Every once in a while, we can point to a specific moment to explain why a certain song sticks with us. We can remember exactly where we were; perhaps, even the exact day. This is the case for me when it comes to “Isaiah in a Vision Did of Old” (ELW 868). I had just made it to the big-kid choir on the college campus. It’s not that I had that great of a voice, to be honest. It was probably more so becase my vocal range could hit a few of those bassiest bass notes, at the time, and choir directors tend to appreciate that to give them more options in selecting certain pieces of music. One of the biggest “events” this choir participated in was the Reformation worship in the evening on the last Sunday of October. A bishop from a nearby synod in the ELCA would always come and preach (I guess being a university with the name Wittenberg on Reformation Sunday, we must have carried some clout). Many of the instrumental and vocal choirs on campus participated, as we did our best to make this a rather big deal.
So, I remember the first Reformation Sunday with the big-kid choir, and our director went all-out in picking numerous hymns that were written/composed by Martin Luther, himself. Now, for most Lutherans, the favorite Luther hymn is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (ELW 504/505). Can’t blame ‘em: that’s got some quality Lutheran-pride umph to it, for sure. And yes, for that Reformation Sunday, it was most certainly played and sung with multiple choirs and rattling organ pipes. However, the one that continues to stick with me emerged in preparation for Communion that particular day.
Usually the pastor would chant “It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks and praise to you, almighty and merciful God, through our Savior Jesus Christ…” Well, on this Reformation Sunday, in place of that standard “preface,” we call it, the big-kid choir sang, “Isaiah in a Vision Did of Old,” which Luther not only wrote the text (based on Isaiah 6:1-8), but also composed the music (quite a talented individual, in case we forgot). Even by my late teens/early twenties, I had gotten used to that “It is indeed right, our duty and our joy…” Not that there was anything wrong with it necessarily, but every once in a while, it can be helpful to insert some holy newness.
That song, that place, that gathering felt…holy, in a way. The music combined with the words not only made that Isaiah text all the more moving, but it felt as if the awe-inspiring interaction between Isaiah and the Divine long ago was happening right in our midst, too; as if God was unleashing new life into us right there and then.
Isaiah in a vision did of old
the Lord of hosts enthroned on high behold,
whose splendid train was wide outspread until
its streaming glory did the temple fill.
Above God’s throne the shining seraphim
with sixfold wings did rev’rence unto him.
With two each seraph hid his glorious face,
and two about his feet did interlace,
and with the other two he soared on high,
and one unto another thus did cry:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!
His glory filleth all the earth!”
The beams and lintels at their crying shook,
and all the house was filled with billowing smoke.
But what made the song all the more powerful is that the entire assembly joined in singing the “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! His glory filleth all the earth!” As if there was, indeed, a choir of angels in that sanctuary.
Communion felt a little different that day. I know we Lutherans tend to shy away from talking about exactly how a wafer and a few drops of wine/grape juice become the body and blood of Christ respectively. We don’t exactly know how. That’s okay that we don’t. But, that day, I could almost feel it happening, because of that song. The house may not have been “filled with billowing smoke,” as the Luther hymn so ends, but it was certainly filled with a holy unexplainable something. So, thanks be to God for the music-shapers, who continue to fill houses of worship and the depths of our soul with the precious “holy, holy, holy”!
Image: Weaver Chapel, Wittenberg University (wittenberg.edu)