Singing in the Face of Death

Despite its association with joy and hope, Christmas and the New Year are also a season in which we might think of death. We are starkly aware of friends and family who were here last Christmas, but not this one. We face the reality that this Christmas may be the last we enjoy with those who are aging or terminally ill.

Several years ago, David Ward and I met for a songwriting retreat for the purpose of writing a few songs on subjects that were rarely addressed in corporate worship music. One of those subjects was death.

We are convinced that death is one topic that Christians don’t sing enough about. We do not mean what lies beyond death—the glories of heaven—but death itself. Even though Christians have the assurance that death has been conquered and its sting removed (1 Corinthians 15:54-57), we still face physical death and the fears and sorrows that accompany it. This song allows us to confront our grief but offers the encouragement of how Christ can transform it into hope so that we do “not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

We began this time with a pre-existing tune, “Love Unknown” by John Ireland. To our knowledge, this beautiful tune had been used for only one hymn, the text for which Ireland wrote it—”My Song is Love Unknown.” Along with writing on neglected subjects, we hoped to give this haunting tune another opportunity to be used in the church, and it seemed to fit our subject matter perfectly.

The result of this retreat was “O Weary Saint,” a hymn to encourage believers facing their own death. (Go ahead. Follow the link and have a listen. You can finish this post later.)

The text begins by acknowledging the despair that we might feel facing death. Our heart and flesh are now failing. The field before us looks bare, without hope of harvesting anything but tears. And the question we all face, as death approaches and fears increase, is “Where is there comfort?”

The second verse points to Christ—specifically to his experience of the same situation. He looked at the barren field of death. Like a seed, he was sown into the grave after dying for sins that were not his own. But then he arose as the firstfruits, the guarantee of the harvest to follow.

The final verse encourages the departing one to take their eyes off of death and look up in hope. For all those who are in Christ will rise one day like him, whole and healed. Our hope is not that we will avoid death. Our hope is that “death is gain”—for to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord—and that one day we will live in a New Earth, where tears and sighs will not remain.

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