One of the frequent conversations held inside the esoteric world of hymn book editing is the use of supposedly archaic words such as: Thee, Thine, Thou and Thy. This issue reflects the general flattening of our language when it comes to the distinction between levels of personal intimacy. Most recently this has shown up in children and teen’s addressing of adults; especially in addressing their teachers by some form of their first name, whether or not it is proceeded with a Ms., or Mr. This over familiarity has blurred the line which once demarcated the youth from the adult. In several European languages there still exists a clear form of addressing a close friend or family member which is distinctively different from an address towards anybody else. And culturally, it requires a direct invitation to address someone with the intimate form.
One might assume that words such as: Thee, Thine, Thou and Thy, are a hyper formal form of address which is reserved only for religious usage. Nothing could be further from the truth. As our language has changed, we have not made everybody more intimate in our address (school children being excepted). Rather, we have made our intimate relationships no different in address than what is used for a total stranger. An address of “Thou” marked the greatest intimacy. It was reserved only for a lover, spouse, family member, or very close personal friend.
A true “Thou” intimacy is very rare in our lives, we may only have a handful during our entire lifetime. I had a “Thou” with my late, best friend Ralph Bus. Ours was a relationship built upon a complete openness and honesty and uncompromising love for each other. And yet we were as different as two men could be. He loved jazz, and well, I didn’t, but we shared a love of learning and exploring, so when I started to rent pianos to area jazz musicians, Ralph came along and loved getting to go behind the scenes. He also attended every concert I gave without fail.
“Thou” is characterized by a deathbed presence. When I received the call that Ralph had been taken to the Elmhurst hospital and was probably not going to survive the day, I raced to the hospital; getting my first speeding ticket of my life! If my dear friend had been awake, he would have died from laughing at me! But, alas, thou, my friend, we will have to wait for eternity to continue our exploration of our faith and what it means.
As rare as a true “thou” may be, we all have at least one “thou” and that is our Father who knows us better than we know ourselves. The use of Thee, Thine, Thou, and Thy in our hymns is not a religious formality, but a reflection of the greatest of intimacies. An intimacy which burrows into our very being and holds our heart in the strongest and gentlest of hands. So use the “Thou” to address our most intimate of friends, it is the most appropriate way to address the one who loved us so much, the gave his only begotten Son to the cross, so that all may know the love which passes all understanding. Amen.
O Sing a Song of Bethlehem
Text by: Louis F Benson 1899
Generally sung to: Kingsfold, a traditional English melody
Here is a YouTube recording: http://youtu.be/nRXvyIjWEHQ
O sing a song of Bethlehem, of shepherds watching there,
And of the news that came to them from angels in the air.
The light that shone on Bethlehem fills all the world today;
Of Jesus’ birth and peace on earth the angels sing alway.
O sing a song of Nazareth, of sunny days of joy;
O sing of fragrant flowers’ breath, and of the sinless Boy.
For now the flowers of Nazareth in every heart may grow;
Now spreads the fame of His dear Name on all the winds that blow.
O sing a song of Galilee, of lake and woods and hill,
Of Him Who walked upon the sea and bade the waves be still.
For though like waves on Galilee, dark seas of trouble roll,
When faith has heard the Master’s Word, falls peace upon the soul.
O sing a song of Calvary, its glory and dismay,
Of Him Who hung upon the tree, and took our sins away.
For He Who died on Calvary is risen from the grave,
And Christ, our Lord, by Heaven adored, is mighty now to save.
Louis F Benson (1855-1930) was born and lived most of his life in Philadelphia, PA. He attended the University of Pennsylvania and was admitted to the Bar in 1877 and practiced law until about 1884 when left the legal profession and started his theological studies. He was ordained as a Presbyterian Minister in 1888. In 1894 he resigned his position and devoted the rest of his life to literary efforts. He is most well-known for his work on hymnody, writing several books about the history of various hymns, collections of hymns, and translations of hymns. His personal library numbered over 9000 volumes upon his death.
Benson spent a considerable effort in editing the text of the most commonly used hymns in the English speaking churches. Before his work, changes and revisions had been made to many hymns to such an extent the original meanings and theology were often completely altered; as it continues to this day. He listed five characteristics which define a good hymn: 1) lyrical quality; 2) literary excellence; 3) liturgical propriety; 4) a tone of reverence; 5) spiritual reality. His editorial efforts were directed to returning the hymn text to their original versions as much as possible. He would allow for some alterations but demanded the changes fit his criteria of a “good hymn” and did no damage to the author’s original text.
While this hymn is often used exclusively during the Advent and Christmas seasons, it can just as easily be used throughout the year. Within its four short stanzas it traces the ministry of Christ from his birth in Bethlehem, life in Nazareth, his work in Galilee, and finally his death at Calvary.
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