In each stanza, sounding G-sharp in the second line highlights key phrases (‘life anew,” “is pure,” “wholly thine,” “never die.”) The melancholy shift in pitch confirms that it is from an awareness of incompleteness that longing and the path to awakened love begin.
Americans sing the song out of order. Also incompletely. The original German hymn is six verses, but most of us know only three—the first, the sixth, then the second. Which seems like a good metaphor for me as a Christian, incomplete and out of order (perhaps all of us, but I won’t speak for everyone).
The music endowed the service with a sense of special occasion. Hearing St. Joseph’s mighty organ fill the capacious church gave me a physical thrill. It was the most powerful live music I had ever heard. Add to that titanic rumbling the voices of 700 parochial school kids singing in Latin, led by a dozen Sisters of Providence, and you will divine my wonderment and awe.
My suspicion is that I am not the only child from St. Clair Street Church of Christ Sunday School or Dunnikier School in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, in the late 1950’s, who remains fond of this hymn for reasons that have as much to do with personal associations as with belief.
My early experiences of Catholic worship – first, as a child in a traditional Latin Mass, and later as a college student attending a revisionary, hippie-style Mass in the round – set the stage for my encounter with this very simple hymn which has come to mean more to me than any other.
The Rastafari world view, implicitly presented or imparted to me as a child, offered a path toward dismantling the pervading colonial world order. Not alone, but in parcel with other anti-colonialist and anti-racist movements that gathered force inside and outside of Jamaica throughout the 20th century, the Rastafari movement helped to provide Jamaica with a different vision of ourselves as a people. With this hymn of Joseph, and many others my family and I and all our brethren and sistren in Twelve Tribes chanted and sang at our gatherings, we were prophesying this vision.
At the bottom of the steps we formed a circle and danced in front of the ancient Wall whose cracks were crammed with desperate notes—scribbled prayers for healing, for an escape from poverty, for children, for finally finding the fated marriage partner. A classmate with a sweet voice would take his spot in the front of our group and begin to lead the Sabbath evening prayers. Soon, the sky overhead turned deep blue, and we sang the hymn that ushers in the Sabbath, “Come, My Beloved, to Greet the Bride.