“What are the three main festivals of the Christian Church Year?” I include this question for extra credit on my Catechism Class tests. How do you think the students do? Most of them get Christmas and Easter, but not many of them get Pentecost—at least not until year two.
One way our synod’s pastors emphasize these festivals is with a special exordium and hymn verse prior to the sermon. This tradition among Lutherans can be traced to the 16th century, and the Scandinavian Lutherans especially retained the practice through the centuries. By the time The Lutheran Hymnary was published in 1913, the hymns of Birgitte Katerine Boye were identified as the exordium hymns of choice for the major festivals.
Boye was born in Denmark in 1742, the oldest of seven children. She was a gifted student with a special love for poetry. Besides studying the great poems and hymns of Denmark, Germany, France, and England, she also wrote some hymns of her own. In 1773, now married and raising her four children, Boye submitted twenty hymns in a nationwide call for new sacred poetry. Her work was so well-regarded that after her husband became sick and died in 1775, Boye was hired by the king to collaborate on a new hymnbook for Denmark. When this hymnbook was published in 1778 (called Guldberg’s Hymnal after the editor), one-third of the book came from Boye’s pen: 124 original hymns and 22 hymn translations.
Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn!
A Savior unto us is born,
The Christ, the Lord of glory.
His lowly birth in Bethlehem
The angels from on high proclaim
And sing redemption’s story.
God’s great favor;
Bless Him ever
Give Him praise and adoration!
Boye’s hymn for Christmas Day repeats the joyful message of the angel: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12, KJV). Then the sky filled with the heavenly host singing, “Glory!” “Peace!” “Goodwill!” The hymn calls all believers to join in this song of praise. We extol God’s great love for us sinners, and we bless Him for sending His Son to win our salvation. Some of the beautiful pictures in this verse are lost in translation. According to Prof. Mark DeGarmeaux, the last lines of the hymn literally read, “feast your eye at the Dayspring from on high,” an allusion to Luke 1:76-79.
Boye paired her hymn with the melody Wie Schön Leuchtet (“How Lovely Shines the Morning Star”) by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608). When the text for this hymn is centered, it makes the shape of a Communion chalice. The Son of God who took on human flesh to save us brings us this salvation now through His Holy Supper.
He is arisen! Glorious Word!
Now reconciled is God, my Lord;
The gates of heav’n are open.
My Jesus died triumphantly,
And Satan’s arrows broken lie,
Destroyed hell’s direst weapon.
Life He giveth—
He was dead, but see, He liveth!
Boye’s hymn for Easter does not tell us at the beginning who is arisen, because every Christian knows who. Jesus, true God and Man, is the one who died and then rose on the third day. He “died triumphantly” because no one took His life—not the Jews or Gentiles, not the devil, not death (John 10:18). Jesus suffered the eternal punishment of hell for all people and laid down His life to atone for sin, but the grave couldn’t hold Him.
Jesus rose to declare His victory, and His glorious Word still rings out today. Through His death and resurrection, you are reconciled to God! The gates of heaven are open to you! Christ is victorious! His life is your life! His promise is sure: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26, NKJV). This festival hymn is again joined with the same melody by Nicolai.
O Light of God’s most wondrous love,
Who dost our darkness brighten,
Shed on Thy Church from heav’n above,
Our eye of faith enlighten!
As in Thy light we gather here,
Show us that Christ’s own promise clear
Is Yea and Amen ever.
O risen and ascended Lord,
We wait fulfillment of Thy Word;
O bless us with Thy favor!
Boye’s hymn for Pentecost is a prayer for God the Holy Spirit to shine the light of Christ’s work into our minds and hearts. As the Holy Spirit brought confidence and boldness to the apostles, we ask Him to do the same for us. Jesus promised the disciples that after ascending to His Father, He would send them the Holy Spirit. “He will guide you into all truth” said Jesus; “for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-14, NKJV).
With the hymnwriter we sing, “Show us that Christ’s own promise clear / Is Yea and Amen ever.” And the apostle Paul, writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, assures us, For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us (2 Corinthians 1:20, NKJV). The verse closes with a prayer to our Lord Jesus expressing the certainty that He will bless us through the work of the Holy Spirit. This hymn breaks the pattern of using Nicolai’s melody and instead utilizes a German melody from the 15th century.
Because of the departure from Nicolai’s melody, some have used the first verse from “O Holy Spirit, Enter In” (ELH #27) as an exordium hymn for Pentecost. Norwegian Synod pastor U. V. Koren did this in 1888, and others have done the same since then. But the handbook to the 1913 Lutheran Hymnary prescribes the use of Boye’s hymns for the three major festivals. In fact, the original intention for these verses, according to the 1778 Guldberg’s Hymnal, was that they be sung three times on a festival day and once per Sunday throughout the season.
This festival tradition of an exordium with Boye’s hymns is appreciated especially by church bodies with a Scandinavian Lutheran background. The 2013 hymnal of the Church of Norway retains each of these hymns, as does our synod’s Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary. Other synods have retained some of these hymns in their most recent hymnbooks. Boye’s Christmas and Easter hymns can be found in the Lutheran Service Book of the LCMS (#391, #488) and her Easter hymn in the new Christian Worship of the WELS (#461). Wherever they are used, these rich verses are a wonderful way to draw attention to God’s gracious work for our salvation on Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.
-Pastor Peter Faugstad
If you want to learn more about the festival exordium and hymn tradition, go to the “ELS Worship Essays” page and click on “The Festival Exordium” by Pres. Glenn Obenberger: https://els.org/resources/worship/els-worship-essays/.