Martin Luther’s Favorite Christmas Hymn?

This woodcut was printed on the page before the hymns “Dies est laetitiae” and “Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich” in the 1535 edition of Luther’s Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert.

The final section of the 1535 Wittenberg edition of Martin Luther’s Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Spiritual Songs, Improved Edition), and possibly also of its no-longer-extant 1529 predecessor, was prefaced, “Here follow several hymns composed by the ancients.” The next page read:

These songs of old on the following pages we have also compiled as a testament to several pious Christians who lived before our time in the great darkness of false doctrine, so that you can see how there have still been people at all times who have known Christ rightly and quite amazingly persevered in that knowledge by God’s grace.

The section opens with the Latin Christmas hymn “Dies est leticiae” (Dies est laetitiae) in four stanzas, immediately followed by a loose German translation of that hymn under the title “Der tag der ist so frewden reich” (Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich). The first two stanzas of the German hymn read as follows:

Der tag der ist so frewden reich
aller creature
Denn Gottes Son von himel reich
uber die nature
Von einer jungfraw ist geporn
Maria du bist aus erkorn
das du mutter werest
was geschach so wunderleich?
Gottes Son von himel reich
der ist mensch geporen.

Ein kindelein so löbelich
ist uns geporen heute
Von einer jungfraw seuberlich
zu trost uns armen leuten
Wer uns das kindlein nicht geporn
so wer wir all zumal verlorn
das heil ist unser alle
Ey du süsser Jhesu Christ
das du mensch geporen bist
behüt uns für der helle.

Even though the hymn includes two more stanzas, these first two are the most significant. Each might have appeared independently of the other, and each was often used as its own hymn at first. The second stanza, for instance, was sung by itself after Luther’s sermon on Christmas Eve in 1531.

In fact, one could easily surmise that the second stanza was Luther’s favorite Christmas hymn. He quoted it at least five times in his Christmas sermons. He was no doubt responsible for the paragraph above which cited this hymn, among others, as proof of the perpetuation of the correct knowledge of Christ even in the darkness of the papacy. In the just-mentioned 1531 Christmas Eve sermon, the first of a series on Isaiah 9:6, he quoted it and then commented:

But no one knows what’s being sung. You should be able to sing this song from the heart and not snore so much while you’re singing it, like the world does. It is taken right from the prophet Isaiah.

The following year, in his morning sermon on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, he commented on the hymn more extensively:

Now the angels point to him with their song [like the prophets did in their writings] as the one who does it all and in whom all that we need is found. Their song beats back all the devils who wish to lead people to salvation in a different way. If this newborn child is the Savior, then the Franciscan, Augustinian, and Carthusian orders are most certainly not.

And actually the whole world has cried out against Mary and the priests and monastic orders, and the priests and monks themselves have sung against her at their altars and cried for judgment on their own necks, and we did too. And still today the angel’s words, “A Savior has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord,” are sung in all the churches in the beautiful song “For Us Today Is Born a Child [Ein Kindelein so löbelich].” For what do we sing? “Were he not born, we all had dwelled In fear and fire, from God expelled— Salvation’s ours forever!”

And what does that mean—“we all had dwelled”? Whoever composed this song was a spiritual man, and everyone, both young and old, sings his song. It is a song that glorifies and praises Christ and cries for judgment on all the monks and priests, since when it says “we all had dwelled,” it includes them too. Therefore throughout the world a public judgment of condemnation is sung by every mouth against those who lead people away from Christ, yet no one was able to realize this and no one still does. It is sung everywhere.

Therefore, as I have often urged you, ask God to provide faithful preachers, otherwise, unless he himself should rouse the people, we will keep on singing and reciting those words, but we will not understand them. They are supposed to be aroused in the sermon, from the Gospel, from the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the sacraments, and the canticles. Even the adversaries have all these things that we have—baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, the angel’s song, and the child in the manger. But since they are lacking a man in the pulpit who will open the people’s eyes and make the words in the text clear, so that they know what it says, they consequently have these things in a manner of speaking, but they do not really have them.

Both stanzas date back to at least the early 15th century, and the tune likewise dates to the same century. The Lutheran Hymnal (Concordia Publishing House, 1941) included W. Gustave Polack’s 1940 translation “Hail the Day So Rich in Cheer” (#78). The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELS, 1996) also includes it (#131) with a livelier version of the tune, stanza 1 being an altered version of Polack’s translation – “Now Hail the Day So Rich in Cheer” – and stanza 2 an altered version of a translation by C. Døving (1867-1937). The Hymnary’s version did have some influence on my translation below.

This hymn deserves to be resurrected in any circles in which it is not currently popularized. The content is rich, and especially the Hymnary’s setting of the traditional tune is both very joyful (and thus a fitting reflection of the text) and eminently singable.

This Day! So Filled with High Delight
A new translation of Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich and Ein Kindelein so löbelich

1. This day! So filled with high delight
For ev’ry earthborn creature!
God’s Son, from realms of heav’nly light
Beyond the world of nature,
Is born into the human race
Of Mary, God’s own choice of grace
To be the virgin mother.
What awesome, wondrous deed is this?
God’s Son, from realms of heav’nly bliss,
Came down to be our brother!

2. For us today is born a child,
A perfect son so peerless,
Of Mary, fair maid undefiled,
To cheer mankind so cheerless.
Were he not born, we all had dwelled
In fear and fire, from God expelled—
Salvation’s ours forever!
To you, sweet Jesus, glory be
For sharing in humanity!
Let hell subdue us never!

Sources
Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary Handbook

The Free Lutheran Chorale-Book

Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Geschichte des Deutschen Kirchenliedes bis auf Luthers Zeit (Hannover: Carl Rümpler, 1854), pp. 196-197

Martin Luther, ed., Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Wittenberg: Joseph Klug, 1535)

Martin Luther, Luther at the Manger (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2017), pp. 8-10

Philipp Wackernagel, Das deutsche Kirchenlied von der ältesten Zeit bis zu Anfang des XVII. Jahrhunderts, vol. 2 (Leipzig: Druck und Verlag von B. G. Teubner, 1867), pp. 520-527

Weimarer Ausgabe 36:399-400; 52:50-51

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Hymn of Comfort for an Exile

By Joseph Schaitberger

Translator’s Preface

In Professor Wagenmann’s article on Joseph Schaitberger in the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, he identifies Schaitberger’s Salzburg Exile Hymn as “his most well-known.” “[It] reflects both every aspect of the distress experienced by those witnesses to the faith and their gospel-centered comfort, in simple, poignant words.”

A depiction of the Salzburg Emigrants from the front of Christoph Sancke’s Ausführliche Historie Derer Emigranten Oder Vertriebenen Lutheraner Aus dem Ertz-Bißthum Saltzburg, vol. 1 (Leipzig, 1732). The passage on the top is Matthew 24:20: “But pray that your flight does not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.” A sermon by Luther on this section of Scripture was one of the emigrants’ inspirations. The man on the left is carrying a sack on which is written: “God is with us in distress” (paraphrase of Psalm 91:15). In his arms are the Augsburg Confession and Johann Arndt’s True Christianity, a popular devotional work. The lady is carrying a sack on which is written: “The Lord has done great things for us” (Psalm 126:3). In her arm is a Bible. The rhyme on the rectangular scroll reads: “Because of faith in grace alone | We banished are to lands unknown. | We leave behind our fatherland, | Still safely in our Father’s hand.”

“Those witnesses to the faith” include primarily two waves of Lutherans exiled from the Archbishopric of Salzburg. A group of 1000+ were exiled by Archbishop Maximilian Gandolf between 1684 and 1686, with 600+ of their children, including Schaitberger’s children, being confiscated from them. And a group of 30,000+ were exiled by Archbishop Leopold Anton von Firmian between 1731 and 1734, around 12,000 of whom emigrated in 1732 to Prussian Lithuania in the area in and around Gumbinnen (present-day Gusev, Russia), where King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia gave them a good start to a new life. Archbishop von Firmian’s original edict of explusion was signed on October 31, 1731 – a deliberately insulting way to “celebrate” the 214th anniversary of the Reformation – and publicly read on November 11, the anniversary of Martin Luther’s baptism. The 1731 edict also implied confiscation of children under 12 years old. Some of the harsher stipulations of his edict were later mitigated under pressure from the Protestant states in Germany, but it does appear that many children were forced to stay behind.

I translated Schaitberger’s Exile Hymn on the basis of the text as printed in his Neu-vermehrter Evangelischer Sendbrief (Nuremberg, 1733), pp. 131-133. The hymn is not found in the original 1710 edition of the Sendbrief, and thus it appears that Schaitberger composed it specially for the 1732 emigrants, on the basis of his own experience and the facts of the 1731 expulsion as he knew them. Schaitberger himself recommended singing it to the tune of “Ich dank dir schon durch deinen Sohn” or “Hör, liebe Seel, dir ruft der HErr!” (four melodies given on pp. 154-155 here). My only hesitation in presenting it is my rhyming of “unerring” with “unsparing” in st. 7, which I know some linguistic perfectionists will not appreciate. Nevertheless, dictionaries do legitimize both pronunciations of “unerring.”

Multiple sources say that Schaitberger’s hymn was one of the most oft-sung hymns by the emigrants during their journey. The emigration created a sensation especially in all the cities and towns through which the emigrants passed. Many townspeople sang with them in the town squares. The aging Schaitberger himself was able to greet some of the exiles in Nuremberg; one can easily imagine him singing his hymn with them or teaching it to some of them.

Hymn of Comfort for an Exile

1. I am an exile, sadly banned—
This my new designation—
From cherished home and fatherland—
God’s Word the sole causation.

2. Yet I, Lord Jesus, contemplate
Your like humiliation.
If I now you must emulate,
Fulfill your inclination.

3. Through foreign streets I now must stray;
A pilgrim I am branded.
Therefore, my Lord and God, I pray
You never leave me stranded.

4. Stay with me, mighty God, I plead;
To you I am commended.
Forsake me not in all my need,
Though life itself be ended.

5. Freely the faith did I confess—
What cause, then, for compunction?
Let men me “Heretic!” address
And seek my life’s expunction.

6. Fettered and bound in Jesus’ name—
What honor such expulsion!
Thus not my crimes, but this to blame—
True doctrine’s vile revulsion.

7. Though Satan and the world divest
Me of my means unsparing,
This jewel I’ll ne’er be dispossessed:
God and the faith unerring.

8. With your will, Lord, I shall agree,
Patiently persevering.
I shall subscribe to your decree
Willingly, without fearing.

9. Though I should stay in misery,
I shall not show resistance;
Still, God, do give good friends to me
E’en in the far-off distance.

10. Time now, in Jesus’ name, to leave;
All has from me been taken.
Yet I know one day I’ll receive
The glorious crown of heaven.

11. So step I from my house away
New, foreign streets to wander.
But Lord, my children! Forced to stay!
I sigh and sob to ponder.

12. Please, let my new town be a site
Where your Word is permitted;
By it my heart, both day and night,
Shall then be benefited.

13. If in this vale of tears I must
Live in prolonged privation,
In heaven God will give, I trust,
Far better habitation.

14. The man shall here remain disguised
Who did these verses fashion;
He papal doctrine has despised
But Christ professed with passion.

Joseph Schaitberger: Life and Work

By Julius August Wagenmann

Translator’s Preface

Portrait of Joseph Schaitberger, sketched by P. Decker ad vivum and printed by Martin Engelbrecht in 1732

Until recently, the term “Salzburgers” as it relates to Lutheran history had completely escaped me, to my own detriment. The history of Lutheranism in the former Archbishopric of Salzburg (whose land now comprises part of Austria since being annexed in 1805) is one of repeated persecution, dating back to the expulsion of Paul Speratus in 1520, for expressing his evangelical views too openly, and the beheading of Georg Scherer (or Schärer) in Radstadt on April 13, 1528, for refusing to recant the Lutheran doctrine he was preaching. There were also exiles decreed in 1588 and 1613-15.

The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 was supposed to put an end to such persecution, but in the Archbishopric of Salzburg it did not. The article below – translated from the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker & Humblot, 1890), vol. 30, pp. 553-555 – describes the cruel banishment of Joseph Schaitberger and more than 1000 others in 1685-1686. And thus Joseph Schaitberger became an inspiration to the many more thousands who were banished by a later archbishop on October 31, 1731 (not a coincidental date), and who emigrated in 1732.

God willing, this is the first in a series of translations pertaining to Schaitberger and the Salzburg exiles that will appear here. I pray that these translations remind us just how precious our gospel-centered faith is, and strengthen us in the conviction that it is founded on the pure Word of God and is therefore worth any distress we might have to undergo for believing it and sharing it.

Joseph Schaitberger: Life and Work

Joseph Schaitberger, as depicted in a 1733 Nuremberg edition of his Neu-vermehrter Evangelischer Sendbrief, probably based on the portrait above.

Schaitberger: Joseph S. (or Scheitberger), Salzburg exile and evangelical author of devotional literature, born on March 19, 1658, in Dürrnberg by Hallein in the Salzkammergut, died on October 2, 1733, in Nuremberg. — His parents were the peasant and miner Johann Schaitberger and Magdalena née Danner from Berchtesgaden, both devoted to the evangelical religion, which had already found acceptance in Salzburg territory in the 16th century and from then on always had many secret allies among the mountain dwellers. Educated in reading and writing by his brother, who was schoolmaster in Dürrnberg, he devoted himself to the miner’s vocation and married Margarethe née Kümmel from Berchtesgaden when he was 25. In addition to working hard as a miner, however, he constantly and fervently occupied himself with the reading of Holy Scripture, Luther’s House Postils, and other evangelical devotional writings. When a religious persecution broke out in 1686 under Archbishop Maximilian Gandolf in the Tefferecker [or Tefferegger or Defereggen] Valley against the secret Protestants there, Schaitberger was also arrested along with others of his fellow believers, brought to Hallein in fetters, from there was delivered to the royal court in Salzburg, and was imprisoned there under harsh conditions for 50 days. During this time two Capuchin monks made fruitless attempts to bring him back to the fold of the Roman Church. Thereafter he was set free again, with an order to draw up his confession of faith in writing and submit it to the Archbishop of Salzburg. He openly and freely professed Luther’s doctrine and the Augsburg Confession and petitioned the archbishop that he and his fellow believers be left undisturbed in their worship and be returned the children that had been robbed from them. Instead he was dismissed from his mining job, divested of his possessions, condemned to fourteen days of penal labor on bread and water, and finally, since he refused to solemnly renounce his evangelical faith, was driven from the country with other evangelical Teffereckers [or Defereggers], more than 1000 in number, being forced to leave their possessions and children behind. He found a place of refuge in Nuremberg, where he was cordially welcomed and where he remained until the end of his life, earning his living as a day laborer, woodworker, and wire-drawer. After the death of his first wife (d. 1687), he entered into a second marriage with Katharina Prachenberger from Berchtesgaden, who bore him four sons but died already in 1698. Twice he dared to return to his homeland secretly and at risk to his life, partly to strengthen in faith and patience the fellow believers he had left behind there and partly to get his children out. Only one of his daughters followed him back, with the intention of winning him over to the Roman Church. But the opposite happened: She became convinced of the truth of the evangelical faith and decided to stay with her father, where she made a meager living by knitting. Schaitberger himself, once he grew old and was no longer able to work, was accepted by the Nuremberg council into the so-called “Mäntel Foundation of the Twelve Brothers [Mäntel’sche Stift der zwölf Brüder],” a charitable institution otherwise dedicated only to Nuremberg citizens. He also received financial assistance from friends abroad, who respected him highly for his simple piety and his unwavering confession of the evangelical truth, including the Augsburg preacher and senior Samuel Urlsperger, as well as the Memmingen Preacher J. G. Schelhorn, who gathered a generous collection for him in December 1732 and refreshed him with it shortly before his blessed end. Not long before his death he also greeted in Nuremberg the new Salzburg emigrants, who had been banished from their homeland in 1731 by Archbishop Firmian and were once again seeking a place of refuge in Germany.

Soon after his arrival in Nuremberg, Schaitberger had begun to write a series of evangelical tractates at the instigation of a certain Preacher Ungelenk there. Schaitberger did this partly for his own edification and partly for the instruction and strengthening of the fellow believers he had left behind in his Salzburg homeland. At first he had them printed individually as pamphlets (Schwabach, 1688ff) and sought to distribute them in many thousands of copies, especially among his countrymen. He finally issued them in a collected edition (1710 in Schwabach and Nuremberg) under the title: Neu-vermehrter Evangelischer Send-Brieff, Darinnen zwei und zwantzig nutzliche Büchlein enthalten, Geschrieben an die Lands-Leut in Saltzburg und andere gute Freund, dadurch dieselbige zur Christlichen Beständigkeit, in der Evangelischen Glaubens-Lehr, Augspurgischer Confession, in ihrem Gewissen, aufgemuntert werden1 (Newly Enlarged Evangelical Circular, Containing Twenty-Two Useful Booklets, Written to Countrymen in Salzburg and Other Good Friends, Through Which Their Consciences Are Encouraged to Christian Perseverance in the Evangelical Doctrine of the Augsburg Confession). This “Circular,” in addition to Luther’s and Spangenberg’s postils and Arndt’s True Christianity, became the most treasured devotional book of the evangelical Salzburgers, such as the inhabitants of the Ziller Valley who emigrated from their homeland in the Tyrol in 1837. It was later repeatedly printed, e.g. in Nuremberg in 1732 et al. and up to the most recent times, and was more broadly distributed as a devotional book; a so-called jubilee edition of it just appeared in 1889 with a short biography and portrait of the author (Reutlingen: Baur, 608 pages in octavo).2 The contents are as follows: 1) Schaitberger’s circular to the countrymen he has left behind, containing the confession of faith he had composed earlier, 2) account of the Salzburg reformation of 1686, 3) religious conversation between a Catholic and an evangelical Christian, 4) spiritual Christian mirror or guide for Christian living, 5) golden nourishing art of the children of God, 6) useful meditations on death, 7) evangelical dying school for the children of God, 8) Christian art of dying, 9) repentance-blaring trumpet of judgment, 10) two short consolations, 11) melancholy circular to his children still in Salzburg territory, 12) circular to his brother, 13) biblical passages of comfort, 14) evangelical Christian duty, 15) consolations for distressed consciences and afflicted souls, 16) report on religion, 17) answers to four religious questions, 18) simple questions on the parts of the Catechism with which fathers can instruct their children, 19) evangelical repentance-alarm bell, 20) traveling conversation between an Old Lutheran and a new Pietist, 21) four Christian reflections, and 22) miscellaneous hymns and prayers.3 He also composed a number of hymns, of which two were included in the appendix of the Coburg Hymnal (1717), “Du Spiegel aller Tugend [O mirror of all virtue]” and “Jesu meine Lieb’ und Leben [Jesus, my love and life].” His most well-known hymn, however, is his hymn for Salzburg exiles, which reflects both every aspect of the distress experienced by those witnesses to the faith and their gospel-centered comfort, in simple, poignant words. The original text of this “Hymn for Salzburg Exiles” begins and ends as follows (according to a printing from 1732): “I am an exile, sadly banned— | This my new designation— | From cherished home and fatherland— | God’s Word the sole causation. • Yet I, Lord Jesus, contemplate | Your like humiliation. | If I now you must emulate, | Fulfill your inclination. … Please, let my new town be a site | Where your Word is permitted; | By it my heart, both day and night, | Shall then be benefited. • If in this vale of tears I must | Live in prolonged privation, | In heaven God will give, I trust, | Far better habitation.”4

Cf. Samuel Urlsperger, Joseph Schaitberger (1732). • J. G. Schelhorn, De Religionis Evangelicae in Provincia Salisburgensi Ortu Progressu et Fatis Commentatio Historico-Ecclesiastica (Leipzig, 1732). • J. G. Schelhorn, Ergötzlichkeiten aus der Kirchenhistorie und Literatur (Ulm und Leipzig, 1762), I:494ff. • Georg Andreas Will, Nürnbergisches Gelehrten-Lexicon (Nuremberg und Altdorf, 1757), III:481ff. • Hirsching, Friedrich Carl Gottlob and Johann Heinrich Martin Ernesti Ernesti, Historisch-literarisches Handbuch berühmter und denkwürdiger Personen, welche in dem achtzehnten Jahrhundert gelebt haben (Leipzig, 1808), X/2:227ff. • Johann Heinrich Zedler, Grosses vollständiges Universal Lexicon Aller Wissenschafften und Künste (Halle und Leipzig, 1742), XXXIV:815ff. • Johann Caspar Wetzel, Historische Lebens-Beschreibung Der berühmtesten Lieder-Dichter (Herrnstadt, 1724), III:29ff. • Christian Friedrich David Erdmann, “Salzburger” in Real-Encyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche, 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1884) XIII:323ff. • Karl Panse, Geschichte der Auswanderung der evangelischen Salzburger (Leipzig, 1827).

Endnotes

1 I edited the title Wagenmann gave to reflect that found in the original 1710 edition at my disposal and available online. Wagenmann’s title reads: Neuvermehrter evangelischer Sendbrief, darinnen 24 nützliche Bücher enthalten, geschrieben an die Landsleute in Salzburg und andere gute Freunde, darin dieselben zu christlicher Beständigkeit in der evangelischen Glaubenslehre Augsburgischer Confession in ihrem Gewissen aufgemuntert werden.

2 These later editions were expanded to include “Twenty-Four Useful Booklets,” and the “Hymn of Comfort for an Exile,” which Wagenmann mentions later, was also inserted. The two extra booklets were “Comfort for the Dying” and “Comforting Thoughts for the Dying.”

3 I also edited Wagenmann’s summary of the contents (cf. endnote 1). Wagenmann’s summary reads: 1) Schaitberger’s circular to the countrymen he has left behind, containing the confession of faith he had composed earlier, 2) an account of the Salzburg reformation, 3) religious conversation, 4) tractate on the young man and the old man, 5) Christian mirror, 6) the golden nourishing art of the children of God, 7) meditations on death, 8) the art of dying, 9) comfort for the dying, 10) repentance-blaring trumpet of judgment, 11) circular to his children in Salzburg territory, 12) to his brothers [sic], 13) evangelical Christian duty, 14) conversation about true and false Christianity, 15) tractate on perfection, 16) consolations for distressed and afflicted souls, 17) report on religion, 18) religious questions, 19) traveling conversation, 20) tractate on infant baptism, 21) on the appearances of angels, 22) works of repentance, 23) reply to the letter of a Nicodemite, 24) on the certainty of faith and the true knowledge of Christ. The content listed by Wagenmann is all in Schaitberger’s work, with the exception of “works of repentance [Bußwerke],” which appears to be a misspelling of “Buß-Wecker.” But much of what he labels as its own booklet is actually a sub-theme of a different booklet. For example, his #4 (which, however, should be “conversation between a young man and a poor man”) is included in what he labels #10. His #14 and #15 are both included in what he labels #13, and his #20, #21, #23, and #24 are all included in the actual #21, “Four Christian Reflections.”

4 In all the editions of Schaitberger’s Sendbrief at my disposal, in which his hymn for exiles is found, there is one more stanza after the one with which Wagenmann concludes: “The man shall here remain disguised | Who did these verses fashion; | He papal doctrine has despised | But Christ professed with passion.” However, at the time of this posting, I did not have access to any 1732 edition.

A Child Was Born to Us Today

Uns ist ein Kindlein

“Uns ist ein Kindlein heut geborn” as it first appeared in Gesius’ Geistliche Deutsche Lieder (1601). Source.

“Uns ist ein Kindlein heut geborn”
Anonymous

Translator’s Preface

In 1601, Bartholomäus Gesius (c. 1555-1613) published the first volume of his Geistliche Deutsche Lieder D. Martini Lutheri und anderen frommen Christen (German Spiritual Songs by Dr. Martin Luther and Other Pious Christians). According to the rest of the title, the hymns in the collection “were customarily sung throughout the year in Christian churches,” and were arranged by the author “with four or five voices, according to the usual choral melodies, in a proper and pleasing manner.”

For other hymns, such as “All Praise to You, Eternal God” (folio 9) or “From Heaven Above” (folio 10), Gesius cited the author. But for the hymn on folio 16, translated below, no author was recorded. The four-voice setting is presumably his own. If the title can be applied without exception to all the hymns in Gesius’ collection, either Gesius himself had authored it before this and it had found use in one or more churches, or it may have appeared anonymously (authored by one of the “other pious Christians”) sometime between Luther and the publication of this volume.

Eight years later, when Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) published the sixth part of his Musae Sioniae (Muses of Zion) in 1609, he set the melody in Gesius’ collection to his own charming four-part setting (no. XLIX), which has been popularized in such albums as “Mass for Christmas Morning.”

I was planning to have the choir I direct sing Praetorius’ setting on Christmas Eve, and so I set about to translate it. My only departure from the original, which was admittedly not strictly necessary, was that the original two middle lines of the first stanza –

ein wahrer Mensch und wahrer Gott,
daß er uns helf’ aus aller Not.

True man, true God in full was he,
To rescue us from misery.

I changed to the following:

True man in full, yet also God,
To shatter the Oppressor’s rod.

I think it is rare when a translator is able to improve on the original, but here I was convinced such a case existed. The rest of the first stanza is basically a summary of Isaiah 9:1-7, which was the “Epistle” for Christmas Day at the time of the original composition. So I changed the two middle lines so that the entire stanza would be a summary of Isaiah 9:1-7 (rf. Isa 9:4). The “Oppressor” refers primarily to Satan, but also to sin and death by metonymy and association (Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 3:8).

This hymn just about sums up the beauty of Christian theology and the meaning of Christmas in as concise, straightforward, and lilting a way as possible. I pray it accordingly fills you, the reader, with joy and confidence.

A Child Was Born to Us Today

1. A child was born to us today
Of chosen virgin, far away –
True man in full, yet also God,
To shatter the Oppressor’s rod.
Wonder and Counsel is his name;
Through him the Father’s grace we claim.

2. What more for us could God have done
Than that he gives us his own Son,
Who from us has removed indeed
All of our sin and each misdeed,
Redeemed us from the sin and pain
Wherein we else would e’er remain.

3. Rejoice, dear saints of Christ, therefore,
And thank our God forevermore!
But hate the cunning, lies, and vice
Which cost your Savior such a price.
Fear God and live lives pure and mild
To glorify the newborn Child.

Alberus’ Thanksgiving Hymn

“To You, O God, Our Thanks We Give”
Erasmus Alberus (c. 1500-1553), 1537

Translator’s Preface

With this translation, I think I have finally crossed the finish line of my quest for meal-time prayer variety. I translated what follows from August Pieper’s Biblische Hausandachten (Family Meditations from the Bible), 2nd ed. (Milwaukee: NPH, 1912), p. 417.

This one-verse hymn is attributed to Erasmus Alberus, who studied under Luther at the University of Wittenberg and was an active helper in the cause of the Lutheran Reformation. Apart from his hymns, he is probably best known for his satire Der Barfuser Münche Eulenspiegel und Alcoran (Owlglass and Koran of the Franciscans), which ridiculed the Franciscan Order and was published in 1542 with a preface authored by Luther himself. After Luther’s death, Alberus sided with Matthias Flacius and the Gnesio-Lutherans.

Alberus’ thanksgiving hymn appears as hymn 458 in the current Evangelisches Gesangbuch, the official hymnal of the Protestant State Church in Germany. There it is set to an abridged version of the melody for Psalm 105 composed by Pierre Davantès and found in the 1562 Genevan Psalter. (You can hear Alberus’ German hymn sung to this setting here.) That melody is not particularly attractive or memorable, and I’m guessing these lyrics penned by a staunch Lutheran were combined with a melody from the Genevan Psalter, which was created under the supervision of John Calvin, in order to further the union agenda of the Protestant State Church, which seeks to combine the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.

In addition, the original meter – 99 88 88 99 – is quite rare, if not nonexistent, in current Lutheran hymnody. I found it easier to translate the text into 88 88 88 88 meter, but this did not help me in finding a suitable tune. (The only hymn I know with this meter is “The Tree of Life” – Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary 302, Christian Worship Supplement 754).

So this project became a unique one for me, since it prompted me not only to translate German poetry, but also to compose music.

The original German stanza with a literal English translation:

Wir danken Gott für seine Gaben,
Die wir von ihm empfangen haben,
Wir bitten unsern lieben Herrn:
Er woll’ uns hinfort mehr bescher’n,
Er woll’ uns speisen mit sei’m Wort,
Daß wir satt werden hier und dort.
Ach lieber Herr, du wollst uns geben
Nach dieser Welt das ew’ge Leben. Amen.

We thank God for his gifts,
Which we have received from him,
We ask our dear Lord:
He would henceforth bestow more upon us,
He would feed us with his Word,
So that we get satiated here [in time] and there [in eternity].
Ah, dear Lord, [we ask that] you would give us
After this world the eternal life. Amen.

The primary difference between the original hymn and my translation below is the person. In the original, the one praying addresses God in the third person until the last two lines, almost as if the speaker is not actually praying, but rather telling someone else about how he prays after meals. I am familiar with this type of prayer perspective, but I am not a fan. It’s almost as if we are asking God simply to tune in to our recitation, if he likes, and to admire our ability to memorize. So I transformed the entire prayer into a second person address.

Click here for an original two-part setting composed just for this hymn. It is arranged for one party to sing the melody, and another party to sing an alto part, which would work just as well as a bass part when moved an octave lower.

I pray that the Holy Spirit has used this series of meal-prayer translations to aid Christian families in their prayer life and to further their love for music. May the triune God continue to provide for us on earth, body and soul, that we may praise his goodness forever in heaven.

To You, O God, Our Thanks We Give
A Hymn of Thanks After Meals

To you, O God, our thanks we give
For these your gifts we have received.
Since you redeemed us with your blood,
Bestow on us much more than food:
Our souls with your pure gospel feed;
Contentment then shall death exceed.
Dear Lord, when bread no more sustains,
Grant us to dwell in heav’n’s domains. Amen.

Bless These Your Gifts

Anonymous, 1561, Frankfurt an der Oder, st. 1-2; anon., 1660, Bayreuth, st. 3

Translator’s Preface

In the continuing quest for meal-prayer and meal-hymn variety, the following is a translation of hymn #595 in the “Jahreszeiten” (Seasonal) section of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Wisconsin and Other States’ old German hymnal, Evang.-Lutherisches Gesangbuch für Kirche, Schule und Haus (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnal for Church, School, and Home), published by Northwestern Publishing House in Milwaukee.

The hymn is titled, “Geseg’n uns, Herr, die Gaben dein,” and was familiar enough to our German ancestors. For example, August Pieper included the first two stanzas in the “Andre Gebete vor Tisch” (Other Prayers Before Meals) section of his Biblische Hausandachten (Family Meditations from the Bible). A literal translation yields:

Bless for us richly, Lord, your gifts,
Cause (this) food to be our nourishment;
Grant that through it (may) be invigorated
The frail body on this earth.

For this temporal bread alone
Is not able to suffice for us for life,
Your divine Word feeds the soul,
Helps us for life most of all.

Therefore give us both, Lord God,
Help (us) finally also out of every need,
So let us praise your goodness
Here and also there into eternity. Amen.

The suggested tune in the Gesangbuch is “Christ, der du bist der helle Tag,” a quite unfamiliar tune. (Ironically, despite the fact that its tune is suggested, the text of that hymn does not even appear in the Gesangbuch.) Another printed suggestion is “Herr Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht,” a popular Lutheran tune (e.g. Christian Worship 404).

In an effort to resurrect an ancient Latin hymn melody that was converted into a German Lutheran hymn that now seems to be fading from use, I have set the translation below to the tune “Christe, der du bist Tag und Licht,” which setting you can access here. A complete four-part setting of this melody can be found in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (Evangelical Lutheran Synod, 1996), no. 571.

Regarding the translation itself, the most notable departure from the original occurs in stanza 2. The original stanza begins with an explanatory “For.” In other words, the author is explaining why we are duty-bound to ask God’s blessing on our food. I did not find this connection entirely apparent, nor was I convinced that the thoughts about God’s Word in stanza 2 were parallel to the concept of God’s blessing in stanza 1.

In stanza 1, we are acknowledging that no food would do us any good if God did not also add his word of blessing to it and in effect say to the food, “Nourish this human” – a blessing which God regularly extends even to unbelievers. In stanza 2, we are acknowledging that even if God were to add this blessing to our food for the duration of our lives, but we were unfamiliar with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we would still have no true happiness in this life and in the end we would still perish eternally in hell. In other words, the food would still, in the final analysis, have done us no good whatsoever (though God would have worked our life and its activity to the advantage of his Church).

Therefore I thought that beginning stanza 2 with an adversative “But” would actually lend strength to both stanzas by clearly dividing these separate but related thoughts.

May the triune God promote a spirit of pious thanksgiving among us not only at meal times, but in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Update (11-8-14):  The title of the hymn and the first line of the first stanza were changed from “Bless Now This Food” to “Bless These Your Gifts.” My original translation simply asked God to add his blessing to the food in front of us, but was silent on the question of whence the food came. The updated translation, more closely reflecting the original German, praises God, and reminds us, that the food is there in front of us in the first place because God has graciously given it to us.

Bless These Your Gifts

1. Bless these your gifts, Lord, from on high,
That they may nourish us thereby;
Frail bodies do with strength imbue,
That we our duties well pursue.

2. But earthly bread alone would fail
To make us happy, hearty, hale;
Your Word alone does feed the soul
And make our health complete and whole.

3. So give us both, Lord God, we plead,
And help us out of every need;
Then all your goodness we shall praise
Both here and there, in endless days. Amen.

O God, Earth, Heaven, and Sea Proclaim

By the Bohemian Brethren

Translator’s Preface

A fellow pastor in my circuit and I decided to use the First Lesson for Holy Trinity Sunday, Genesis 1:1—2:3, to launch a four-Sunday sermon series on the creation of the world. The maxim has been attributed to St. Augustine that all of theology is either implicit or explicit in the first three chapters of Genesis, so we certainly were not going to do poorly by carefully covering one-third of that. In addition, we thought it would prove a timely series in the United States’ increasingly atheistic and evolution-saturated culture.

With a series such as this, I like to have a series hymn that the congregation can sing all four Sundays. Repetition is the mother of learning, and music can be a wonderful aid in the learning process too. A good hymn intentionally repeated can go a long way in impressing important spiritual truths on the hearts and minds of God’s redeemed people.

However, I was unable to find a good creation hymn in Christian WorshipThe Lutheran Hymnal, or the couple hymn blogs operated by confessional Lutherans to which I subscribe. I toyed with the idea of penning my own – an introductory stanza, seven stanzas highlighting the divine activity on each of the first seven days of earth’s existence, and a closing doxology. But then I came across hymn #67 in the “Schöpfung und Regierung” (Creation and Governance) section of Northwestern Publishing House’s old German hymnal, Evang.-Lutherisches Gesangbuch für Kirche, Schule und Haus (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnal for Church, School, and Home).

Titled “Gott, Erd und Himmel samt dem Meer” and attributed to the Bohemian Brethren, the hymn seems to be a free paraphrase of Psalm 104, and therefore offers a number of excellent devotional thoughts and truths fueled by the creation account and creation itself.

The original German reads:

1. Gott, Erd und Himmel samt dem Meer
verkünden deine Kraft und Ehr,
auch zeigen alle Berg und Thal,
daß du ein Herr seist überall.

2. Die Sonne geht uns täglich auf,
es hält der Mond auch seinen Lauf,
so sind auch alle Stern bereit,
zu preisen deine Herrlichkeit.

3. Die Tier und Vögel aller Welt
und, was das Meer im Schoße hält,
zeigt uns frei an ihm selber an,
was deine Kraft und Weisheit kann.

4. Du hast den Himmel ausgestreckt,
mit Wolkenheeren überdeckt
und seiner Wölbung Majestät
mit goldnen Sternen übersät.

5. Du bists, der alle Ding regiert,
den Himmel und das Erdreich ziert
so wunderbar, daß es kein Mensch
erforschen noch ergründen kann.

6. Wie mag doch unsre Blödigkeit
ausgründen deine Herrlichkeit,
so wir ja Dinge nicht verstehn,
womit wir allezeit umgehn!

7. Wie lieblich ist, Herr, und wie schön,
was du geschaffen, anzusehn!
Doch wie viel lieblicher bist du,
o Herr, mein Gott, in deiner Ruh!

8. Du schließest Erd und Himmel ein,
dein Herrschen muß voll Wunder sein,
du bist ein Herr in Ewigkeit
von unnennbarer Herrlichkeit.

9. O Vater, Sohn und Heilger Geist,
dein Name, der allmächtig heißt,
sei stets von uns gebenedeit,
sei hochgelobt in Ewigkeit.

My initial literal translation:

1. O God, earth and heaven together with the sea
proclaim your power and honor,
and every mountain and valley show
that you are a Lord over all.

2. The sun rises upon us daily,
the moon also holds its course,
so too all the stars are ready
to praise your glory.

3. The beasts and birds of all the world
and all that the sea keeps in its lap,
informs us openly all by itself
what your power and wisdom is capable of.

4. You have stretched out the heavens,
covered them with hosts of clouds
and their vault’s majesty
sown over with golden stars.

5. You are the one who rules all things,
adorns the heavens and the kingdom of the earth
so stunningly, that there is not a single person
who can investigate or fathom it.

6. How in all the world may our stupidity
comprehend your glory,
if we do not even understand things
with which we are occupied all the time!

7. How lovely, Lord, and how beautiful it is
to consider what you have created!
Yet how much more lovely you are,
O Lord, my God, in your rest!

8. You enclose earth and heaven,
your ruling must be full of wonder,
you are a Lord into eternity
of inexpressible glory.

9. O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
your name, which is called omnipotent,
continually be blessed by us,
be highly praised into eternity.

The biggest danger was lying latent in st. 3. In fact, in the first draft of my translation, I had: “Just by existing teach us well | How far your wisdom does excel.” I eventually changed it because I didn’t like the lack of poetry. The potential doctrinal misunderstanding of which I was initially ignorant finally became clear in my first re-translation: “Just by existing do make known | The depths of strength and sense you own.” I was confusing the natural knowledge of God with the revealed knowledge of God. The natural knowledge of God – found in creation and in our conscience – certainly does show us some extent of God’s power and wisdom, but not anywhere close to the full extent. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ alone (Col 2:3), and Christ, though responsible for creation (John 1; 1 Corinthians 8:6), is not revealed in creation itself. He is revealed only to us by his Spirit through his Word (1 Corinthians 2:9,10). The original German was somewhat ambiguous, so I made sure to be clearer in my final product below.

The end of st. 8 might also raise an eyebrow at first: “Forever will your glory shine | Which man cannot see or define.” Obviously, all believers in Christ will one day see God as he is (1 John 3:2). However, it remains true that as we are now, we cannot see or fully define the glory of God (Exodus 33:20; 1 Timothy 6:16). We must first be changed, and God promises we will be (1 Corinthians 15:50-54).

Finally, I made the final stanza a bit more Christ-centered than the original, for which I’m sure the Christian reader will find no need to forgive me.

As to the origin of the hymn, I only know that Michael Weisse published the first hymnal used by the Bohemian Brethren in 1531. I was unable to access a copy of that hymnal to see if this hymn traces back that far. It could also conceivably have come from their later descendants, the Moravians. The NPH hymnal suggests the tune, “Vom Himmel hoch” (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come), but I recommend and will be using “Wo Gott zum Haus” (Oh, Blest the House, Whate’er Befall).

Certainly, as Lutherans, we value the Second Article of the Creed (redemption) more highly than the First Article (creation and providence). But I pray that this hymn gives us appropriate opportunity also to express our praise to the triune God for First Article truths, which are rendered that much more glorious through the lens of true faith, created and sustained by Second Article truths.

O God, Earth, Heaven, and Sea Proclaim

1. O God, earth, heav’n, and sea proclaim
The pow’r and honor of your name;
From valleys low to summits grand,
Creation shows your vast command.

2. The sun comes up, day in, day out;
The moon still runs his monthly route;
The stars at dusk prepare to sing
The brighter glory of their King.

3. All beasts and birds on earth’s broad face,
All creatures in the seas’ embrace
Just by existing do make known
Some scope of strength and sense you own.

4. You have stretched out the sky and made
The clouds its covering and our shade,
And space, whose vault our sight exceeds,
Have sown with golden stars like seeds.

5. To search out or to comprehend
How you adorn the heav’ns and tend
To ev’ry detail on earth’s span—
This goes beyond the reach of man.

6. For we attempt, with puny brain,
To trace your glorious ways in vain,
Since e’en affairs routine and stale
We analyze to no avail.

7. How lovely, Lord, to contemplate
The masterworks you did create!
Yet lovelier and far more bless’d
To view you in your Sabbath rest!

8. The earth and heav’n, by you contained,
Awaken awe for your wise reign.
Forever will your glory shine,
Which man cannot see or define.

9. O Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Who can the name Almighty boast,
Through Christ receive our endless praise
Here and through heav’n’s eternal days.