(Written ca 1637)
“Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” Jeremiah 33:11
In less than two weeks we will be celebrating a Thanksgiving, as we say, like no other that most of us have celebrated in our lifetimes. In these days the cases of Covid-19 seem to be rising relentlessly as hospitalization increase and families continue to lose precious loved ones. We are being greatly encouraged not to gather in large family gatherings and rather share our Thanksgiving tables only with those with whom we live every day. It seems like the days ahead—usually holidays of celebration—are going to be a dark and foreboding time.
You may have a feeling similar to the one I’m having that comes from deep within my soul that wants to cry out to God just to connect with God and know that God is good and that his steadfast love still endures. Maybe this will reassure us that we yet have much for which to give thanks this year.
One of my favorite hymns of this time of year is “Now Thank We All Our God.” I always want to be able to sing it at least a few times as the church year comes to a close and we celebrate Thanksgiving.
Now I have reason to sing this hymn this year like I have never sung it before—and in my singing may just accomplish what I suggested in the second paragraph above. You see, in all my years of singing this hymn, I never learned the story behind how it came to be. Just a week ago, the story came to light as it was used as an illustration in a book that I am reading.
Here’s the story. Pastor Martin Rinkart, a Lutheran pastor, came to serve a church in Eilenburg, Saxony, the town of his birth at the beginning of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Eilenburg was a walled city that became a refuge for political and military fugitives and the result was overcrowding, deadly epidemics, and famine. On three occasions the city was overrun by invading armies. Time and again Rinkart and his family welcomed into their home these strangers who sometimes plundered their meager stock of food and household goods. Often Rinkart was hard-pressed to provide for his own family. Yet, even in these extreme circumstances he was a faithful, caring pastor who attended to the needs of the sick and the hungry.
In 1637 a deadly epidemic spread through Eilenburg, eventually claiming 8000 lives including the vast majority of the town council, an exorbitant number of children, two other pastors (another fled the city) and even Rinkart’s own wife. Left as the only pastor in the city, Pastor Rinkart often buried as many as 40 to 50 persons in one day (and 4480 in one year)!
In the face of the long-running war and the deadly epidemic, Rinkart wrote the hymn of thanksgiving we know as “Now Thank We All Our God” as a simple table grace for his children.
Now, knowing the story, I think you will understand why this hymn of thanksgiving is so particularly timely in this Covid-19 year, and why, as I sing it, it will touch me deeply in my soul as it never has before. It is also why I say that I will never sing it quite same again.
Perhaps it will do the same for you.
Let us pray, or sing, or say:
Now thank we all our God
with hearts and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom this world rejoices;
who, from our mothers’ arms,
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.
Oh, may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us,
and keep us all in grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all harm
in this world and the next.
All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given,
the Son, and Spirit blessed,
who reign in highest heaven,
the one eternal God,
whom earth and heaven adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.
You can find accompaniment for the hymn here.