Friday, August 1, 2014

St. Thomas Aquinas Church Choir -- "Come, Labor On" (2011)

Redeem the time
Its hours so swiftly fly
The night draws nigh

To paraphrase John Donne, ask not for whom the night draws nigh – the night draws nigh for thee, boys and girls.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended church while vacationing on Cape Cod for the first time in many years.

I did have something of an ulterior motive for going to church that Sunday.  The minister at the church we attended – St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in the village of Barnstable, MA -- is going to officiate at the wedding of one of my daughters on Cape Cod in September.  Going to one of her Sunday worship services seemed like a good way to pay our respects and strengthen our family’s relationship with her.

An old "half Cape" house on Route 6A
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is located on Route 6A in Barnstable.  Route 6A – also known as the “Old King’s Highway” – is Cape Cod’s most historic and scenic road, and the stretch of 6A that goes through Barnstable is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Barnstable – which is one of the oldest towns on Cape Cod -- is the county seat of Barnstable County, which encompasses the entirety of Cape Cod.  Here’s the county courthouse, which was built in 1831:

St. Mary’s was originally constructed in 1891, and has been enlarged three times since then.  The church was built in early rural English style:

The church has beautiful and extensive gardens:

We sat on the right side of the aisle, under some small stained-glass windows that depicted a number of Cape Cod’s flora and fauna – including a codfish, a clam, a dolphin, shore birds, and a Rosa rugosa shrub (a species native to eastern Asia that thrives in the sandy soil of Cape Cod).

Rosa rugosa
Given how infrequently I go to church, I was very fortunate indeed that my favorite hymn was included in the service we attended.

I’m not sure when Come, Labor On became my favorite hymn.  For some reason, I react to it very emotionally.  Every time I hear it sung, I tell everyone I’m with that I want it played at my funeral.  (I am serious about that.)

At first glance, Come, Labor On is not about death – it’s  about work.  The words of the hymn exhort Christians to get off their keisters, spread the gospel, and give ol’ Satan what for.

The hymn begins with these lines:

Come, labor on!
Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain 
While all around us waves the golden grain?

In the old days, when most men worked the land to earn their daily bread, the workday began at sunup and lasted until sundown – especially during the harvest season, when every minute counted. 

Here, the harvest is used as a metaphor for doing the Lord’s work.  Just as there’s no time for farmers to waste when the crops are ripe and ready to be harvested, there’s no time for Christians to waste when the devil is making mischief and the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

While most of us humans are pretty poor specimens, the hymn says that even the feeblest among us can contribute to accomplishing that task:

Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear! 
No arm so weak but may do service here: 
By feeblest agents may our God fulfill 
His righteous will

But time is flying – we have less of it than we like to admit, and need to use it wisely:  

Redeem the time 
Its hours so swiftly fly
The night draws nigh

Until the darkness falls, keep working!

Here’s the last verse of the hymn as it appears in the Episcopal hymnal:

Come, labor on!
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
Till the long shadows o'er our pathway lie,
And a glad sound comes with the setting sun:
"Servants, well done!" 

If that’s not the perfect conclusion for a funeral hymn, I don’t know what is.

The lyrics to “Come, Labor On” were written by Jane Borthwick (1813-1897), a Scottish poet who translated a number of German hymns into English.  Click here to see the complete lyrics.

St. Thomas Church, New York City
The music for the hymn was composed by T. Tertius Noble (1867-1953).  Noble, who had been the organist and choirmaster at two Church of England cathedrals, moved to New York City in 1913 to become the organist at St. Thomas, a well-known Episcopal church that is located at the corner of 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue.  He held that position until he retired in 1942.

This recording of “Come, Labor On” was made at a Baccalaureate Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Church in Charlottesville, VA, the day before the 2011 University of Virginia graduation exercises:

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