As the United States enters a period of widespread “lockdowns” in an effort to keep the coronavirus from spreading here as it has in other places, we have an opportunity to slow down, reflect, and regroup. What really matters? What doesn’t so much? Where do we find our comfort, and how can we support one another at this time?
In the hymns he wrote for the Christian church, 17th-century German theologian, pastor, and hymn writer Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) provides some answers. Gerhardt lived through plague, war, the deaths of his parents during his youth, the deaths of his wife and four of his five children, strife in the church, and lengthy periods of unemployment. Yet his hymns never falter in testifying to the hope and comfort found in Christ.
As we in the United States look to other countries who are weeks ahead of us in their coronavirus journey, we can learn from them about dealing with COVID-19 not only on a practical basis but in other ways. Last week, videos of homebound Italian citizens singing out their windows went viral on social media. The singers are confined to their homes as part of a nationwide quarantine in response to the pandemic.
In one video, residents of Siena, Tuscany, are shown singing the folk song, “Canto della Verbena.” According to Breitbart, the song is a celebration of local pride, translated as, “Verbena is born in Piazza del Campo, Long live our Siena, the most beautiful city!”
Another video shows Italians in multiple areas singing the Italian national anthem and other songs. The videos are profound and touching, symbolizing the human connections people still need during a period of “social distancing.” They are also a great example of the power of song to build those connections and bring a sense of community and encouragement in a time of great confusion.
Even better than songs of civic and national pride are songs that point us to something stronger and more lasting. In the weeks and months to come, there are no better songs to sing than time-tested Christian hymns that teach eternal truths. Spend some time with Gerhardt’s poetry, and you’ll sing some of the best.
Here are 10 of Gerhardt’s hymns worth learning and singing any time and especially fitting during this season of uncertainty.
“Entrust Your Days and Burdens,” based in part on Philippians 4 (“do not be anxious about anything”), calls on the faithful to let go of worry, knowing that God cares for all their needs: “Take heart, have hope, my spirit, And do not be dismayed; God helps in ev’ry trial And makes you unafraid. Await His time with patience Through darkest hours of night Until the sun you hoped for Delights your eager sight.”
“If God Himself Be for Me” draws on Romans 8:31-39, defiantly daring Satan to try, just try, to harm anyone who has been claimed by Christ: “If God Himself be for me, I may a host defy; For when I pray, before me My foes, confounded, fly. If Christ, the head and master, Befriend me from above, What foe or what disaster Can drive me from His love?”
“O Lord, How Shall I Meet You,” with its focus on the incarnation of Christ, is typically sung during Advent. It emphasizes not only Christ’s birth but His purpose in taking on human flesh: “I lay in fetters, groaning, Thou com’st to set me free; I stood, my shame bemoaning, Thou com’st to honor me; A glory Thou dost give me, A treasure safe on high, That will not fail or leave me As earthly riches fly.”
In its exploration of sin, suffering and death, it “puts words on our lips that are not normally there as we celebrate Christmas,” and in so doing, shows where salvation is found: “Hark! a voice from yonder manger, Soft and sweet, Doth entreat: ‘Flee from woe and danger. Brethren, from all ills that grieve you You are freed; All you need I will surely give you.’”
The Lenten hymn “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth” echoes Isaiah 53, describing Christ’s sacrifice for sinners and highlighting the Christian’s joyful response to that sacrifice even in the face of trial: “Lord, all my life I’ll cleave to Thee, Thy love fore’er beholding, Thee ever, as Thou ever me, With loving arms enfolding. Yea, Thou shalt be my Beacon-light, To guide me safe through death’s dark night, And cheer my heart in sorrow; Henceforth myself and all that’s mine To Thee, my Savior, I consign, From whom all things I borrow.”
“Awake, My Heart, With Gladness” is an Easter hymn that jubilantly mocks Satan’s defeat, reminding Christians that, with Jesus as victor, they have nothing to fear: “Now hell, its prince, the devil, Of all their pow’r are shorn; Now I am safe from evil, And sin I laugh to scorn. Grim death with all his might Cannot my soul affright; It is a pow’rless form, Howe’er it rave and storm.”
“Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me” celebrates the peace and rest that come only from Christ’s love: “O love, how cheering is thy ray! All pain before thy presence flies; Care, anguish, sorrow, melt away, where’er thy healing beams arise. O Jesus, nothing may I see, nothing desire or seek, but Thee.”
“Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me” weighs the difficulties of earthly life against the rewards of heaven, rejoicing that temporal pains pale in comparison to eternal life: “Why should cross and trial grieve me? Christ is near With His cheer; Never will He leave me. Who can rob me of the heaven That God’s Son For my own To my faith hath given?”
“Evening and Morning” sings of trusting God in all things and at all times: “Times without number, Awake or in slumber, Thine eye observes us, From danger preserves us, Causing Thy mercy upon us to shine.”
The evening hymn “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow” is a lullaby for all ages, bidding the Christian to sleep in peace, knowing that Christ watches over him: “Lord Jesus, since You love me, Now spread Your wings above me And shield me from alarm. Though Satan would devour me, Let angel guards sing o’er me: This child of God shall meet no harm.”