History of Hymns: "Woman in the Night"
By C. Michael Hawn
"Woman in the Night"
by Brian Wren,
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 274
"Woman in the night,
spent from giving birth,
guard our precious light;
peace is on the earth!
Refrain: Come and join the song, women, children, men;
Jesus makes us free to live again!"*
“Woman in the night” has a striking incipit or first line that makes the singer want to explore the text further. This hymn traces the life of Christ -- birth through resurrection -- from the perspective of women whom he encountered.
Brian Arthur Wren (b. 1936) is one of the most acclaimed and published living hymn writers. He was born and raised in Romford, Essex, England. He holds two B.A. degrees (Modern Languages, 1960, and Theology, 1962) and a D. Phil. (1968) from Oxford University. The topic of his doctoral thesis was “The Language of Prophetic Eschatology in the Old Testament.” Dr. Wren was ordained in the United Reformed Church in Great Britain.
One of the four leading hymn writers from England who led the way for what has been called the “hymnic explosion” of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s – a movement that continues to this day – Brian Wren’s message is often prophetic and jarring, leading some to call him the “sandpaper” of the hymn writers of his generation. While his message is disturbing at times, it is also hopeful.
His hymns have been published in many hymnals, and he has authored additional books on the theology of hymns. The United Methodist Hymnal contains fourteenof his hymns. “Woman in the night” appeared first in his collection, Faith Looking Forward (1983).
Dr. Wren notes that this text started to form when he was attempting to write a Christmas carol “which I abandoned because it was stale and secondhand.” Having recently read Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s book, The Women Around Jesus, he started to think about some of these women. “They have always been in the gospel record, but my male-centered outlook had not noticed their importance. The song grew from there. I find that, depending on gender and experience, singers respond with surprise or recognition.”
In four short lines of five syllables each, each stanza paints a scene in which Jesus encounters a woman or women. Though the biblical accounts leave some of them without names, they are major players in the gospel drama, and their experience speaks to all. Thus, because Christ’s outreach is all-inclusive, these vignettes lead to a refrain where all – “women, children, men”—are invited to “join the song.”
Stanza one focuses on Mary, unnamed in the hymn, “spent from giving birth,” in Luke 2.
Stanza two recalls Jesus’ encounter with the woman with the issue of blood who was healed by Jesus (Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48). In a culture where interactions between men and women were limited, the poet says, “touching is allowed.”
Stanza three addresses the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:7-30. She is invited to “drink your heart’s desire.”
Stanza four recalls the unnamed woman (Luke 7:36-50) who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears – “love him with your hair.”
Stanza five remembers Martha, the “woman in the house” (Luke 10:38-42), and invites her to “leave your second place; listen, think, and speak!”
Stanza six addresses the “women on the road” who bore witness to the resurrection in Luke 23:55-24:10.
The Rev. Wren closes the hymn eloquently in the final stanza by reminding us that the women were last at the cross (John 19:25) and first at the tomb – “earliest to mourn; earliest to sing!”
This is a fine addition to the hymns that outline the life of Christ. “O love, how, deep, how broad, how high” (15th century Latin; United Methodist Hymnal, 267) and “Lord of the Dance” (1963; United Methodist Hymnal, 261) by Sydney Carter (1915-2004) also reflect on the life of Christ through key events. “O love, how deep” focuses on the actions and events of Christ’s life that, except for the Resurrection, are not duplicated in “Woman in the night.” Unlike “Woman in the night,” the only biblical figures mentioned in “Lord of the Dance” are men: “scribe and Pharisee”, “fishermen, . . . James and John” (stanza two); “holy people” (stanza three). While some may refer to “Woman in the night” as a “feminist” hymn, it is primarily thoroughly biblical. Dr. Wren enlarges our sung understanding of the scope and influence of Christ’s encounters and ministry.
Dr. Wren, now a citizen of the United States, retired in 2007 from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, where he was the first holder of the John and Miriam Conant Professorship in Worship. He holds the title of Professor of Worship emeritus at this institution. He has published at least eight collections of his hymn texts and two additional collections with his wife Susan Heafield, a United Methodist minister. Brian Wren’s hymns appear in virtually every English language hymnal published since 1980. He serves the church universal in many capacities including a parish minister, hymn writer, and lecturer.
A Fellow of the Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada (2001), he is the author of Praying Twice: the Music and Words of Congregational Song (2000), What Language Shall I Borrow? God-talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology (1989), and Piece Together Praise: A Theological Journey (1996), an anthology of his hymn poems, and seven words-and-music hymn collections.