History of Hymns: "And Are We Yet Alive"
"And Are We Yet Alive"
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 553
And are we yet alive,
And see each other's face?
Glory, and thanks to Jesus give
For his almighty grace!
Whose face do you see when you hear this text?
For many of us who have served as delegates to annual conference, it may be the face of a longtime friend who has been absent from our sight for an entire year. And although there have been many troubles and conflicts "since we assembled last" (stanza 3), we are able to embrace each other in the fellowship we share in Christ and pick up right where we left off.
Charles Wesley (1707-1788) first wrote this hymn for his 1749 collection, Hymns and Sacred Poems. John Wesley included it in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodist (1780) at the beginning of the section titled, "For the Society... at meeting." Sometime around its appearance in the 1780 collection, Wesley began using this hymn at the opening of annual society meetings, a practice that has remained largely in use since. Every year around the world, Methodists gathered together in "holy conference" stand and sing the nostalgic strains of Wesley's text, recalling the journey of the last 12 months.
While John Wesley's decision to appropriate his brother's hymn text for holy conferencing assured it near immortality in the Methodist psyche, his editing significantly altered the theology of Charles' text.
Charles originally conceived his text in four eight-line stanzas instead of the six four-line stanzas we have today. Even the casual mathematician will already have noted that one of the original stanzas has been dropped.
The original four stanzas represent a progression through the Wesleyan "way of salvation." The first stanza reminds us that God's prevenient grace has been present with us, preserving and protecting us even in our absence from one another; the second that God's justifying grace has saved us from sin and imputed to us his righteousness. In the third stanza, we see that God's redeeming grace has saved us and starts the work of regeneration in us. The final (omitted) stanza reminds us that God's sanctifying grace continues to work in us until the day we finally meet Christ, moving us from our imperfect state to entire sanctification.
Charles' final stanza reads thus:
Jesus, to Thee we bow,
And for thy Coming wait:
Give us for Good some Token Now
In our imperfect State;
Apply the Hallowing Word,
Tell Each who looks for Thee,
Thou shalt be perfect as thy Lord,
Thou shalt be all like me!
It seems a shame to lose this powerful reminder that our final zeal is Christian perfection, all for the sake of a hymn that tells us we've been through "toils and snares" since we last saw each other.
Charles Wesley knew his Bible well and loved to pack his texts with scriptural allusions. With no fewer than 16 such references, this text is no exception.
While it may be hard to divorce this hymn from its "conferencing" ethos, its lectionary applications are many and a reinstatement of the fourth stanza (printed in the bulletin, perhaps) may give its Wesleyan theology greater emphasis and taper its nostalgic bent.
With this in mind, its strongest lectionary connection may be to All Saints Sunday (Year A), with its overall tone of commemorating the "gathered" communion of saints -- both of the visible and the invisible church. In an effort to underline the aspects of the text concerned with the soul's final destiny, pastors and church musicians should consider using a tune such as ST. MICHAEL or ST. THOMAS, rather than the quaint nostalgia of DENNIS (the tune used in the hymnal).