History of Hymns: “Now the Silence”
By C. Michael Hawn
“Now the Silence”
Words by Jaroslav J. Vajda;
Music by Carl Schalk;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 619.
Now the silence
Now the peace
Now the empty hands uplifted
Now the kneeling
Now the plea
Now the Father’s arms in welcome*
*©1969 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Jaroslav Vajda (1919-2008) was one of the leading hymn writers in the twentieth century and arguably the preeminent Lutheran hymn writer of his generation. Vajda (pronounced vaheeduh) was born in Lorain, Ohio, the son of a Lutheran pastor of Slovak descent. Thoroughly Lutheran, he was educated at Concordia College and Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. He pastored several bilingual Lutheran parishes (Slovak and English) in Pennsylvania – Cranesville (1945-1949) and Brackenridge (1953-1963); in Indiana – Alexandria (1949-1953); and in St. Louis, Missouri (1963-1976). Jary (as his friends called him) served as the editor at Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis (1971-1986), editing the Lutheran Beacon, the magazine of the Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Churches (1959-1963) and the monthly religious magazine This Day (1963-1971). He retired as a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastor.
Vajda began translating classical Slovak poetry at the age of eighteen, and his work was published in the United States and Europe. He wrote his first hymn at age 49, followed by more than 225 original works and translations that now appear worldwide in more than 65 hymnals. He served on the Commission on Worship (1960-1978) that included participation on the hymnal committee for The Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), one of the most important later twentieth century hymnals. His own publications include They Followed the King, 45 meditations on biblical heroes of the faith (1964), Follow the King (1977), and books on the craft of hymn writing, including his own hymns, Now the Joyful Celebration (1987). Sing Peace, Sing Gift of Peace (2003) is a collection of his complete hymns and translations.
Elected a Fellow of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in 1988, Vajda received eight honorary doctorates validating his contributions to hymn singing, including an Honorary LLD from Concordia Seminary (1987).
Though “Now the silence” is the author’s most highly published hymn, “God of the sparrow God of the whale” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 122) also became one of the favorites of congregations during the publication of hymnals in the last quarter of the twentieth century. (See “History of Hymns: ‘God of the Sparrow.’”) “Now the silence” (1968) is one of Vajda’s signature hymns. First appearing in the Lutheran publication, This Day, in May 1988, this hymn is unusual in its construction, the entire hymn containing fourteen lines and with no punctuation. The author notes, “If there was one hymn text that proved a catalyst for my hymn writing, it was ‘Now the silence.’”
The incessant use of the word “Now” (sixteen times!) places the mystery of the Eucharist into the center of the singer’s consciousness. Furthermore, the descriptive language in the hymn is empirical – drawing us into a sensory experience, the essence of the embodiment of the Incarnation. The Lord’s Supper is no longer relegated to the past as a memorial event, but is a reality “Now” as we see “the vessel brimmed for pouring” and participate in “the joyful celebration.” Communion for Vajda is a manifestation of “the Son’s epiphany” through which we receive “the Father’s blessing.” For the complete text, see http://www.hymnary.org/text/now_the_silence_now_the_peace.
The music makes a significant contribution to the experience of this hymn. Carl Schalk (b. 1929), a leading Lutheran organist and composer, recognized the poem’s potential. The relationship between Vajda and Schalk has been one of the most enduring poet/musician teams of the twentieth century. As the author noted, “Carl Schalk’s collaboration with me on this hymn and others prompts an expression of appreciation to him and to all musicians, without whom… hymn texts, no matter how good, would die.”
In the Eucharist liturgy, the procession of the bread and wine usually takes place following the passing of peace. This hymn serves as a bridge between the passing of the peace and the greeting of the pastor, “The Lord be with you.” This hymn not only describes the elements as they are processed, but also offers a theology of the Eucharist. The hymn begins on an “unstable” chord – a chord that seems to indicate that it is part of a larger context – in the middle of the Eucharistic preparation. Furthermore, it ends with the melody on the fifth degree of the scale. Most hymns end on the home tone. In most Lutheran liturgies, the pastor initiates the opening dialogue, and the congregation responds. Dr. Schalk has provided the traditional pitch for the pastor’s intonation on the final pitch of the hymn which serves two purposes: (1) The song does not quite feel finished, seeming to lead into something else; (2) The pastor receives the pitch for the intonation for the opening dialogue (the sursum corda), forming a seamless transition from the passing of the peace, the procession of the Communion elements, into the Great Thanksgiving.
Dr. Schalk, professor of music emeritus for Concordia University, Chicago, collaborated with the Rev. Vajda for forty years. They were jointly commissioned to write 26 hymns including some of the best known. At the time of Dr. Vajda’s death, Dr. Schalk referred to the hymnwriter as “a good friend and talented poet. Jary had a remarkable ability to fashion a striking new image [and] to reshape an older one, recreating it in a way which brought fresh insight and understanding. One is always struck by the strong theological thrust of Jary’s texts – biblically grounded, theologically informed, and rooted in Trinitarian theology.”
Jaroslav Vajda’s obituary contains tributes by several prominent church musicians. The Rev. Carl Daw, Jr., then Executive Director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, called him “. . . the dean of hymn writers in North America.” Mark Lawson, president of MorningStar Music Publishers in St. Louis, lauded Dr. Vajda as “The poet laureate of the hymn world.” The poet deserves the last word on his hymns: “My hymns are what they are: poetic expressions of thanks to God. They are my grateful reaction – my praise and wonder and exclamation – to the love and glory of God.”
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.