Someone once remarked that I seem to know the words of many hymns by heart. To an extent that’s true, but after the second verse I usually end up humming along if a hymnal isn’t handy.
Forty-six years of seminary and ministry have accustomed my brain to the words of many hymns. However, I have discovered that the “old” versions, with thee and thou, are the first to come from my lips. When the verses have been modernized to read you, I have to do some fast thinking. To be honest, I wonder if we haven’t lost something by fiddling with old hymns in that way.
I once regarded thee and thou as formal expressions of respect for God, the way we once expressed the vast difference between God and us. But their meaning is exactly the opposite of what I had thought. In Middle English (in use from the 12th through the 15th century), you was the formal way to address another person. Thou was the informal way to address loved ones, parents, close friends and children. It was the word used with those closest to us, with whom we had an intimate relationship — and it is precisely for that reason that it was used when speaking or singing to God.
English translations of psalms and hymns referred to God as thou not because he is distant and unreachable, but because he is a close friend, an intimate! As Jesus taught his disciples, that is the kind of relationship his heavenly Father extends to us all.
Cry out, ‘Abba!’
When I first visited the Holy Land many years ago, our tour included a day at the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. The Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea, and because there are no rivers leading out of the sea, the heat evaporates much of the water, leaving heavy salt and mineral deposits. One has to wear sandals to wade in the shallow water, because the seabed is lined with sharp stones.
The day we visited, I noticed that a small child had strayed from his family and was tiptoeing painfully on the rocks. He began to cry out to his dad for help. “Abba!” he screamed tearfully. It dawned on me for the first time what it means that Jesus taught us to call his Father Abba.
In his agony, Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” (Mark 14:36) Abba is Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus), and when St. Mark wrote his Gospel in Greek, he preferred to keep the Aramaic expression, because it revealed the intimacy of Son and Father. Children used Abba to speak to their dads, and the early Church took up the same use.
St. Paul wrote, “As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” (Galatians 4:6-7)
‘You are my friends’
Jesus used another expression to teach his disciples about their relationship to him. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:13-15) Because we are adopted children of the Father, friends and brothers and sisters of Jesus, we can cry out with the divine Son of God, “Abba!”
God, through whom everything exists and without whom nothing exists, who created the universe and all that is in it, who breathed life into us and saved us from sin, who is the perfection of knowledge and freedom and truth, does not want to be distant from us. Instead, he invites every one of us to intimate love and friendship. So great is his love that he gave us his Son. The Son revealed to us the extraordinary familiarity and intimate love of the Father. And the Holy Spirit sustains us in unity with Father and Son.
There is no disrespect in addressing God the way we do our closest friends and loved ones; in fact, that is how he introduces himself. Blessed are we when we accept his hand in friendship and nourish that friendship with prayer and love. Nothing in this life is more powerful.
To be honest, if thee and thou fall spontaneously from my lips when singing a memorized hymn, I’m glad I trip on the words, because I’m reminded of an insight from a trip to the Dead Sea and a simple English lesson. After all, the point is not the words, but the love.
Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
For all the benefits thou hast won for me,
For all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O merciful Redeemer, Friend,
May I know thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
And follow thee more nearly:
For ever and ever. Amen.
(St. Richard of Chichester, 1197–1254)
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - July/August 2017