“Rejoice, the Lord is King!”

“Rejoice, the Lord is King!” January 1, 2023

 

Dante with Firenze
Dante holds a copy of his “Divine Comedy” in a fresco by Domenico di Michelino (1417-1491). With his right hand, he gestures toward a procession of sinners heading into Hell. Behind him on his right is Mount Purgatory, with repentant sinners toiling upward on its path. Behind him, to his left, is the city of Florence, including the dome of its cathedral and the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. In the distance are the celestial spheres through which he will ascend during his tour of Paradise. Thus, all three books of the “Divina Commedia” — “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso” — are represented in this painting.   (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

 

Today, 1 January 2023, is a Sunday — and that fact seems wholly appropriate to me as those of us who attended sacrament meeting today were able to renew our covenants in the ordinance of the Lord’s supper.  It also seemed exceptionally appropriate that our opening hymn, the very first hymn of this new year, was “Rejoice, the Lord is King!” by the prolific eighteenth-century Methodist hymn writer Charles Wesley, who was the younger brother of the great founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley:

 

1. Rejoice, the Lord is King!

Your Lord and King adore!

Mortals, give thanks and sing

And triumph evermore.

[Chorus]

Lift up your heart! Lift up your voice!

Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!

Lift up your heart! Lift up your voice!

Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!

2. The Lord, the Savior, reigns,

The God of truth and love.

When he had purged our stains,

He took his seat above.

3. His kingdom cannot fail;

He rules o’er earth and heav’n.

The keys of death and hell

To Christ the Lord are giv’n.

 

Here’s a rendition of the hymn by the Tabernacle Choir:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9tG8dzDn7I  It is good to begin the year with remembrance of the Lord, to whom the keys of death and hell have been given, and with an expression of joy in his sovereignty.

 

Curiously, though, I began to think of yet another hymn that we did not actually sing today.  I’ll come to it presently.  First, however, a few short prefatory notes:

 

Famously, the fourteenth-century Divina Commedia of the great Dante Alighieri begins, in its very first line, with the poet finding himself nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, “midway upon the journey of our life.”  The metaphor of life as a journey predates the fourteenth century, of course, and continues to be used commonly still today.  (Think, for example, of President Russell M. Nelson’s powerful image of “the covenant path.”)  It may lie behind the twenty-third psalm:

 

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

 

It certainly provides the context for the passages in the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews that speak of the faithful as travelers and sojourners in this mortal life and, accordingly, for all of the songs that have been inspired by that image:

 

13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

14 For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. . . .

15 And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.

16 But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

 

And, of course, there are many other examples, including this one from the first chapter of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring:

 

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

 

But this, oddly, is the hymn that came to my mind this morning.  As everybody who is familiar with it knows, it was written on the cold plains of the American Midwest during the forced migration of Latter-day Saint refugees from their abandoned city of Nauvoo, Illinois, to the Great Basin West beyond the Rocky Mountains.  But it occurred to me that William Clayton’s lyrics also fit us in our individual “exiles” and “emigrations”:

 

1. Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear;

But with joy wend your way.

Though hard to you this journey may appear,

Grace shall be as your day.

’Tis better far for us to strive

Our useless cares from us to drive;

Do this, and joy your hearts will swell—

All is well! All is well!

2. Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard?

’Tis not so; all is right.

Why should we think to earn a great reward

If we now shun the fight?

Gird up your loins; fresh courage take.

Our God will never us forsake;

And soon we’ll have this tale to tell—

All is well! All is well!

3. We’ll find the place which God for us prepared,

Far away in the West,

Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;

There the Saints will be blessed.

We’ll make the air with music ring,

Shout praises to our God and King;

Above the rest these words we’ll tell—

All is well! All is well!

4. And should we die before our journey’s through,

Happy day! All is well!

We then are free from toil and sorrow, too;

With the just we shall dwell!

But if our lives are spared again

To see the Saints their rest obtain,

Oh, how we’ll make this chorus swell—

All is well! All is well!

(The Tabernacle Choir performs “Come, Come, Ye Saints” in a classic arrangement here, accompanied by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.)

 

And then I thought of this hymn, far less commonly sung among the Saints, that was written by Joseph Fielding Smith (1876-1972), who eventually served as the tenth president of the Church:

 

1. Does the journey seem long,

The path rugged and steep?

Are there briars and thorns on the way?

Do sharp stones cut your feet

As you struggle to rise

To the heights thru the heat of the day?

2. Is your heart faint and sad,

Your soul weary within,

As you toil ’neath your burden of care?

Does the load heavy seem

You are forced now to lift?

Is there no one your burden to share?

3. Let your heart be not faint

Now the journey’s begun;

There is One who still beckons to you.

So look upward in joy

And take hold of his hand;

He will lead you to heights that are new—

4. A land holy and pure,

Where all trouble doth end,

And your life shall be free from all sin,

Where no tears shall be shed,

For no sorrows remain.

Take his hand and with him enter in.

Now, these two hymns have a somewhat mournful, facing-difficulties-and-facing-possible-death quality to them, which is not actually my mood on this New Year’s Day — though, beyond question, deaths and illnesses and challenges and difficulties will occur during 2023.  Rather, my mood is one of optimism and even excitement.  For a new year is not only a time to build on the good things of the previous one, but a time for new resolution, new resolutions, and fresh starts.  Today is the first day of a continued journey toward good things, with many good things along the way as well.  Here is a Deseret News column that I published back in 2013, emphasizing the point that “the atonement and gospel of Jesus Christ . . . are very much about rebirth, new beginnings and limitless possibilities”:   “‘‘Behold, I make all things new’”

Happy New Year to One and All!

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