Recently I heard the hymn “O God our Help in Ages Past” at the memorial service at my undergraduate reunion. I had heard that hymn many times on Remembrance Day in Canada, so it was very familiar. But this time, at a service for people I knew personally, it was that much more moving, and I was on the verge of tears.
The hymn was composed by Isaac Watts early in the eighteenth century and included in John Wesley’s hymnal. It tells of the shortness of human life (“they fly, forgotten, as a dream/dies at the opening day”) in contrast to the eternity of God (“A thousand ages in Thy sight/are like an evening gone”) and prays for divine refuge (“Be Thou our guard while troubles last,/and our eternal home”).
I think it is rarely heard on Remembrance Day because it seems too Christian, too theistic, and too archaic. Its place has been taken by choral settings of John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Field. McCrae was Canadian, the poem was written during the Great War, and it carries no theological baggage.
Yet I prefer “O God our Help in Ages Past.” It is in C major, meant to be sung be a congregation, and conveys hope and majesty. “In Flanders Field” is in a minor key and sung by a choir while the congregation listens. Its third verse, understandably in its historical context, urges us to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” That, however, strikes me as too bellicose for our time, as we seek to resolve disputes non-violently and commit our soldiers to peacekeeping operations. The next line – “to you from failing hands we throw/the torch; be yours to hold it high” – has become a cliché and, to my mind, has been misappropriated as a slogan in the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room.
“O God our Help in Ages Past” is a message of solace, entirely appropriate to any memorial service – as the service at our reunion reminded me – and I wish it were sung more widely on Remembrance Day.