, including Broadway as well as abroad. He founded the critically acclaimed male chorus, The Century Men, at the request of the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission in 1969 and served as its director until 2013 (Hammond, 1992, pp. 320-321; 433). He was the executive record producer of the most widely used music textbooks in the United States, Silver Burdett Making Music Series. Red received honorary doctorates from William Jewell College (Independence, MO) and William Carey College (Hattiesburg, MI). For the original recording of Celebrate Life, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_G7X3GTxeYA.
The Christian rock musical gained prominence with Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, which opened on Broadway in 1971. Webber and Rice preceded Superstar with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a rock musical comedy. Stephen Schwartz followed this with Godspell (1971), which opened off-Broadway. In contrast, the youth folk musical found its genesis in local congregations, especially among Southern Baptists, with the composition of Good News (1967) by Bob Oldenburg. The genre flourished throughout the 1970s. Both Ragan Courtney and Buryl Red made sustained contributions to Christian folk/rock musicals. In addition to Celebrate Life, they collaborated on several more musicals in the 1970s, including Acts, Beginnings, and Bright, New Wings.
Of their collaborations, the most popular was Celebrate Life. Of the musical’s songs, “In Remembrance of Me” is the most sung, primarily because of its inclusion in hymnals in a congregational form. Ragan Courtney provides the contexts for the words of the song:
I wrote “In Remembrance” as a song to sing during the acting out of the last supper. . . I was a relatively new Christian, and all of my writings were erupting out of my newfound relationship with the Lord. I remember being concerned that the lyric was just a trifle and not at all up to the occasion. Then I heard Buryl’s setting and I wept. His composition ennobled the words (Hammond, 1992, p. 165).
The lyrics are distinctive in that they combine a memorial understanding of the ritual with ethical action. Action is evident in the number of imperative verbs—fifteen in all! Stanza 1 begins with a direct paraphrase of Scripture: “eat this bread. . . drink this wine.” The stanza closes with an allusion to The Lord’s Prayer: “pray for the time when God’s own will is done” (Matthew 6:10). Stanza 2 expands the remembrance to Christ’s ministry: “heal the sick,” “feed the poor,” “open the door, and let your neighbor in,” the final phrase, an allusion to the second of the twin commandments to “love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27). The musical setting extends stanza 2, inviting the assembled to “take, eat, and be comforted” and “drink and remember me.” This extension not only parallels the Christian ritual actions where the minister invites the congregation to partake of the elements but also creates musical space for the drama in the original musical.
Stanza 3 extends the Communion message, continuing the series of imperative verbs: “search for truth,” “always love,” and “don’t look above, but in your heart, look for God.” While not created for congregational use, the simple, direct language balances the personal reflection that takes place with Communion (“look . . . in your heart for God”) with service to one’s neighbor.
Himnario Bautista (1978) was the first hymnal to publish the song in a congregational form in the Spanish translation, “En memoria de mí, pan comed” by Rafael Enrique Undaneta (b. 1941). The evangelical collections Hymnal for Worship and Celebration (1986) and the Baptist Hymnal (1991) followed. The congregational form appears in other evangelical hymnals, including The Celebration Hymnal (1997) and Baptist Hymnal (2008). Increasingly, other denominational traditions have found a place for “In Remembrance” in their hymnals and supplements, including the Chalice Hymnal (1995), The Faith We Sing (2001), and Glory to God (2013). It appears in several African American hymnals: African American Heritage Hymnal (2001), Lift Every Voice and Sing II (1993), and Zion Still Sings (2007). Most recently, the hymn appears in English and Spanish in the bilingual Santo, Santo, Santo (2019).
The power of this musical to unite the boomer and younger Xer generations of the 1970s was evident in the number of twenty-fifth anniversary reunion performances of Celebrate Life that took place in several locations in 1997 and that have continued to take place since then. With the fiftieth anniversary of the musical’s publication in 2022, more opportunities may surface. (See a recent blog by Maflake, February 25, 2020, https://maflake.com/2020/02/25/celebrate-life-again).
Paul Hammond, “Courtney, Ragan,” “In remembrance,” and “Red, Buryl,” in Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal, ed. Jere V. Adams (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992).
“In Memoriam: Composer and Conductor Buryl Red, 77,” Yale School of Music (April 4, 2013),https://music.yale.edu/2013/04/04/in-memoriam-composer-and-conductor-buryl-red-77 (accessed June 11, 2020).
Ragan Courtney: Playwright and Poet, http://ragancourtney.com/
“The Century Men: The Founder,” http://thecenturymen.com/about-us/the-founder/ (accessed June 11, 2020).
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.