and even you, our sister death

Image from "The Green Canticle"
I am privy to a wonderful conversation that takes place most Wednesdays at Margaret & Lloyd's home. There Margaret, Gerald and I wrestle out the hymns for Sunday as we also wrestle out the sermon as best we can from the given text. Margaret leads The Singers, who accompany the congregation's singing. Gerald accompanies our song on the piano and organ. Both are keen readers of scripture. I always learn something. This week is no different, though I found it particularly surprising that I have been in ministry this long and have only learned it now. As we were looking for a strong opening hymn we noted that the weather is expected to continue to be glorious. I suggested a favorite of mine - "All Creatures of Our God and King" translated from St. Francis' of Assissi's Canticle of the Sun in 1225 (which given our denomination's apparent current fascination with music - and, I fear, with theology - written after 1990 makes this one of those "classic" hymns that are way out of date and out of step). One is hard pressed to find a more relevant hymn when it comes to concern for the creation as Francis invites all of nature to sing God's praise long before he invites humans to add their voices. In fact, the original begins with four verses of invitation to the natural world to sing the song of praise. In the United / Anglican hymn book of 1971 that section was reduced to three verses, in order to keep things moving along and to fit the hymn onto the page. Then there were (and still are, in our current hymn book Voices United) two other verses. The fourth invites those of "tender heart" to "forgiving others take your part". I have always found this a lovely move - equating praise of God with forgiveness of others; love of God with love of neighbour. We expect Francis to have us sing our praises but the first act of praise is "forgiving others". And then it is the call to those who "long pain and sorrow bear" to sing praise. We imagine that it is those who look outside at a wonderful day, living lives of relative ease, who can name many obvious blessings who would be eagerly singing praise - and they may be. But Francis also invites in particular those with chronic pain and sorrow to join the hallelujahs. Then there is a grand summary verse to close the hymn. Yet that is not all. That is not the surprise. Here is where my learning occurred. Gerald remembered another verse, gone from our hymnody since 1971 when it was dropped. Dropped why? Because of space concerns? Maybe. I will let you decide. You will find the verse below, the fourth verse in the version that we will sing together to open the service on Sunday:

All creatures of our God and King,
lift up your voice and with us sing:
hallelujah, hallelujah!
Bright burning sun with golden beam,
soft shining moon with silver gleam,
sing praises, sing praises, hallelujah ...

O rushing winds and breezes soft,
O clouds that ride the winds aloft,
sing praises, hallelujah!
O rising morn, in praise rejoice;
O lights of evening find a voice:
sing praises, sing praises, hallelujah ...

And everyone of tender heart,
forgiving others, take your part:
sing praises, hallelujah!
All who long pain and sorrow bear,
praise God and yield up all your care:
sing praises, sing praises, hallelujah ...

And even you, our sister death,
waiting to hush our final breath:
sing praises, hallelujah!
You lead back home the child of God,
for Christ our Lord that way has trod:
sing praises, sing praises, hallelujah ...

Let all things their Creator bless,
and worship God in humbleness:
sing praises, hallelujah!
Praise God eternal, praise the Son,
and praise the Spirit, three in one:
sing praises, sing praises, hallelujah ...

 from “Canticle of the Sun” by St. Francis of Assisi, 1225

Francis begins with an open invitation to the creation to sing God's praise. Then he urges women and men to add their song - through forgiveness and out of sorrow and pain. Finally, he invites death itself to sing God's praise. It, too, is part of creation where God's hand is at work, where God's praise can be sung. I have sung this hymn many, many times. I like it. But I have never sung the verse that includes death. Why not? Why was this verse dropped in 1971 when it would have been easy, as we have done for Sunday, to drop one of the verses about nature in order to include one about death? I expect that, of all the verses, it was the most sombre, the "downer' verse, when compared with the soaring poetry about sun, moon, wind, rain. When we can avoid talking about death we have habits of doing just that - avoiding, even in our hymns. The removal of this verse is a kind of a parable of what we have been doing when it comes to speaking of dying for a long time now in our churches. What we once called Funerals (namely, rituals of death) we now euphemistically name Celebrations of Life. Anything to keep the word - and reality - of death at bay.

By recovering the verse this hymn becomes a hymn not only to sing on a glorious September Sunday morning but also at a funeral or memorial service, also in the season of Easter. It reminds me of the concerns raised in the book I mentioned a few weeks back "Speaking of Dying". Singing this verse normalizes our talk of death and dying. Singing it reminds us that death and dying are addressed by the gospel. I am grateful for Gerald's memory of this verse which also links with the text to be read on Sunday in which Jesus call his followers to die in his service (the scripture for the day - Mark 8:22-9:1).

By the way, the traditional translation of this missing verse in "All Creatures of our God and King" includes the words "and even you, most gentle death". The original Canticle for the Sun does not mention the word gentle. It was a translator's choice. Since not all death is gentle I asked Gerald if he might think of an alternate wording, to which he responded with: "And even you, our sister death" which nicely picks up on St. Francis' use of "brother sun, sister moon". I am looking forward to singing it all with you who can join us at University Hill Congregation to open the service on Sunday (a gentle nudge to be on time, if possible). For another - more humorous - take on the this hymn there is this video clip of Mr. Bean trying to eat a sweet and sing "All Creatures of our God and King" at the same time


  1. Wow! I love that verse, though I can imagine it wasn't just deleted for lack of space! It doesn't coincide with our current concept of "battling cancer" or being a 'fighter' during a medical issue. How much better to do the best you can and be more accepting of the journey God is giving.

    Thanks for the Mr. Bean clip! Halleluah!!