January wanderings. . .

Though it’s mid-January and we have in many ways moved on from the busy Advent / Christmas / Epiphany season, remnants remain.  The Epiphany season technically lasts until Transfiguration Sunday (Febr. 19th), which always falls on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, which in turn marks the official start of our Lenten journey.  January 15th is thus known as the Second Sunday after Epiphany, and we continue to count through the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (February 12th).  This calendar system gives us plenty of time to meditate on the Epiphany themes mentioned in last week’s notes, including the idea of wandering with the Magi.

It often seems to me that the Christian year (or liturgical year) is itself a series of symbolic journeys–or wanderings–by which we trace not only our history as a Christian community, but also juxtapose these wanderings against our everyday lives, lived full throttle in a world that is often anything but conducive to thoughtful meditation.  Before we can wander in the desert with Jesus during the 40 days of Lent, it seems fitting to wander with the Magi for a while, in search of our newborn King.  Even if we feel like lost wanderers at times (certainly the Magi must have!), being lost can bring profound–though sometimes hidden–blessings.

In a bit of a last nod to the Christmas/Epiphany season, Dale Wood’s hauntingly beautiful Carol from an Irish Cabin is based on an anonymous poem about wanderers:

The cold wind blows over the heather, the salt wind blows over the sea,
The harsh wind blows down from the mountains, and blows a white Christmas to me.
The clean snow falls softly, falls softly, the snow crystals cover the moor.
Let wanderers lost and grown weary find welcome at my cabin door.
Let there be no fear of darkness, let there be no fear of sea;
Let the star guide the lost and forsaken safe over the moorland to me.

Dale Wood (1934-2003) was a prolific American composer/editor who contributed a great deal of high-quality music for the church.  Born in Glendale, California, Wood won a national Lutheran hymn writing contest at age 13 and had his first choral anthem published in 1951; this was followed by many other choral and organ works, most of which are still considered staples of the literature.  Heartfelt thanks to our own Kay Bailey (recorder) and Kathy Hancock (flute), whose beautiful playing of Wood’s Carol (originally written for harp or piano and chorus) provides all wanderers with good food for thought.

British composer John Ireland’s Villanella, by contrast, is a delightfully sunny organ piece named in honor of the light, secular song form that appeared in 16th-century Italy and was one of the precursors of the madrigal.  Ireland (1879-1962) also wrote the beautiful hymn tune Love Unknown, which appears in both the Lenten and Lord’s Supper portions of our hymnal (see hymns 76 and 515), and which we have grown to love here at Westminster.  Look for it during upcoming Lenten worship services.

The Psalm of the Day for January 15th is Psalm 139, a comforting and highly introspective Psalm beloved by many.  The Chancel Choir’s offertory anthem is David Hurd’s interpretation of this perennial favorite.  Hurd (b. 1950) is Professor of Sacred Music and Director of Chapel Music at the General Theological Seminary in New York City and also serves as Music Director at the Church of the Holy Apostles.  With over 100 choral and organ works in print, his compositions have become well known in the U.S. and in England.  Dr. Hurd’s sacred compositions can be found in many hymnals, including the Episcopal Hymnal 1982.  His beautiful Psalm 139 setting features a haunting refrain (made more so by the lovely flute part, finely played by Kathy Hancock), and serves as a great example of contemporary Anglican chant which, as here, is often written in four-part harmony rather than as a single chanted tone.  Listen for the subtle, yet powerful, ways Hurd’s style brings out the particular emotional resonance of each chanted verse.   And be sure to join with us in singing the refrains.

Because we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. on this special weekend, today’s worship includes two hymns associated with Dr. King:   Precious Lord, Take My Hand has become one of the most popular gospel songs ever written, largely due to its use by Dr. King in the civil rights movement.  In Christ there is No East or West is perhaps most often sung to the tune St. Peter, but today we sing it to the lively tune McKeeMcKee is based on an African-American spiritual tune that served as the setting for "I Know the Angel’s Done Changed My Name" in an 1884 collection entitled Jubilee Songs.  In 1939, it was adapted by Henry Burleigh (1866-1949) for use with the present text and was named for Rev. Elmer M. McKee, then rector of St. George’s Protestant Episcopal Church in New York City.  Burleigh, a prolific composer and arranger, studied at the National Conservatory of Music in New York, where he was a student of Antonín Dvo?ák.  Significantly, Burleigh’s singing of African-American spirituals stimulated Dvo?ák’s interest in them and quite possibly influenced the major themes of works like the New World Symphony.