History of Hymns: “Come to the Table”
Come to the Table
by Claire Cloninger
The Faith We Sing, No. 2264
I served a Lutheran church in Dallas, Texas, which meant that we celebrated Holy Communion almost every week. The service seemed to be built around the ritual of the table. While the hymns, prayers, and Scriptures were proper to the liturgical day, the elements surrounding Communion changed according to the liturgical season. The offertory stood at the crossroads between the “Word” (readings, sermons, and prayers) and the “Meal,” with instrumental or choral music during the collection and a sung response to accompany the movement of the offering (both bread and wine and financial gifts) from the rear of the sanctuary to the front.
As we entered into the repeated ritual action, the offertory response signaled a distinctive liturgical shift. I cannot remember the number of times we sang “Come to the Table” to move from the pulpit to the Table. I do, however, remember the enthusiastic sound of sixty voices singing this song, holding to something tangible and familiar in the approach to the mystery of Communion. We didn’t sing this hymn in any other place in the service. It wasn’t an entrance hymn or a hymn of the day. With only one stanza, it couldn’t be considered a sequential hymn, nor was it cyclical — I can’t imagine repeating it like a praise chorus. It is a hymn of invitation, a communal declaration of identity in the sharing of bread and wine. It might be sung by one person inviting others, but it speaks more deeply when sung by many, remembering the unequivocal joining of the crucifixion (“nail-scarred hand”) with the finding of mercy through Communion.
The author, Claire Cloninger (b.1942), is the winner of six Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association. She has worked as an elementary school teacher, an advertising copywriter, a songwriter, and an author (Canterbury Dictionary). She has fourteen devotional/spiritual books to her name (including Making “I Do” Last a Lifetime, published in 2010, and Faithfully Fit, published in 2007), and she is listed as collaborator or writer on more than four hundred songs on CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International). She has written praise choruses, hymn tunes, and traditional hymn texts, of which “Come to the Table,” “Good Shepherd Take This Little Child,” “If My People’s Hearts Are Humbled,” and “While We Are Waiting, Come” are the best known. Since 1986, she has worked for Word Music Company; many of her songs appear in their publication, The Celebration Hymnal (Westermeyer, 2010, 308).
The tune paired with “Come to the Table” in The Faith We Sing, “TABLE OF MERCY,” was written by Martin J. Nystrom (b.1956), who is best known for the music and first verse of the hymn, “As the Deer,” found in The Faith We Sing, No. 2025 (Canterbury Dictionary). Asked in 1990 to write a hymn on the theme of Communion for a recording project with Integrity Music, Nystrom worked with Cloninger to construct something simple and, according to an email correspondence with him, “non-wordy.” The idea, he says, was to produce something that worship leaders could use to accompany the different parts of the service and, in this case, to focus on the taking of Communion, rather than on the song itself (Personal correspondence, 2017). The result is a ritually-specific hymn, one that functions only in recognizing its specific (and descriptive) context in the service.
“Come to the Table” is simply constructed, with its components serving to highlight the practical theology of the text. The first, second, and fourth phrases are virtually identical, making use of repeating eighth notes to give the sense of constant movement. These remind the singer that each of the text’s invitations (“come,” “receive,” “eat,” and “drink”) is not a stationary activity; rather, the singers are pulled into a direct encounter. This is especially noticeable in the contrasting third phrase, whose melody forms the climax (the highest note in the song) and whose harmony shifts solidly to minor. At this point, the reader/singer directly encounters Jesus Christ (“Come at the Lord’s invitation”), who is calling all people to the meal that he is hosting. It is only at the very end of the hymn that we actually physically eat and drink at the Communion Table.
The text’s structure parallels the ritual of the meal. Just as we would ask a host what we can contribute to a gathering, we offer our gifts and aid in preparing the Table of the Lord (the first phrase). Traditionally, this is followed by an exchange: to the presider’s, “The Lord be with you,” the congregation responds, “And also with you.” The following interchanges (known as the “sursum corda”) serve to affirm the mutual relationship between leader and guests, who recognize both the special designation of the presider as well as their equal membership in the congregation before God (the second phrase). The Great Thanksgiving follows a Trinitarian pattern, acknowledging the presence of God, the story of God’s salvation in the person of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit to give life to the world. This formula is bound up in the third phrase, compacted into the “nail-scarred hand”; the reference to the crucifixion encompasses the whole of the incarnation, death, and resurrection that symbolizes the ultimate revelation of God for Christians. It is at this point (in the fourth phrase), after having participated in this full ritual, that we are called forward to physically eat and drink — to formally enact the gracious experience of the banquet table.
For further reading:
Bert Polman/JRW/CY. "Claire Cloninger." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed August 11, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/c/claire-cloninger.
Bert Polman/CY. "Martin Nystrom." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed August 11, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/m/martin-nystrom.
Westermeyer, Paul. Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010.
Nystrom, Martin. Facebook Messenger correspondence. Received by Joshua Zentner-Barrett, 15 Aug. 2017.
Joshua Zentner-Barrett received a master of sacred music degree from Perkins School of Theology, SMU, in May 2017, where he studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. For more information about The Hymn Society, visit thehymnsociety.org.