Guest blogger Paul Farseth is a St. Olaf graduate (1964), hymn writer, and member of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada living in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
“O Savior Tear the Sky Apart” by Friedrich Spee, 1623
(“O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf”)
In Advent, the days beginning four Sundays before Christmas Day, we revisit the prophesies of the Savior’s coming, pray to be ready that he may enter and rule our hearts, and look forward to the Savior’s return at the end of human time. We often decorate our assemblies with purple to remember the ruling majesty of the Savior’s power and to remind ourselves that he comes both as Savior and as Judge, savior and judge of our lives, savior and judge of the wretched world and all human societies.
Our advent hymns follow themes from the assigned readings…of prophesy, expectation, impatience, preparation, worry, repentance. They retell the prophesies. They echo the calls of prophets and psalm writers for God’s help in hard times. They celebrate the glory of what is coming. And they caution us all to be ready for judgment, ready to do what God requires of us undeterred by the predations of the world and of our fellows…but buoyed up by our hope in the Savior and in the health and wholeness he brings to us and to the world.
For Spee, the need for the Savior’s presence is manifest all around.
One advent hymn that’s not well known may be worth adding to our usual lists. Written c. 1623 during the miseries of the Thirty Years’ War by a Jesuit priest and university professor, it looks out on the blasted landscape of religious murders, cynical princely land grabs, epidemic diseases, plagues, deaths from destroyed crops and widespread famine, military sieges of towns, and the mass hysteria of witch burnings with their ignorant searches for scapegoats fingered by rumor. We think we are beyond such things, but the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides carried on by Christians are barely twenty five years past, let alone the Holocaust, the Holomodor in Ukraine, and the killing of the Armenians in the past century. We look for a template for a different way of living together while the world slides down towards Death’s grim maw. Here is the way Fr. Friedrich Spee [i] saw things in his plea to God for help:
O Savior, tear the sky apart! [ii]
Come down, run fast, here people hurt!
Strip off from heaven door and gate.
Break in where locks and barred doors wait!
O God, from heaven pour the dew! [iii]
In falling dew, O Savior flow!
Let loose, you clouds, pour out and rain
The King of Jacob’s Tribe again.
O barren Earth, show life again, [iv]
Let hill and valley all turn green!
O Earth, this budding flower bring.
O Savior, from renewed, earth spring!
Where are you, Solace of the World
On whom the whole world’s hopes depend?
Oh come, ah come from heaven’s height
And strengthen us in grief and fright! [v]
O clear bright Sun, you lovely star, [vi]
We yearn for your appearing here!
O Sun, come up, without your light
We grope and stumble in the night.
We suffer here in mortal need.
In front of us stands Endless Death! [vii]
Oh come lead us with your strong hand
From mis’ry to the Father’s Land!
[This is my own translation. Italics indicates paraphrase or elaboration. Another robust translation by Martin Seltz can be found in some Lutheran hymn books, such as The Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis, 1978) and Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis, 2006).]
Need for the Savior’s presence
Spee’s hymn is in the spirit of the Rorate Caeli [viii] antiphon taken from Isaiah 45:9 and the penitential “advent prose” associated with it (most of which comes from parts of Isaiah, mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and longing for or promising a restoration of the Jewish people to Israel from their captivity in Babylon. But what Spee does with that ancient collection of texts is startling, for like the authors of some of the Psalms, he asks God, without any groveling or penitential politeness, to come into his land’s, his community’s disaster…quickly, right now. Tear through the sky’s wall of separation, he tells the Savior, come on the run, make haste, break through the locks and gates and opposition of human hearts and human institutions. Come insidiously like dew. Come like the natural force of a thunderstorm! Enter the earth and our earthly humanity and pop out like spring sprouts to end winter, end drought. Come, Savior, because we need you! Give up your remote Deist dispassion up in Heaven’s sky castle. Come here, come up like the sun and enlighten us who are groping and killing each other in the darkness of our own fumbling hearts!
For Spee, the need for the Savior’s presence is manifest all around. He grasps hold of the promises in Scripture. He presses the Savior for action. Now is the time, he says, we need you, even as the Earth needed Jesus’ birth when God took the shriveled root of King David’s lineage and from it brought Mary to come forth, the living sprout and branch, bearing the bud and flower which was and is Jesus the Savior, the unremote and human visible presence of God, Immanuel, “God with us”. (See the German text of “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming”.)
Spee does not fall back into Stoic resignation like Thomas Hardy writing a reproach to his woman:
You did not come,
And marching time drew on, and wore me numb, –
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
Than that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion which can overbear
Reluctance for pure lovingkindness’ sake
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
You did not come. …. [ix]
Rather, Spee takes the advent texts, the antiphons, the promises and runs with them as his permission to confess not only his and his society’s sins but to shout out to God that this all has to stop. Come Lord Jesus. Come!
Perhaps, dear reader, by the time you read this, we all will face the violence and lies and political disorder about which we worry fitfully in the middle of the night. Perhaps not. Perhaps the killings, the violence, the starvation, the unsuppressed and cultivated hatreds will be playing out somewhere else on Earth in their ever new cheap cruelty. Pick up Spee’s hymn all the same and pray it, for though Heaven may seem far away, all the wretched earth is just across the alley.
Footnotes & Citations
[ii] Cf. Isaiah 64:1 – “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”
[iii] Cf. Isaiah 45:8a – “Drop down, ye heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness [or, in the Latin Vulgate translation and its English Douay re-translation: the righteous or the righteous one];”
[iv] Cf. Isaiah 45:8b – “let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth, and let it cause righteousness to spring up also; I the Lord have created it.”
[v] Spee’s text says, “And console/comfort us here in the Valley of Sorrow”, following the Vulgate Latin for Psalm 83 (Psalm 84 in modern numberings). The Hebrew version of the psalm refers to the Valley of Baca, apparently a deserted and waterless wilderness.
[vi] Cf. Jeremiah 31:35-36 where the Lord promises Israel his protection and the nation’s restoration as sure as the natural order prevails, as surely as the sun will rise in the morning…and also the prophesies at Numbers 24:17, Revelation 22:16, and Revelation 2:26-28 concerning the morning star who will come forth as the ruling savior.
[vii] Cf. Isaiah 64:6-7 – “We have sinned, and are as an unclean thing, and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away; thou hast consumed us because of our iniquities.”
[ix] Cf. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50365/a-broken-appointment (as of 11/13/2020)