Another great (underused) hymn : Jesu, lover of my soul

Wanted : good hymns about love

There’s a need, at various points in the Church’s year, for some general hymns about love.  It can be hard to find them, but here’s one which isn’t sung enough in Catholic churches, in my experience :  Jesu, lover of my soul. We sang it here a couple of weeks ago, and I was surprised to find that several members of the choir were unfamiliar with it. It is a magnificent hymn, and deserves to be better known.

Once we’re past the Resurrection, there are still several weeks between Easter and Pentecost, and the readings tend to be more of a collection of Jesus’ greatest sayings, or important things we haven’t had time to talk about before. In our current liturgical year, Year B, we have various readings interpolated from John’s Gospel. John doesn’t have a Year of his own, like the others (Matthew Year A, Mark Year B, Luke Year C), but he comes in quite often during Mark’s year, because Mark is shorter than the other two.

Christ leaving tomb
the Resurrection…and what happened next
…but not always pink and fluffy

So there are some Sundays where the theme is just love, John’s great emphasis, and these are where you need more general hymns about love. It’s difficult writing about love, without being anodyne or saccharine, and especially to a strict metre and to be sung. You want to be simple but not too facile, and you have to allow for the embarrassment factor in the grown-ups in your congregation. Jesus loves me works fine for small children or even possibly on a retreat with a trusted group, but is difficult as a hymn on a Sunday morning.

Sheep and shepherd
Playing to a captive audience

Other ‘love’ hymns are too overtly for weddings to work on Sundays. There are some perennials for which we are enormously grateful, like Love divine, all loves excelling (whichever tune you sing it to, I prefer the 8-line version because the 4-line one is a bit choppy), and My song is love unknown, but that’s a bit regretful for the Easter period. There are several about loving shepherds, which is good for Good Shepherd Sunday (and there’s always the various translations of Psalm 22/23).

Jesu, lover of my soul: one hymn that fills the gap

But what about Jesu, lover of my soul, by Charles Wesley, always sung to the wonderful dark hymn tune Aberystwyth?  Apart from everything else I’m going to say about it, it’s a brilliant contrast with all the Easter alleluias.  It sounds dark, but the overall effect is definitely triumphant, so it works with the season. It’s got a magnificent bass line that an organist can really go to town on (or if you have the game-changing chance of any brass, get them in). Here’s a Welsh choir singing it.

Church choir
everybody wideawake and joining in the singing, but who wrote the hymn?

I did not come across this hymn in church or at school, because of the understanding when I was young that only Catholic hymns went into Catholic hymnals or could be sung in Catholic schools or churches. I’ve never understood this. It’s not the Devil who has all the best tunes, it’s usually the Protestants. One of the many things for which we should all be grateful to Martin Luther is that he took congregational singing seriously. I’m not trying to knock Catholic hymns either; we have some beauties, but I want the others as well.

So I didn’t encounter this hymn until I bought some hymn cassettes for the car on long journeys, including a Welsh male voice choir one. I get very upset about choirs which don’t allow women to sing; I am delighted that so many (Anglican) cathedrals now have mixed choirs, and embarrassed that the cathedrals of my own persuasion do not allow me, as an adult woman, to sing in the choir ( even though I can sing soprano, alto or tenor if required). But I give Welsh male voice choirs a free pass, because without them I might never have come across this hymn, or Guide me, O thou great Redeemer, Eternal Father, strong to save, and some others, and my life would be the poorer.

Details about the hymn : tune

It’s one of those hymns where the tune and the words match beautifully. Many sets of hymn words can have different tunes applied, according to what the congregation or choir knows, and I use this frequently to get a new set of words or a new tune introduced with the minimum of fuss; but this tune belongs to these words. Apparently there are a couple of other possible tunes, but I’ve never heard them being used. It is of a later date than the words (Charles Wesley, who wrote the words, lived from 1708 to 1788; Joseph Parry, who wrote the tune, from 1841 to 1903), but one authority suggests that Parry simply arranged a tune already known, which would explain it.

Aberystwyth is a dark, meaty tune, but it’s not hard to pick up quickly. It has a comfortable amount of repetition and a very strong structure, with lines 1 and 3 the same, 2 and 4 slightly different from each other, as one asks a musical question and the other answers it. Then we have 5 and 6 moving in a new direction, 7 arching over the others as a climax, and triumphantly delivering us to the last line, returning to the same pattern as 1 and 3 so that you know you’re coming home for the end of the verse. Elegant construction; beautiful and satisfying. And because it’s such a solid tune, if you do go wrong, it’s unlikely not to harmonise with the right version, always very comforting when you learn a new hymn. It’s dark, but it’s the right sort of dark, especially with a hymn which was originally published under the title ‘In Temptation’. The tune is also so loved that there is a plaque outside the church where it was first played on the organ, and it’s credited as one of the sources for Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika . I suspect that just shows how beloved both tunes are, rather than their being related.

Details about the hymn : words

Now let’s look at the words. There are four verses (spoiler alert! there were once five), although some hymnbooks leave out the third one (probably just for reasons of space). It was written by Charles Wesley, eighteenth child of his parents, brother to John and Samuel (and many others). They all wrote hymns, but Charles more than the others, and more successfully.This hymn is so popular that it has a couple of little myths of its own. Apparently he wrote it while staying at his wife’s parents’ house, where a frightened bird had flown in and sought refuge from a threatened storm, but there is never any authority quoted for this story.

What is really striking about the words is how much they sound like something from the Psalms. And this is especially striking when we think how the Psalms are never addressed to Jesus (we get by because they use the expression ‘Lord’ for much of the time). The Christian understanding of the Psalms is totally skewed by our reorientation towards Jesus. The shepherd in Psalm 22/23 was conceived as an image for God the Father by the psalmist, and in every case where we see a link to Jesus, his life, death and what happened after, we are reading into the words something that the original writers, singers and listeners would never have imagined.

Verse 1

Here we have a hymn text which starts as directly as any of the cry-for-help psalms, but addressed straight to Jesus by name, and with total confidence. These first four lines have been rewritten or adapted more than any other hymn words, according to my old Dictionary of Hymnology. Since it was written, many people have been uncomfortable with the directness of the appeal, and especially with the use of the word ‘lover’ (alternatives have included ‘refuge’ and ‘Saviour’, but Charles uses that just a couple of lines down).

John Wesley’s Preface to his Collection of Hymns for the use of the People called Methodists, published in 1779, and including several of his brother’s hymns, includes an appeal to editors and compilers of hymnals not to attempt to improve Charles’ hymns,  for ‘none of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse’. This sounds as though both brothers were used to people trying to alter them, but certainly not resigned to it; and certainly none of the alternative readings has the power of the original.

Sea monster in waves
storm at sea, plus monsters

It is a cry in times of trouble and peril, as acute as Psalm 68 :’Save me, O God / for the waters have risen to my neck’ (1), or like the sailors in a storm in Ps. 106 (23f), and the singer asks to be guided ‘safe into the haven’, exactly as happens to the sailors : ‘they rejoiced because of the calm / and he led them to the haven they desired’ (Ps 106:30).

Verse 2

The second verse explains how no one can help but Jesus; the singer in his distress knows there is no help to be had anywhere else.

God creating earth
God protecting the world

The second line ‘hangs my helpless soul on thee’ echoes Ps 62 : ‘My soul clings to you’, while the final image of this verse ‘cover my defenceless head / with the shadow of thy wing’ immediately evokes Ps 56 ‘in the shadow of your wings I take refuge’ (2) as well as Ps 90 ‘under his wings you will find refuge’ (4), and there are other echoes too. The surprise here is that this is Jesus with wings rather than God.

[a disappeared verse]

There is another verse following here in the original version, but it rarely makes the cut in later hymnals. It is weaker than the others and does not add much. Here it is:   Wilt thou not regard my call? /Wilt thou not accept my prayer? /Lo! I sink, I faint, I fall— /Lo! On thee I cast my care: /Reach me out thy gracious hand! /While I of thy strength receive, /Hoping against hope I stand, /Dying, and behold I live!    I suspect that the apparent lack of faith in Jesus’ power, and the over-dramatised repetition, meant that both Charles and John were happy to see a bit of editing here, however genuine the feeling may have been.

Verse 3

The third verse moves away from the Psalms and on to the Gospels, with another direct invocation, this time by name to Christ, and a declaration: ‘Thou, O Christ, art all I want, /More than all in thee I find’.  The next two lines cover Jesus’ public career with an almost-humorous perfunctoriness : ‘ raise the fallen, cheer the faint,/ heal the sick and lead the blind’. It’s like the list in the Veni Creator: ‘Melt the frozen, warm the chill, guide the steps that go astray’. The second half of the verse is a double contrast between the sinner and his Lord, nicely arranged so that the first and last lines of the quatrain (about Jesus’ perfection) embrace the two middle lines about how sinful the  singer is (I do like a neat chiasmus), and ending with lots of stress on the words ‘truth and grace’.

Verse 4
Jesus talking with woman at the well
Sir, give me some of that water

Grace is the trigger for the last verse, repeated and abundant (or, indeed, abounding, to coin a phrase), and we move into water imagery. Although there is a lot of water in the Psalms, here we are firmly in the New Testament, with grace the bridge to Jesus as the fountain of living water  (the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4), and it’s amazing how much of the story Charles Wesley manages to squeeze into the last four short lines.

It starts even earlier, in the second line of the verse : ‘grace to cover all my sin’, which reminds us of the later conversation about the woman’s past history and all her husbands; but the lines about Jesus are a masterpiece of compression : ‘Thou of life the fountain art, /freely let me take of thee; /spring thou up within my heart, / rise to all eternity’. Compare this with Jesus’ own words (ESV Translation) :  whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14). The only line that is not Jesus’ words is where the singer becomes the person Jesus is talking to; ‘freely let me take of thee’ makes us into the woman, who says ;’Sir, give me this water’ (John 4:15). Women’s voices and words being so rare in the Bible, it’s lovely to see a congregation using them.

Hackett painting of Christ afloat
plenty of peril, but a serene Jesus (Peter Hackett)

It’s very impressive how simple and direct the words of this hymn are, and it is one reason why it has not really dated. There are a couple of archaisms (‘Jesu’ for ‘Jesus’, which is just a vocative, ‘bosom’ and ‘unrighteousness’) and a few longer words, but overall the words are monosyllables, short and basic. They are easy to comprehend at any age or stage of English, and the experience they describe is common to us all. This has always been an amazingly popular hymn, never out of print, and rarely omitted from hymnbooks (except Catholic ones until recently). Let’s get it (back) into frequent use. It is a very great hymn.


©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2024. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Labour of love : another Magnificat

Magnificat anima mea

Setting women’s words is a rare pleasure for a church musician, so I tend to grab any chance I can find. I’ve set the Magnificat before, because it comes up occasionally in the readings at Mass (not often enough). When it does come up, it’s usually not in the place of the psalm but as part of the spoken readings. I’ve blogged about it before too (see here). However, it is offered as the Responsorial Psalm for the Feast of Our Lady’s Presentation in the Temple (November 21st), and somebody wrote to ask for a setting.

Mary speaking
Mary rejoicing in God her Saviour, with Elizabeth

I’m always delighted to get these special requests and do my best to help. We’ve completed the Sunday three-year cycle now, so these are my best chance to do something new, and it’s always interesting. Sometimes there’s a version that is pretty close among the Sunday psalms, and I just need a new response; sometimes the verses have been grouped differently; sometimes whole verses have been left out or put in; sometimes you just have to start again, wondering why those in charge of the Lectionary thought this might be a better or even remotely singable version.

The Presentation(s) in the Temple
Presentation Mary
Mary as a tiny girl arrives at the Temple, with Joachim and Anna in support

There are two Presentations and two Feasts, and this can lead to confusion. You can easily tell which is which in the pictures, because Mary’s Presentation, in November, shows her as a little standing figure on her own (after all, she is three, see later),

Jesus’ Presentation as a babe in arms, Mary and Joseph to the left, Joseph with pigeons

and the other is the Presentation of Our Lord, sometimes just called ‘The Presentation in the Temple’, and that’s the one with a swaddled babe in arms, held by Mary (sometimes and Joseph), being received by Simeon (sometimes and Anna). The age of the baby shows you clearly who is being Presented.

Who is my mother?

The feast of Our Lady’s Presentation in the Temple is an interesting one. There is no information about Mary’s early life in the Gospels. When she walks on-stage in Matthew’s Gospel, she is a young woman, engaged to Joseph and already mysteriously pregnant, but she appears out of nowhere. Mark has no birth narrative at all; Mary appears only at the end of chapter 3, arriving from we don’t know where, with Jesus’ brethren, and sending a message to Jesus where he is sitting surrounded by a crowd,”‘Your mother and your brethren are outside asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brethren?'” (Mk 3:31f), and goes on to declare that anyone who does the will of God is his mother, brother and sister. So far, so baffling.

Mary’s early life, according to Luke…

Luke has much more on the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, but not much information about his mother. She is a virgin (or a young woman, not my topic for today), betrothed to a man named Joseph, but at least she has a name. God sends an angel to her with two lots of startling news, first about her own child and then about her cousin Elizabeth’s. Mary agrees to God’s plan and rushes off to see Elizabeth, who comfortingly already knows her news and greets her with joy. The Magnificat is Mary’s answer.

…but not according to John

John, like Mark, has no birth narrative, and Jesus is already fully-grown when Mary is first mentioned, at the wedding at Cana in John’s second chapter. They are attending the wedding separately, but after it Jesus and his disciples spend a few days with Mary and the brethren.

Tradition, legend, and the Protevangelium of James

So there is nothing at all about Mary’s early life in the Gospels, but what we have instead is quite a bit of pious tradition and folklore. Some of it is based on the Protevangelium of James, dating from the end of the second century AD, non-canonical but ‘immensely popular’ in the Middle Ages, according to Simon Gathercole, who published a new translation of it for Penguin in 2021. We were lucky enough some years ago to visit Chora in Turkey where they have a whole series of mosaics of the Virgin’s early life, which were beautiful; I think you can no longer get into the church because it’s being turned into a mosque again (it’s been both in its long history, like Hagia Sophia).

Joachim and Anna
Immaculate Conception : angel comes to tell Joachim about Mary (at rear), then Joachim rejoices with Anna (foreground)

And it’s very easy to see why the Protevangelium of James was so popular. It starts with Joachim and Anna’s anguish over their infertility, and the text is full of lively and engaging dialogue. Joachim comes back from a tented desert retreat (lasting forty days, naturally) to find that Anna is pregnant and has already promised the baby to God’s service (just like Hannah and Samuel).  There are angel messengers for both Anna and Joachim to explain what is going on. The birth of Mary takes place six months later. Anna first asks whether the baby is a boy or a girl, and then declares,’My soul is magnified today!’

A very special baby

The baby Mary walks at six months, seven steps to her mother’s breast. Her mother swears that she will not set foot on the earth again until she goes to the Temple.

Joachim and Anna
Joachim and Anna cuddling the toddler Mary (Chora) : good parenting

Her parents make her a sanctuary in her bedroom and keep her safe and unpolluted by unclean foods, they have a party for her on her birthday and invite the nation of Israel and all the priests, who bless the little girl. Everyone predicts great things for her. Joachim and Anna discuss when to take her to the Temple; Joachim thinks she should go when she is two, in case God gets angry, but Anna easily persuades him to wait a year, so that she won’t miss her parents.

When she is three, they take her to the Temple. The priest welcomes and kisses her. Then he blesses her (‘The Lord God has magnified your name for all generations’). I especially like the next bit. The chief priest sits her down on the third step of the altar. ‘She did a little dance, and the whole house of Israel adored her’ (p.10 in Gathercole’s edition).

and here she is dancing adorably at the top of the steps
What Mary did next

This is non-canonical, but it’s written by someone who had lovingly observed three-year-old girls; it’s detailed, realistic and relatable. Mary’s parents go home and disappear from the story; she lives in the Temple, fed by an angel, until she is twelve when the priests all have conniptions at the thought that her periods might start, so they seek among the widowers for a suitable protector for Mary.  A miraculous dove flying out of his staff and perching on his head indicates that Joseph is the chosen one. He’s an elderly widower with sons (a useful explanation of the inconvenient ‘brethren’ in the Gospels), and is initially reluctant because he’s afraid of being laughed at. The priest threatens him with God’s anger and being swallowed up by the earth, so he agrees to take Mary; but he needs to go away for work, so he takes her to his home and leaves her there. She is engaged in spinning the purple and red wool for the Temple curtain (presumably the same one that will be rent from top to bottom at the Crucifixion), when the angel comes to visit her,  – and the story continues as in Luke, although there is no Magnificat in this text. But the ‘magnify’ word comes back again when the high priest says to her, as she hands over the spun thread,’Mary, the Lord God has magnified your name’. By now Mary is sixteen, though there’s no indication of where the time went.

Joseph comes back and finds Mary six months pregnant and is very distressed. There is lots of very human dialogue, with Joseph angry and resentful and Mary bursting into tears, and once Joseph is persuaded that Mary is innocent, both he and she have to defend themselves at length against the Temple authorities.

The feasts of Our Lady

I’ve covered this in some detail because it was so popular, and because the feast of Mary’s Presentation used to be much more important than it is now in the Roman church.  The Orthodox have kept some feasts that the Roman Church has lost or reduced in importance over the years. Of the Twelve Great Feasts among the Orthodox, four are for Mary and eight are about Jesus; the Catholic Church has invented various new feasts for Mary (Queenship of Mary, Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady Help of Christians and so on), but downgraded the older ones (presumably on canonical grounds, just like the changes to the Stations of the Cross to leave out the ones with central female characters).

The four Mary feasts in the Orthodox list are her birthday (corresponding to the nativity, in the list of Jesus feasts), the Annunciation, her Presentation and the Dormition.  The idea of ‘showing forth’ was very important in the early days of the Church (before the Roman/Orthodox split), which is why the Epiphany was originally a bigger feast than Christmas itself. The Orthodox Church preserved this emphasis. Mary’s Presentation is her Epiphany.  I need to mention St Sergius here, because we all owe him a debt. He was Pope from 687 to 701 AD, after two other people were claiming the triple crown (it’s a complicated story, but Sergius turned out to be the unity candidate everyone could agree on). He gave even more solemnity to the four Our Lady feasts by adding solemn processions to them. In the Roman Church, this feast of Mary’s Presentation was downgraded later (because of its non-canonical nature), but we are still very grateful to St Sergius because he introduced the sung Agnus Dei at Mass (he was a singer himself), and I do love a good Agnus Dei.

Different Magnificats

But when we have the chance to sing Mary’s own words (and yes, I know they have been mediated through a male evangelist and years of tradition, but they are all we have), we need to take it. I had already got a version for the Australian and New Zealand Lectionary, because my friend in Adelaide had asked for it two years ago, and I was happy to find that the UK and Eire words were very similar. The Response needed some tweaking, and I thought I could simplify the tune in a couple of places, but we weren’t starting from scratch. I don’t have the Canada words, unfortunately, so I can’t write that version until someone helpfully sends them to me (I haven’t got a Canada Daily Missal until one of my family has a chance to go and get me one); I hope you’ll be able to cobble something together out of the other three. And the US version of the words is so different that I started again with a different time signature.

Different Responses

In the prescribed readings, the Magnificat comes with two possible Responses, one taken from the words themselves and the second a sort of comment. I prefer the first, as the second is a bit long for the congregation to absorb so quickly; but there are five verses in this version, so they’ll know it by the end anyway. Just make sure you’ve checked with your celebrant if he has strong opinions about which one to go for.

Making the music dance too
This is a very damaged mosaic, but I think it shows Mary dancing (with the stars under her feet?)

When I set the Magnificat, I try to allow the exuberance of it to shine through. It’s such a joyful and affirming set of words; it isn’t tidy or meek, it’s exultant and young. It’s full of boundless hope and excitement. It has a helter-skelter quality; it’s overtly revolutionary. It needs almost to fall over itself as it heaps up the list of God’s promises. It’s irregular, but that’s a plus: God’s goodness is uncontainable. So it needs to go with a swing, and I’ve tried to make the Responses pick up with a swing at the end of each verse.

Another one will be along shortly

The main difference between this version of the Magnificat and the other Sunday version, which we will shortly be singing, as it comes up in Advent Year B Week 3, is that the Magnificat for the Presentation is complete, and the Advent one has only three verses. The Presentation Magnificat has all five verses, but the first one is only two lines long; and it has a choice of Responses, as I said, whereas the Advent Magnificat takes a verse from Isaiah as its Response. These are all quite small changes, but they matter a lot when you are trying to sing it! It’s tricky when v.1 is the one that doesn’t follow the pattern that you are trying to establish, but I’ve tried to keep the run-up to the Response the same throughout, so that the congregation feels confident. Sing it loud, sing it proud. Some of the versions are more bouncy, some more stately, but this is the showing-forth feast of the Theotokos, after all. It needs to be jubilant.

©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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