Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'View the Present Through the Promise'

History of Hymns: 'View the Present Through the Promise'

By Victoria Schwarz and Wilson Pruitt

Thomas H. Troeger

“View the Present Through the Promise”
by Thomas Troeger
Worship & Song, 3048

“View the Present Through the Promise” is found in the “Promised Coming” section of the hymnal Worship & Song. It is often true that the Advent sections of hymnals include proleptic hymns—those that parallel the historical waiting for the Messiah with the eschatological hope of the present day. That is certainly the message of this thoughtful text by the poet and homiletics professor Thomas H. Troeger (b. 1945).

Troeger was born in New York, and he has degrees from Yale University (1967) and Colgate Rochester Divinity School (1970). He has received two honorary doctorates— one from Dickinson College (1993) and the other from Virginia Theological Seminary (2001). When he was a young pastor, he served New Hartford Presbyterian Church until 1977. It was then that his career as a professor began with appointments at Colgate Rochester/Bexley Hall/Crozer Theological Seminary (1977–1991), Iliff School of Theology (1991–2005), and Yale Divinity School/Yale Institute of Sacred Music (2005–2015). Troeger is a prolific author (at least 20 books), an accomplished poet (with hymns included in most Christian hymnals), a virtuosic musician (flute), and a respected preacher (Watson, “Thomas Troeger”). After retiring in 2015, he resides in Maine. He was elected a Fellow of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in 2019 (McMahon, “Thomas H. Troeger,” n.p.).

“View the Present Through the Promise” (1986) was written as a response to a call for new Advent hymns by The Hymn Society of America. It was published first in New Hymns for the Life of the Church: To Make Our Prayer and Music One (1992) and then republished in Borrowed Light (1994) [Watson, “View the Present Through the Promise”]. The text is based on Matthew 24:42–44 (NRSV):

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

The thoughtful text of this hymn grounds present concern in eschatological hope or hope in the last things. The promise of Christ is stronger than present circumstances, and one should live life into the promise of Christ, as Troeger states directly at the beginning of stanza 3: “match the present to the promise, Christ will come again.”

Liturgically, the hymn fits snugly into the true meaning of the season of Advent, translated from Latin as “to come”—as in, what is to come, as in Jesus. Advent is as much a forward-looking season as much as it is a backward-looking season. The hope is not just in our past with the birth of Jesus, but in our future, when Jesus comes again. The first Sunday in Advent, in all three years of the lectionary, has a Gospel text pointing to the Day of the Lord with Christ’s second coming (Year A: Matthew 24:36–44 [cited above], Year B: Mark 13:24–37, Year C: Luke 21:25–36). With the rush to Christmas found across Western culture and the consumerist appropriation of Christmas flooding the senses, this hymn thwarts the temptation to fill Advent with nostalgia, saying, “No.”

The active tense throughout the text points to the active nature of Advent: “view,” “probe,” “match,” “trust,” “lift,” “make.” Advent is not a passive season of memory, but an active time of hope and striving and purpose, for “Christ will come again.”

“View the Present Through the Promise” is set in Worship & Song to the hymn tune AR HYD Y NOS, a traditional Welsh folk tune. The words most people know to the repeating portion of the tune are “All Through the Night,” which offers two lovely features: first, a gentle ascending line for the words “Christ will come again,” and second, a connection between the folk song’s frequent reference to night and the opening stanza that speaks of “deepening darkness.”

The tune originally composed for this text was HOMILETICS by Episcopalian organist and professor Carol Doran (b. 1936). Another hymn tune that frequently accompanies this text is FRANKLIN PARK, written by Reformed musician Roy Hopp (b. 1951) specifically for the text. The first phrase is centered in G major, which gives a nice lift and strength to the “promise” of God. The second phrase centers in the relative E minor and gives a sense of the deepening darkness, but then lifts the singers to higher pitches to strengthen the statement, “Christ will come again.” The third phrase uses a two-part sequence that starts high as we “lift above,” but then goes lower in pitch as it returns to the work we must do. The final phrase leaps up as the words “hope past hope’s” are being sung and then ends firmly on the tonic—a reminder that the promise of Christ’s return is sure.

For further reading:

M. Michael McMahon, “Thomas H. Troeger Honored as Fellow of the Hymn Society,” The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (July 2019), https://thehymnsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Troeger-Draft-Release-final.pdf (accessed November 12, 2020).

Ray Waddle, “Professor Tom Troeger Retiring on a Song and a Prayer,” Yale Divinity School (May 8, 2015), https://divinity.yale.edu/news/professor-tom-troeger-retiring-song-and-prayer (accessed November 12, 2020).

John Richard Watson, “Thomas Troeger.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/t/thomas-troeger (accessed November 12, 2020).

John Richard Watson, “View the Present Through the Promise.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/v/view-the-present-through-the-promise (accessed November 12, 2020).

Victoria Schwarz is a provisional deacon in the Rio Texas Conference and Minister of Music at Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas. She is active in the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.

Rev. Wilson Pruitt is the pastor of Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Duke Divinity School, Rev. Pruitt is passionate about the theological and formational aspects of hymns at the intersection of faith and practice in the liturgy of the church.

This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.
For more information about The Fellowship, visit https://www.umfellowship.org.

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