Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'This is the Feast of Victory'

History of Hymns: 'This is the Feast of Victory'

By Denise Makinson

“This Is the Feast of Victory”
Words: Revelation 5:12-13; 19:5-9; trans. John W. Arthur, 1970
Music: Richard Hillert, 1975, alt.
The United Methodist Hymnal, 638

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:11-13 NRSV)

Richard hillert
Richard Hillert

In 1978, I was twelve years old and attending St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Lincoln, Nebraska. Members of our congregation were excited because we were introducing the new “green” hymnal, Lutheran Book of Worship. Our pastor loved to sing, and so he enthusiastically taught us the new hymns and liturgical songs included in the new hymnal. We had practice sessions as a church and with other congregations in town as we prepared to use our new hymnal in worship. Even my twelve-year-old ears heard some of the complaints from members about how some favorite hymns were left out, how lyrics were altered, or how they weren’t sure about these “new” songs. Still, I also remember the thrill of using the new hymnal for the first time and how the congregation sang the new liturgy with a full voice. “This is the Feast of Victory” with a new eucharistic musical setting by Lutheran composer and professor Richard Hillert (1923–2010) was especially fun to sing, and it seemed to unite hearts together.

Richard Hillert was born in a rural area in central Wisconsin. Although musical opportunities were scarce, he began taking organ lessons at age fourteen. He was also greatly influenced by listening to music on the radio, and he started composing songs based on the sounds he heard. Enrolling in Concordia Teachers College in River Forest, Illinois (now Concordia University), Illinois, at age twenty-four, he studied music composition and theory (BSEd, 1951). There he began to be noticed as a gifted composer and musician. After serving various congregations and completing his Master of Music degree and doctor of music degree at Northwestern University, he returned to Concordia College in River Forest to teach in 1959. During his thirty-one years of teaching, he became “one of the most widely known and highly respected members of the faculty” (Freeze, 2004, p. 6).

Composing music for the church was an essential part of Mr. Hillert’s life. He published three hundred musical works for organ, piano, choir, chamber ensembles, and orchestra, contributing musical settings of the liturgy for the Worship Supplement (1969) (Silhavy, Canterbury, n.p.). In 1967, he became a member of the Liturgical Music Committee (LMC) of the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship (ILCW) and the musical editor of the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW). At the LMC request, Mr. Hillert wrote Setting One of “The Holy Communion” in the Lutheran Book of Worship. The first publication of this setting was in Contemporary Worship 2 (1970). The first use in worship was at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, Illinois on Easter Sunday, March 30, 1975 (Young, 1993, p. 656). In some hymnals, the text and tune appear as FESTIVAL CANTICLE, a separate hymn removed from its eucharistic setting. This is the most well-known of his seventy original hymn tunes.

The hymn form has found an ecumenical home in several Catholic hymnals, and in hymnals for the Episcopalians, Moravians, Presbyterians (PCUSA), and United Methodists, among others. Hillert’s Communion setting, for which he is most remembered, is included in both of the more recent Lutheran hymnals, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) and Lutheran Service Book (2006).

Setting One of “The Holy Communion” in LBW, is, by all accounts, his crowning achievement in liturgical music for use by the congregation; it was also included, in slightly altered form, in Lutheran Worship (1982) (Divine Service II, First Setting). Its continued popularity, especially the Hymn of Praise (“This is the Feast of Victory”), attests to its durability and its ability to continue to inspire congregations large and small. His setting of “The Holy Communion” for LBW, which estimates suggest is used by five to eight million people throughout the world every Sunday—he considers his most significant contribution to the church. “This is the Feast” from Setting One of LBW, is found in hymnals of many denominations. (Freeze, 2004, pp. 7-8).

Hymnwriter Carl P. Daw Jr., comments on the success of this setting:

Much of the success of this setting is doubtless owed to the composer’s use of a responsorial style that allows for the stanzas to be sung by small groups or soloists, with the congregation joining in on the refrain. The higher register of the refrain’s opening calls forth a greater level of energy when it comes round again (Daw, 2016, p. 512).

In the late 1960s, Vatican II influenced church music and contributed to a search for “music for the people’s song” (Hillert, 2003, p. 333). Many churches began experimenting with folk- and pop-oriented settings for hymns and liturgy. The Liturgical Music Committee (LMC) explored and evaluated these new liturgical contemporary songs. The Committee decided that the people would sing all the music for the liturgies in the Lutheran Book of Worship and that they would not use a formulaic chant for the people’s part, as had been used in the previous hymnal, Service Book and Hymnal (1958) (SBH). Since the liturgical songs that Mr. Hillert composed for the Worship Supplement (1969) were in this spirit, the committee asked him to create a new liturgical setting for the Lutheran Book of Worship. Mr. Hillert writes: “The inclusion of Setting One of the Holy Communion in LBW was a greatly fulfilling experience in my career as a church musician. I continue to be grateful for the common purpose shared among fellow Christians with whom I was stimulated to plan and create and who accepted and supported my dutiful contribution” (Hillert, 2003, p. 341).

“This Is the Feast of Victory” is a eucharistic hymn. During the Easter season, Lutherans and some Episcopalians use this setting as the Song of Praise in place of the Gloria in excelsis (Daw, 2016, p. 512). Lutheran pastor and professor John W. Arthur (1922–1980) prepared the paraphrase of several passages from Revelation, one of several canticles he paraphrased for Setting One. Though he is the author of several hymn texts, Arthur’s paraphrase of these passages from Revelation gave him the most prominence. Several other notable composers set his paraphrase to music, though Hillert’s is by far the most used.

When celebrating Holy Communion in worship, the church gives thanks and praise to God for Christ’s victory over death. Through this victory, Christ is our king who reigns eternally. In the Old Testament story of the Passover, the lamb was sacrificed so that God would “pass over” sins. In this same way, Christ becomes the Lamb of God, and by his blood, we receive forgiveness for our sins.

This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

“This Is the Feast of Victory” is based on passages found in Revelation 5:12-13 and 19:5-9. It is a beautiful setting of songs that are sung in heaven praising Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, but who now lives and reigns for all eternity. In singing “This Is the Feast of Victory,” we join in what the saints are singing in heaven.

Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God.
This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

In this first stanza, we acknowledge Jesus as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. In awe and wonder, we celebrate his worthiness with the angels and archangels. In Revelation 5, Jesus is worthy to open the scroll and therefore brings salvation to all who believe in him. We respond in worship and praise to this good news.

Power, riches, wisdom, and strength, and honor, blessing, and glory are his.
This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Jesus has defeated sin, death, and the devil, and now he lives forever. We celebrate that all power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, blessing, and glory are his!

Sing with all the people of God and join in the hymn of all creation.
Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever. Amen.
This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

We not only sing with the angels and archangels, but we join with all creation in celebration. The very rocks will cry out if we don’t join the song.

For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia.
This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Because the Lamb that was slain has begun his reign, we sing “Alleluia” repeatedly. “Alleluia” is the ancient Hebrew word, Hallelujah, in its anglicized form. It means “Praise the Lord.” How fitting that we sing “Praise the Lord!” over and over again, as we marvel at this incredibly good news that Jesus has died for our sins, has risen from the dead, and now lives forever!

When we sing “This Is the Feast of Victory,” we are reminded that the church is indeed one. There is only one worship service in heaven and earth, and by God’s grace, we all participate in it. We join with all those sitting in the pews around us—whether we have weak voices or strong voices, whether we’re twelve years old or a seasoned member, whether we’re sure about these “new” songs or not—and we become part of the great choir that surrounds the throne of God. Our voices join the angels to proclaim, “Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain! Alleluia!”

Sources and Further Reading:

Carl P Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

James Freese, ed. This is the Feast, Richard Hillert at 80 (St. Louis, MO: MorningStar Music Publishers, 2004).

Richard Hillert, “About Setting One,” Currents in Theology and Mission 30:5 (Oct. 2003).

Michael Silhavy and Carlton Young, “Richard Hillert,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/r/richard-hillert, accessed June 29, 2020.

Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

Denise Makinson is Director of Worship and Music, Southwood Lutheran Church, Lincoln, NE, where she has served since 1994. A graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln (BM in Sacred Music) and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (MM in Organ Performance), she is a Deacon in the Lutheran Church (ELCA) and a member of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.

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