Laboring and resting: “On This Day, the First of Days”

Many years ago, a wise priest taught me that an excellent way to recollect myself before the beginning of Mass is to meditate on the texts of the hymns of the day. I have followed this practice now for decades and, provided the hymns are well-written and carefully selected, find it very helpful. (At Masses where the “hymns” are poorly written songs full of dubious theology, however, I find it better to ignore them altogether.)

The hymn

This past Sunday, I was reminded of this wonderful hymn.

1 On this day, the first of days,
God the Father’s Name we praise,
who, creation’s Lord and spring,
did the world from darkness bring.

2 On this day the eternal Son
over death his triumph won;
on this day the Spirit came
with his gifts of living flame.

3 O that fervent love today
May in every heart have sway,
Teaching us to praise aright
God, the Source of life and light.

4 Maker, who didst fashion me
image of thyself to be,
fill me with thy love divine,
let my every thought be thine.

5 Holy Jesus, may I be
dead and buried here with thee;
and, by love inflamed, arise
unto thee a sacrifice.

6 Thou who dost all gifts impart,
shine, blest Spirit, in my heart;
best of gifts, thyself bestow;
make me burn thy love to know.

7 God, the blessèd Three in One,
dwell within my heart alone;
thou dost give thyself to me,
may I give myself to thee.

Every true hymn is a sacred poem and this one, composed by Sir Henry Williams Baker in the mid-nineteeenth century, contains some poetic turns that might escape our notice when we sing it, but which become more apparent when we look at the text itself.

First, the hymn offers triple praise to each person of the Holy Trinity — stanzas 1 and 4 refer to God the Father, stanzas 2 and 5 to the Son, and stanzas 2 and 6 to the Holy Ghost; the final stanza refers to all three Persons together as “God, the blessèd Three in One.” The third stanza pivots the focus of the hymn from praise to petition; each of the following three stanza petitions one of the three divine Persons, while the final stanza addresses the Three-in-One and expresses an aspiration that sums up both praise and petition: “Thou dost give thyself  to me, may I give myself to thee.”

This poem is perfect for an opening hymn, as it reminds us not only of God and our relation to Him, but also of the reason we are gathered to worship “on this day, the first of days,” namely because we are part of a new Creation, renewed by Christ’s resurrection and the indwelling of His Holy Spirit.

Many Catholics prefer to “fulfill their Sunday obligation” on Saturday afternoon, so that Sunday will be theirs to do with as they please. When this becomes a regular practice, the Christian risks losing any sense of the sacredness of the Lord’s Day. I myself would hate to miss the opportunity to worship without haste on Sunday morning, singing lovely hymns of praise that help me lift my mind and heart toward God and remind me of what I owe to Him. One day out of seven seems little for Him to require, or me to give.

A reflection

The ancient, pagan world had no week — time was measured in months, according to the rhythms of nature governed by the waxing and waning moon. The Jews, though, rested every seventh day — not because they were lazy or loved leisure, but because God commanded it. Their pagan neighbors must have thought the Jews very peculiar in this regard (well, let’s face it, they regarded the Jews as peculiar in almost every regard), because it goes against human nature to rest when our toil is what provides the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the homes that provide us shelter. In the pagan world, the wealthy could rest — they had slaves to take care of all the necessary toil— but the poor seldom knew a day of rest.

As our modern world slips back into heathenry, we are losing our sense of the necessity of sacred rest. Shops and restaurants are open seven days a week, and often twenty-four hours a day. It is rare that even a Christian would insist on keeping Sunday as a day of rest. Oh, people still want a weekly day off work, but only so that we can catch up on chores at home (because our work weeks are so all-consuming) or sink into an exhausted stupor in front of the television. Sundays, when they are not ordinary work days, are regarded as the day to sleep late, if we can, before rushing out to the kids’ soccer game, or for catching up on the laundry, or prepping for the coming work week.

We need to recall that Sunday is not our day, it is the Lord’s Day. And the Lord knows that we need the sacred rest of this holy day, not simply to “recharge our batteries” before another week of go-go-going like the Energizer bunny, but so that we can receive Christ, the “best of gifts,” and be renewed in our dedication to give our own lives as a sacrifice to God.

Two further notes

  1. The text given above is, as far as I can determine, the original and complete version as written by Sir Henry Williams Baker. I am not aware of any modern hymanal that contains the entire text, unaltered, although the The Hymnal 1982 (published by the Church Hymnal Corporation) contains all but the third stanza. This is the version I am accustomed to singing. Unfortunately, most Catholic hymnals have mangled the text in various places and in a variety of ways, to eliminate the use of “Thou” to address the Almighty (doing this almost always requires other alterations which, taken together, uglify the hymn) or to make the hymn more “inclusive” (apparently referring to “my soul” is regarded as excluding others) or for other dubious motives. Sadly, these alterations never seem to be made by anyone with any sensitivity to the poetic integrity of the hymn.
  2. In all of its forms, mangled and unmangled, this hymn is almost always sung to the tune Gott Sei Dank (sometimes called Lübeck), a tune also used for “Spread, O spread, thou Mighty Word.” Here is the hymn tune played on the organ.

This article originally appeared on the Common Prayers blog.

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