Across the Sky the Shades of Night

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If you find yourself in a gathered assembly of worshipers during the closing hours of December 31, you will have the perfect hymn for the occasion.
James Hamilton (1819-1896), a Scottish-born clergyman in the Anglican church, wrote this text specifically for a New Year’s Eve worship service. While we have other “specific-event” hymns in our hymnals, they are usually events in the context of planned public worship, such as Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving. But the New Year’s Eve service has been less common in our Anabaptist traditions, which may be why this text is less familiar.
The passing of a year always triggers a certain amount of reflection. We look back, in gratitude or sorrow, and we look ahead, with varying degrees of renewed hope. The Romans enshrined this idea by naming the first month of the year after Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. Janus was always depicted as having two heads—facing in opposite directions.
But looking both directions was not invented by Roman philosophy. The Old Testament walk of faith leaned heavily on the ability to reflect on past miracles as a source of strength for future victories. This reminiscing, as in Psalm 105 and 106, formed a central theme in their songs of praise.
Hamilton’s original text included both the cross and the altar as the physical objects in the sanctuary on which we gaze as we do our reflecting. The editors of our current version scrubbed out some sacramentalism by removing the altar, but the cross remains. Paul “gloried” in the cross, and every redeemed soul finds his gaze wandering often back to that pivotal event. It is, both personally and historically, the Ultimate Reflection.
The third stanza presents a lovely image: Gathering up memories of the year, as though flowers in a meadow. It is a quiet gathering, one that requires sitting still. We bow silently at the year’s end and stroll back through our memories, lingering briefly over many events—both pleasant and painful. Remembering lifts us above the rest of Creation. Dogs and daisies do not reflect on the past, as far as we know.
Then we look ahead to 2018 and beyond—“right onward through our journey home.” For some of us, 2018 may be the final leg of our pilgrimage. An omitted stanza directs us to “lift our eyes to dear ones gone before us”, with a wistful plea to be re-united some day.
The tune NUN FREUT EUCH first appeared in Joseph Klug’s 1535 collection called Geistliche Lieder[Spiritual Songs], printed in Wittenberg, Germany. We usually associate Wittenberg with a more prominent name of the Reformation, and indeed, Martin Luther may have written this melody. Most historians, though, tend to lean toward an anonymous folk tune origin.
What we do know is that this sturdy melody was matched to one of Luther’s earliest hymns, “Nun Freut Euch, Lieber Christen”[Dear Christians, Rejoice!]. The association of text and tune became permanent, and today this tune is interchangeably known as LUTHER’S HYMN or NUN FREUT EUCH.
The harmonization shown here contains a more challenging bass line than other versions. In fact, the downward bass leaps of the opening notes will rattle the self-confidence of the average congregational bass singer. The opening measure has a trap for beginning song leaders too. Not many hymns begin on beat 2 of 4.
But this majestic tune is easily worth a little practice! Don’t rush it; the bass singers need time to progress sedately from chord to chord. Musically, the composition is well poised and deeply satisfying. Lift your voice in the assembly of pilgrims and let it be a sublime expression of your courage to step into 2018.