History of Hymns: "O Blessed Spring"
By C. Michael Hawn
Susan Palo Cherwien
“O Blessed Spring,”
by Susan Palo Cherwien
The Faith We Sing, No. 2076
O blessed spring, where Word and sign
Embrace us into Christ the Vine:
Here Christ enjoins each one to be A branch of this life-giving Tree.*
The images of “O Blessed Spring” draw the singer into the seasons of life with warmth and beauty. Many hymns have a theological treatise to prove. Each stanza advances information like a legal case that culminates in a closing argument in the final stanza. By contrast, each stanza of “O Blessed Spring” unfolds like a bud into a blossom. The singer comes to the final stanza, not with the triumph of a well-made theological argument, but with a sense of wonder that comes from glimpsing sacred mystery.
The concept of the Tree of Life is pervasive around the world. The writer carefully distinguishes between the mythology associated with the Tree of Life theme throughout the ages and the Christian understanding of Christ the Vine and source of life from which we grow. Many religious traditions as ancient as pre-Islamic Persia, ancient Egypt, ancient Armenia, and Assyria include symbols of the Tree of Life. Buddhism has the tradition of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat when he attained Enlightenment.
Within the Christian tradition, one must distinguish between the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 2-3 where the fall of humanity took place, and the Tree of Life, a symbol of Christ himself. More recently, Pope Benedict XVI has said, “The Cross is the true tree of life.”
A baptismal image was the source for “O Blessed Spring.” Susan Palo Cherwien (b. 1953) describes her inspiration: “Above the baptismal font in Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Minneapolis hangs a striking bronze sculpture by the late Paul Granlund, a sculpture which embodies the image of John 15:5 ‘I am the vine; you are the branches.’ Granlund cast a tree with four branches depicting the four ages of human life, with Christ as the central trunk. This bronze provided the structure for the text ‘O Blessed Spring,’ the words of which are woven around a central Christ image.”
In stanza two of the hymn, Mrs. Cherwien equates the “summer heat” with “youthful years” and “uncertain faith, rebellious tears.” During the season of autumn (stanza three), the limbs of the tree are ripe with “heavy harvest.” This season offers “beauty, wisdom, love.” Stanza four explores the season of winter where “We breathe our last, return to dust.” Yet, “in Christ, our souls take wing”; thus the lifecycle is complete in the “promise of spring.” The final stanza introduces a baptismal, sacramental tone, the original inspiration of the hymn, in “this blest mystery” as
Word and water thus revive
And join us to your Tree of Life.
Mrs. Cherwien is a freelance writer and musician. She received her bachelor’s degree in church music and voice from Wittenberg University, her Abschlussprüfung (final examination) in voice from the Hochschule der Künste Berlin, and a Master of Liberal Studies from Mundelein College, where she focused on spirituality, ritual, and the arts.
Though the hymn has been set to music with another tune, the poet originally wrote the text so that it would fit the melody O WALY WALY, an English folk melody adapted in The Faith We Sing as THE GIFT OF LOVE.
Susan Palo Cherwien has written numerous hymn texts that appear in increasing frequency since 2000 in denominational hymnals in the United States and Canada. Her hymn texts are available from Augsburg Fortress in two collections, O Blessed Spring: Hymn Texts of Susan Palo Cherwien (1997) and Come, Beloved of the Maker (2010), as well as a compilation of vocal solos, To God Will I Sing: Vocal Solos for the Church Year (2001). She has other books of worship meditations and home devotions and articles on worship and music published in several journals. Recent publications include Crossings: Meditations for Worship (2003) and From Glory into Glory: Reflections for Worship (2009). She lives in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, with spouse David and sons Jeremiah and Benjamin.
Her reflection entitled “To Sing” is appropriate for those who participate faithfully and fully in congregational song:
is to open the heart
is to lay aside pretense
is to marry spirit and body and so honor both
is to send vibrations of beauty out into the universe
is to weep openly
to sing is to lose self in wonder
to dance before God
is to offer up
the fragrant smoke of incense
the sacrifice of thanksgiving
the raised hands
the heart of gratitude
is to open the heart
*Taken from O Blessed Spring by Susan Palo Cherwien, copyright © 1993 Susan Palo Cherwien, admin. Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission.
**© 2009 Susan Palo Cherwien, From Glory into Glory: Reflections on Worship (St. Louis: MorningStar Music Publishers), 45. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.