God’s Board

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The Gospel appointed for this Sunday (July 26) is the story of the feeding of the great multitude with only five fishes and two loaves of bread. For obvious reasons, this Gospel story has long been tied to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist: God’s table is bountiful enough for all, and our challenge is to have faith enough that God will provide for all.

In June, I wrote about singing various hymn texts to the same hymn tune, and this entry could be a continuation of that post. I can hear it now: “The Sequence Hymn today sounded like ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’.” Well, it did… but then it’s not… not exactly.

With its gentle but soaring melodic rise and fall, I think the hymn tune Rockingham is one of the most beautiful tunes in the book, one with which I did not grow up. Indeed, I grew up singing “When I survey” to the Hamburg, a very fine tune by the great 19th-century hymnist/composer Lowell Mason. However, when I first heard this well-known text sung to Rockingham in the Episcopal Church, the text was completely transformed for me and has remained so for me to this day. I then discovered the poetic Eucharistic text “My God, thy table now is spread” by the great hymn text writers Philip Doddridge (stanzas 1-3) and Isaac Watts (stanza 4). Mason, Doddridge, and Watts: all of these names are biggies in the hymnology world.

When studying the history of the Book of Common Prayer in graduate school (English editions 1549, 1559, 1662, and American editions 1789, 1892, 1918, 1929 and our present 1979 edition), I always chuckled at the 1549 Communion liturgy in which an opening rubric referred to the Altar as “Goddes borde.”

Then the Prieste standyng at Goddes boarde shall begin… 

The third stanza of this hymn, in Doddridge’s words, is the only place in The Hymnal 1982 that refers to the Altar as a board:

Drawn by thy quickening grace, O Lord,
In countless numbers let them come
And gather from their Father’s board
The Bread that lives beyond the tomb.

I also love when poets refer to the Divine with other earthly words simply by capitalizing them. Regular bread becomes “Bread [Jesus] that lives beyond the tomb.”

As I often say to our parish choirs in rehearsals, “Now, don’t miss this!” I hope you enjoy singing these rich, powerful, poetic verses of this hymn on Sunday.

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