Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

In an unforgettable series of lectures on the saints based on Augustine’s “Steps of Wisdom,” given at an East Coast Ashram in 1953, Eric Hawkinson, then dean of North Park Seminary, concluded by dealing with a dimension in our Covenant heritage that I have seldom heard spoken of before or since—namely, ecstasy. “We have come out of ecstatic living,” he said, “often hidden but something in our forebears that never wore off.”

As a boy growing up, I felt this ecstasy in certain first-generation Mission Friends and in my own grandfather, but it was seldom expressed communally. It happened with me, however, when Jane and I were guests of the Annual Meeting of the Swedish Mission Covenant in June, 1974. On the evening when a number of men and women were to be ordained, the new Immanuel church was filled to the last seat. But unlike Americans, Swedes do not chatter when they enter the church. We all sat in perfect silence for thirty minutes until a man with a strong voice began singing a song by Nils Frykman, “O sällhet stor,” literally, “O bliss so great.” No hymn number was announced but all joined in spontaneously singing all five verses by heart. It was truly a moment of ecstasy for me and one that has never worn off. I left the service that evening with a resolve to translate that song—if not for others, at least for myself.

Several months passed during which I had been struggling with how to express poetically the ecstasy in the hymn, which I had felt in the original. Translating, believe me, is an arduous task. What happened next is one of those “Ah ha” moments that might be called ecstatic. At the Midwinter Conference in 1976, held at the Northbrook Covenant Church, I was greeted warmly, as always, by my dear friend of many years, Aaron Markuson, who took out of his coat pocket the translation of a song on which he had been working. “Here, Glen, take it and see what you can do with it.” For me, it was another of those moments of ecstasy. “I can’t believe it!” I exclaimed. “I have been working on the same song.” It was Frykman’s song, “O sällhet stor,” which he had heard sung by the much loved Swedish Gospel singer, Artur Erickson. So began a collaboration on the song, “How Great the Joy” (Hymn 552 of The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook).

For both of us there were some wrinkles in the text that we found difficult to iron out. In the second verse, for example, the literal translation of the last line is: “When the world’s pleasure comes to an end we have the best wine still.” The allusion, of course, is to the miracle at Cana of Galilee where Jesus turned the water into wine. Not only would some Pietists demur in singing about being connoisseurs of fine wine, but also it presented an almost insurmountable problem for the translator. The resolution of the dilemma was not that far off.

“When earthly pleasures reach their end our feast of joy will just begin.”

The song first appeared in the silver supplement, The Song Goes On (Hymn 117). When it was used, it seemed to strike a note of that ecstasy I felt in hearing it for the first time at Immanuel church. This was something I had also felt in that first generation of Mission Friends I knew, and something I felt in meeting Aaron Markuson at Northbrook. My one objection, however, is the same as what Karl Olsson had voiced earlier about his translation of “O Let Your Soul Now Be Filled with Gladness.” It is that people often sing it too fast. The text by Frykman is not one of triumphalism, as if ecstasy can somehow transcend hardship and travail. Rather, it is more like the bird singing through wind and storm. Or, like Eric Hawkinson quoting John Calvin: “Let us learn to be so delighted with Christ alone that the perception of his grace may overcome and at length remove from us all the distresses of the flesh.” Or, in my own words, learn to see and take to heart in the bleakest moments the ultimate goodness and joy of being God’s children and feel the need to praise and sing “Hallelujah!” Whatever tensions we may feel between the trials and hardships of the earthly journey and the Christian hope, Frykman’s song helps us feel ecstasy, if not now in its fullness, at least in the bridal feast that is waiting.

With joy we walk with Jesus here, how great a Friend is he!
But think what joy awaits us there, when heaven’s light we see.
Our hopes and dreams will be complete, when at the heav’nly feast we meet.
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, amen!”