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The Heavens Are Opened — Music Notes

Year A (January 8, 2016) | Baptism of the Lord — The Great Invitation, Week 1
by Rev. Jackson Henry

Order of Worship Preaching Hymns Music Notes Planning Prayers/Resources

 

“Down to the River to Pray”

Many now know of this American folk song because of its prominence in the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Though it quickly arose to popularity from the movie, it has deep meaning for people in relation to the sacrament of baptism. This hymn makes a wonderful procession and creates a lulling, walking rhythm. Its repetitive text also makes it an ideal choice to sing while walking without hymnals or songbooks. If singing this selection a cappella, don’t let the tempo drag. The processional nature of the hymn depends on a moderate, andante tempo that continues to beckon people forward. If it is being accompanied by a keyboard instrument, be sure not to play each chord in succession. For instance, in measure 2, play the first F Major chord and the last one at the most. Another example would be in measure 3, where the left hand should hold the first C/Bb for 1 ½ beats. Playing each chord as written makes it too choppy and keeps the character too tense.  Whatever happens, make it invitational!  Depending on the character of baptismal reaffirmation, this hymn also works as a processional as people come forward to touch the water and remember their baptism.  A melody-only, noncopyrighted setting of this hymn can be found here: http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/down-to-the-river-to-pray  *Please note: I (Jackson Henry) am the one who penned the copyrighted transcription. You have my permission to reprint it as needed. It is a public domain text and tune and should stay that way.

Down by the Jordan

This hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette combines a paraphrase of the worship scriptural narrative and commentary related to the Scripture. Because of this, it pairs exceptionally well alongside the Scripture reading in worship. As is suggested in the full service, sing the first two stanzas before the reading, and sing the last two stanzas after the reading as a segue into the sermon. LOBE DEN HERREN is a tune that demands singing with gusto!  The climax of each stanza occurs in measures 13-16 (with particular emphasis in measures 13 and 14), so make sure the music crescendos to this point, or at least builds in energy. The phrase that follows the climax will become more of a bold proclamation if measures 13-16 serve as a “heralding” to announce the message of measures 17-20. As an interesting commentary, see two of the phrases that are created musically with measures 13-14: “God will forgive!” “This is God’s sign!” This is a sermon in and of itself.

When Jesus Came to Jordan

In grace and style, Fred Pratt Green has also combined Scripture and commentary into one hymn. The use of this hymn seems to boldly inform the congregation of the direction for this season as well--the beginning of a journey that leads to Pentecost. As directed in the full service, sing stanzas 1 and 2 before the Scripture reading, and follow the reading with stanza 3 as a transition into the sermon. COMPLAINER is a great tune for this text and is easy to teach to a congregation because of its repetitive form: A A’ B A’. This means that almost 3 out of 4 phrases of each stanza are the same melody! There are other options that support the text well, however, including AURELIA, ELLACOMBE, MUNICH, and MERLE’S TUNE.

Let the Heavens Open

The use of this hymn after the sermon would be a wonderful way to bookend the message with Green’s text above. The final stanza of “When Jesus Came to Jordan” invites the Holy Spirit to “aid us to keep the vows we make.”  Jobe’s setting here begins with the statement to the Holy Spirit, “You are welcome in this place,” and follows with more urgent imperatives, such as “come,” “move,” and “breathe.” We also see the cosmological imagery of the heavens opening and all creation giving witness to the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  The tune is quite simple and is easily teachable among a congregation, but it must be sung simply.  Too often, these kinds of tunes are overcomplicated by instrumentalists who try to do too much (see the overplaying comment in “Down to the River to Pray” above).  Keep the accompaniment simple, and lead the congregation with a voice, praise team, or even an instrument with a voice-like character (i.e., a flute, violin, cello, oboe, or clarinet).  A piano doubling the melody can make things too precise and choppy.

Come to the Water

Placing “Come to the Water” at the baptismal reaffirmation can be a powerful sacramental statement. It serves as an invitation to the baptismal waters and to be a part of what the reign of God is about: deliverance from sin (both personal and corporate), which includes issues like violence and injustice. Being baptized means being claimed by God, and it is also a means of grace that leads us toward sanctification by taking the authority as a child of God, standing up against the evils of the world, and moving on toward perfection by loving God and one another. The best instrumentation with this song is a full worship band, but it can also be done with piano only or rhythm section (piano, bass, and drums). Even a piano with some added percussion--cajon (or other instrument with multiple pitch options) or tambourine--would work in many settings. However you sing it, proclaim it boldly!

We Would See Jesus

This hymn begins at Jesus’ birth and continues through his young life and ministry. Finding a place to use the entire song in a single worship service may prove difficult. However, this day marks a transition and a new beginning as we pivot toward Lent. Therefore, singing this hymn can be most appropriate. I have recently set this hymn to a fresh, new tune (in “old-time” or Appalachian style) that can be found here: http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/we-would-see-jesus. It is intended to be accompanied by an ensemble of acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and bass, but it can easily be adapted to an instrumental accompaniment of any combination of those instruments or simply piano. This piece can be sung congregationally or led by a soloist, but it is preferable to have a vocal trio to support the melody and harmonies. It may be possible to use this as a connecting theme song throughout the season after Epiphany. Read "History of Hymns: We Would See Jesus" »

Set a Fire

When reviewing this modern cyclic song as a part of Discipleship Ministries’ CCLI Top 100 Vetting Project, I remember commenting that it can be thought of as notably Wesleyan. The image of a heartwarming by the presence of the Holy Spirit is a part of the very lifeblood of Methodists and all Wesleyan Christians.  I would approach this song in the way it is intended--as a meditative chorus that beckons the work of the Spirit within us.  The ideal key for this song is G, and it can be accompanied by a number of different instruments, all the way from piano or organ to full worship band.  Keeping it simple might be a good way to present this to a congregation, and it would be very easy to have some treble and bass instruments improvise on an ostinato pattern during the singing of this hymn. Get children’s and/or youth choirs involved by teaching them the song and having them lead and model it for the congregation! They can also support with a variety of ostinato patterns to accompany the simple chord progression.

Open Up the Heavens

Another modern cyclic song, this Hillsong creation conjures the imagery of the heavens being opened and the glory of God falling upon the church and the world. There are obvious connections between the text and the Scripture narrative for this service, so this would be a timely choice. If you listen to this song online, you will notice a series of climaxes within the presentation, but the song is cyclic, and therefore malleable to the needs of worship. If it needs to remain quiet, let it be an opportunity for sung meditation. If there is a way to transition into an act of thanksgiving, then go for it and build to more of a climax. This song is easily accompanied by guitar, piano, or band. The ideal key for singing is G because it keeps the voice in a moderate range.

Other Suggested Hymns for Baptism of the Lord:

“Baptized in Water”                                          TFWS 2248
“You Are Mine”                                                TFWS 2218
“Come to the Waters” (Choral/Cong.)              GIA Publishing, G-6062
“Shout to the Lord”                                           TFWS 2074

 

Categories: Year A, After Epiphany, Week 1 - January 8, 2017