Sunday morning sees a return to my ongoing series, “Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth.” I’ve selected “Fairest Lord Jesus” this week, and I didn’t realize how old this hymn really is, dating back to the 17th century, at least. A tradition has arisen that this song was sung by German Crusaders en route to Jerusalem in the 12th century, but it is more likely that it arose as a folk song among Silesian peasants who were the followers of John Hus and were driven from Bohemia in the anti-Reformation purge of 1620. The hymn passed along by oral tradition until 1820 when it was published in the form we now have. One of the points of this series is that our hymnology is one of the anchors to our past, so this selection is a prime example of just that.
In my youth we would sing this in church of course, and it seemed like any other plodding hymn that could really stand to pick up the pace and get to the end. Even so, there’s something of a restrained majesty in many of the lines extolling the greatness of Christ. Now as I think through the words again and consider the fact that people have been singing these words (well, those prior to translation) for nearly four centuries, the depth of their meaning and the anchor to the deep past begin to take hold.
The hymn speaks not only to the glory of God, but of the “fairness,” or beauty of the meadows and woodlands, of nature and creation — the sun, moon, and stars. Jesus, of course is purer and more beautiful, but in search of the most beautiful sight available so as to set Christ as a superlative above it, the hymnist lands upon nature, the creation itself which points to God. This is a fitting hymn for the week ahead, when I will be publishing an essay in two parts exploring some of these themes ahead of the Feast day of St. Francis of Assisi (October 4th), the patron saint of animals, birds, and the environment. To the lyrics, which I recommend reading meditatively, letting them sink into the soul.
Fairest Lord Jesus
Fairest Lord Jesus, ruler of all nature,
O thou of God and man the Son,
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor,
thou, my soul’s glory, joy, and crown.
Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands,
robed in the blooming garb of spring:
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer
who makes the woeful heart to sing.
Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight,
and all the twinkling starry host:
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer
than all the angels heaven can boast.
Beautiful Savior! Lord of all the nations!
Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, praise, adoration,
now and forevermore be thine.