“O Day Full of Grace”: A Scandinavian Hymn for Pentecost
What a joyous, happy event a birthday is! When a child is born, the family rejoices. A birthday is something to remembered in a special way each year. The Day of Pentecost, the 50th day after Easter is a birthday, too, the birthday of the Christian church. What a memorable day that was! The disciples and a small group of other believers had gathered in a room in Jerusalem. There they heard the rushing, mighty wind, saw the tongues of fire, and received the gift of languages. These were the outward signs that the Holy Spirit had come as Jesus had promised. On that unforgettable day 3000 persons were baptized and added to the church.
From that beginning, the gospel of Jesus has been carried to all parts of the world. The Holy Spirit has continued to work in the hearts and minds of believers today through the means of grace, God’s Word and Sacraments.
A gift so wondrous as the Holy Spirit is difficult for us to imagine. God has gives us His Holy Spirit as a gift of grace. The word “grace” means favor given to us by God even though we have nothing to deserve it. God’s gifts of love and mercy and kindness are given to us freely because Christ has paid the price for them by His perfect life and innocent death.
The grace of God is theme of the Danish folk hymn for Pentecost, “O Day Full of Grace” (ELH 401, LSB 503, LW 162). Versions of this hymn were sung throughout Scandinavia prior to the Reformation. The earliest manuscript dates to about 1450 and is in the library of the University of Uppsala, and the first Protestant hymnal to include it was Den danske Psalmebog in 1569. In 1826, as part of the commemoration of the thousandth anniversary of Christianity being brought to Denmark, Nikolai Grundtvig recast the hymn. Lutheran hymnals of the late 19th century and early 20th century in North America name Gruntvig as the hymn writer. Because a number of Grundtvig’s hymns are in praise of the Holy Spirit, he is known as the Poet of Whitsuntide.
DEN SIGNEDE DAG, one of Christoph Weyse’s finest tunes, indeed, one of the grandest tunes to come out of Scandinavia was written in 1826 for this hymn by Grundtvig. It was included in Weyse’s Koralbog in 1839.
Just as the work of the Holy Spirit is to point us to Christ, so this Pentecost hymn focuses on Christ and His redemptive work. The first two verses focuses on His incarnation and birth, in language of “light” coming into a “dark” place, imagery common to the Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany seasons.
Oh day full of grace that now we see Appearing on earth’s horizon, Bring light from our God that we may be Replete in his joy this season. God, shine for us now in this dark place; Your name on our hearts emblazon.
How blest was that gracious midnight hour, when Christ in the flesh was given; then flushed from the east the dawn with pow’r, that spread o’er the darkened heaven; then rose o’er the world that sun divine which gloom from our hearts has driven.
The third verse brings us to the Cross, where Christ work of salvation was completed by His atoning death, and to the empty tomb, where Christ’s victory over sin and death was declared.
For Christ bore our sins, and not his own, When he on the cross was hanging; And then he arose and moved the stone, That we, unto him belonging, Might join with angelic hosts to raise Our voices in endless singing.
The fourth verse is the only one to mention Pentecost and the Holy Spirit explicitly.* Pentecost is described in terms of God coming to us, and the work of the Holy Spirit as bringing “to us all” the “healing” provided by Christ’s death and resurrection.
God came to us then at Pentecost, His Spirit new life revealing, That we might no more from Him be lost, All darkness for us dispelling. His flame will the mark of sin efface And bring to us all His healing.
The final stanza brings us to the end of our lives and into eternity, reminding us that the goal of the Holy Spirit’s work is to “strengthen and keep us steadfast in His Word and in faith until our end” (Small Catechism, Third Petition).
When we on that final journey go That Christ is for us preparing, We’ll gather in song, our hearts aglow, All joy of the heavens sharing, And walk in the light of God’s own place, With angels his name adoring.
*In some versions of the hymn, the Spirit is not mentioned. Instead, the fourth verse the folk-hymn tells us how even trees and birds would sing the praise of God “for giving us this day of grace, for life that shall never perish.” The same version mentions God keeping “His church,” “these thousand years.”
Were all of the trees endowed with speech, were all of the leaflets singing, they never with praise His worth could reach, though earth with their praise were ringing. Who fully could praise the Light of Life, who light to our souls is bringing?
As birds in the morning sing God’s praise, His fatherly love we cherish, for giving to us this day of grace, for life that shall never perish. His Church He has kept these thousand years, and hungering souls did nourish.
http://crossalone.us/2006/WorshipResources/OverlookedFuneralHymns.pdf Accessed 5/16/13
http://www.danishchurch.vancouver.bc.ca/service/weddingmusic/ggg196.html Accessed 5/16/13
Katharine J. Weller, We Sing to God, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1964
Mary Kay Stulken, Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.