Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tense matters!

One of the quirks that seems to come with teaching a language is that it can make one more observant of verbs - especially in matters of tense. Tense is of the utmost importance when we preach, teach, or confess in words about the Eternal and Incarnate Word. One of my pet peeves is when people speak of our Blessed Lord in the past tense, as though he is no longer alive, in the same way that we might speak of Julius Caesar or George Washington. Of course, asking "What would Jesus do?" (the subjunctive mood) is even worse, presuming the "real absence" of our Lord, or perhaps even Jesus reducing Jesus to a mythical figure. One might just as well as "What would Porky Pig do?"

The wrong tense can (but not necessarily must) be an indicator of a problem or inconsistency concerning doctrine or practice. For example, there is no rubric before the rite of private confession and absolution that reads: "These are the words that were used at private confession" - since that would strongly imply that it is a practice we've done away with. Some could argue that such wording would reflect the reality of American Lutheranism today, but to put language like that in the hymnal would not be a helpful confession of what we believe.

In LSB 357, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, (which, by the way, has restored the glorious and majestic traditional translation, replacing the weak and flimsy "update" in LW), there is a note at the bottom of the page: "This hymn is based on seven ancient antiphons (see facing page) that were used at Vespers during the last seven days of Advent" (emphasis added).

The good news is plentiful: the "down-dated" wording, an easy to follow layout, the inclusion of the actual texts of the "Great O Antiphons" on the next page - even pointed for chanting! But that little word: "were" sticks in my craw. It implies that the use of these antiphons is a quaint tradition that we no longer practice - perhaps like private confession and absolution has become in much of our church. Obviously, most of our churches don't have public services of Vespers at the climax of the Holy Shopping Octave, but certainly, we can encourage the use the the O Antiphons in private Advent devotions. And in fairness to the LSB committee, I have no doubt this was their intention. They did a great job, but I really cringe at the use of the past tense here! I think that was (is?) unfortunate.

On the grammatically positive side, an example of a tense correction in LSB can be found in that great and venerable Lutheran chorale Jesus Me Amat (LSB 588). The common Protestant translation of verse two "he will wash away my sins" (which gives a very weak confession of Holy Baptism) has been replaced by "he has washed away my sins." In this case, past tense trumps future tense. That's the good news. The bad news is that this hymn's inclusion took priority over, for example, Psalm 63, a truly inspired hymn, written by God Himself, a portion of which graces the sanctuary of Salem Lutheran Church.

However, if one wants to fill some of the gaps in the LSB (which for the most part is an excellent hymnal), LSB's use can be supplimented by a resource like the Brotherhood Prayer Book (BPB). The BPB includes all of the psalms in public-domain (free from copyright entanglements) King James Version form (which are pointed and can be used for either Gregorian chant, or the more modern tones used in all current Lutheran hymnals) in addition to all of the private prayer offices and many Gregorian hymns and canticles as well. The Great O Antiphons are, of course, also included. As with most things purchased this time of year, batteries are not included, but the good news is that the BPB is low-tech, and needs no batteries.

I might add that my dear friend and brother in Christ Latif Gaba is working on an ongoing project to create a Lutheran breviary as well. Latif's resource, unlike the BPB, is not pointed for chant, but his has the added advantage of being bilingual (English and Latin) - which is a great resource for those interested in the classical Lutheran school curriculum. Instead of the KJV, Latif's prayer book opts for the Coverdale Psalter from the old Book of Common Prayer (which has roots in Luther's German translation of the Bible!).

By using LSB along with a supplimentary psalm-based prayer book, Lutherans can combine our rich tradition of hymnody with the fullness of a Psalm-centered devotional life.

Meanwhile, in any case, whatever our mood, we should all strive (however imperfectly) in present (and in the future) to keep our tenses in perfect form, regardless of our past. ;-)

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