Editor’s note: Martin Luther famously said, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 53). The ELCA still holds tightly to Luther’s understanding. In this series, we’re exploring Lutheran music throughout history, the importance of music to the Lutheran faith and how that tradition continues today across styles and expressions.
“We are called to ponder mystery and await the coming Christ.”
With these words, Jeannette Lindholm begins the final stanza of her Advent hymn “Unexpected and Mysterious” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship [ELW], 258). The words offer invitation and challenge. What does it mean to ponder mystery? How do the hymns we sing serve as one way to embrace the unexpected mystery of God come among us in Jesus?
The fact that Lindholm took up the art of hymn writing is less of a mystery. Music and hymns surrounded her throughout her childhood in Minnesota. Her mother and grandmother played the piano. “I grew up singing hymns,” she said.
This nurturing in music was accompanied by an early love of poetry, culminating in doctoral studies in women in literature. Lindholm’s interest in the topic and the Bible can be seen in “Unexpected and Mysterious,” written in 1996, early in her career. At the center of this hymn is the story of Mary and Elizabeth as recorded in Luke 1. Lindholm has always been drawn to this story for the way the two women relate to one another. “Elizabeth embodies so much grace to Mary,” she said. “They embodied grace for each other.”
When we consider Mary and song, it makes perfect sense to think first of her song, the Magnificat. But, Lindholm noted, “Mary does not sing this song until after her encounter with Elizabeth.” We wonder if Elizabeth’s affirmation encouraged Mary in her song.
“Elizabeth embodies so much grace to Mary. They embodied grace for each other.”
This sense of graceful affirmation is woven through the text of the hymn. One of the primary characteristics of “Unexpected and Mysterious” is Lindholm’s use of inclusive and expansive imagery for God. At the time of writing it, she intentionally used feminine imagery in hopes of continued progress for the church on this front. Part of pondering mystery is being aware that our language falls short in describing God. In such pondering, new words and expressions can both comfort and challenge.
A meditative, quiet strength
Strictly speaking, a hymn is a poem. Yet when we refer to hymns, we assume the definition also includes the tune. Often the tune and text are written independently of each other. In the case of “Unexpected and Mysterious,” Lindholm wrote it with the tune “St. Helena” in mind.
Lindholm first encountered the late Calvin Hampton’s “St. Helena” while worshiping at her church, St. Mary’s Episcopal, Rockport, Mass. She had sung it to Frederick Faber’s hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” (also in the ELW, 587). “I was drawn to the tune from the first time I sang it,” she said.
By joining this tune to the text of “Unexpected and Mysterious,” Lindholm intended to call forth the sense of wide mercy that also characterizes Faber’s hymn. The tune lends itself to a meditative, quiet strength she hoped to communicate concerning Mary and Elizabeth’s encounter.
But ELCA members weren’t introduced to the text with Lindholm’s preferred tune. In the years leading up to its publication in 2006, the Renewing Worship Songbook introduced the church to new pieces to consider for inclusion in ELW. This volume paired “Unexpected and Mysterious” with the tune “Jefferson,” most commonly sung to “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” (ELW, 254).
Cheryl Dieter, business manager of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians and a member of the ELW resource development staff, said that while the evaluations from the Renewing Worship process were mostly positive about including “Unexpected and Mysterious” in ELW, there was concern about the tune used. The “criticism came from the pairing of the text with ‘Jefferson,’ [suggesting] that it did not support the mystery of the text—and there was already a specifically Advent text with the tune,” she said. ELW would pair the text with “St. Helena,” as Lindholm had planned.
Incorporating and teaching a new hymn can be challenging. There is the discovery of the unfamiliar, the surprise of the unexpected. But the Spirit continues to work in writers and composers to craft new texts and tunes for the church. Many choir directors have found “Unexpected and Mysterious” worth the challenge, performing it regularly.
In Mary’s uncertainty, Elizabeth bestowed grace. What a gift that hymns such as “Unexpected and Mysterious” give us fresh language for singing of the grace we do not expect: Emmanuel, God with us.
Next: In January, this series will examine global Lutheran music.