LSB 369 Where Shepherds Lately Knelt
Commentary for Vajda Hymn Sing
WELS National Conference on Worship, Music, & the Arts
Jaroslav J. Vajda is one of God’s good gifts to the church and is arguably, as one person has suggested, “the greatest Lutheran poet since Paul Gerhardt who lived 350 years ago.” The son of a Lutheran pastor, he grew up in what is now East Chicago, Indiana, playing the violin at the age of 12, and by the age of 16 was translating Slovakian short stories into English. After his seminary years, he served bilingual congregations in Indiana and Pennsylvania, he was an editor and book developer at Concordia Publishing House. He began writing poetry at the age of 18 and made his first translation from the Slovak a few years later.
His contributions to Christian hymnody have been significant. He has authored more than 200 hymn texts and translations. Seven of his original hymn texts are found in Christian Worship together with one hymn translation from the Slovak. His work appear in every major Lutheran hymnal and in virtually every major hymnal of various Christian denominations. It has been my privilege as a composer to have set over 30 of Jaroslav Vajda’s texts to music for congregational singing.
I would mention three aspects of Vajda’s writing to note: first his ability to fashion a striking new image or to reshape an older image, recasting it in a way to bring fresh insight and understanding. Second is his affinity for less usual textual forms and meters. Third is the strong theological thrust of his hymn texts.
Amid the current flood of new hymnody–so much of it bland and insipid, on the one hand, or obtuse or overly clever, one the other, the work of Jaroslav Vajda stands as a unique testimony to clarity of expression, careful craftsmanship, and theological integrity. His writing is both accessible and popular in the best since of those terms.
Ultimately the texts of Jaroslav Vajda are a sign to God’s people, a sign of hopefulness, expectation, and promise, They are a sign that the Holy Spirit has not forsaken his church, that we are still given new songs to sing, until that time when all our singing will be joined to that last and greatest song of the Lamb in eternity.
Where shepherds lately knelt
One might realistically ask “What is there left to say about Christmas and the scene at the manger?” A request to Jaroslav Vajda and myself from Augsburg Publishing House for a Christmas song for their 1987 Christmas Annual, a request which repeated the 1981 request the result of which was the well-received and popular “Before the marvel of this night,” Vajda “wondered what fresh approach and contemporary application could be made of that central event in history. . . Rather than report the event again in the third person, as so many Christmas songs do, I placed myself in spirit at that poor manger bed and reviewed the implications of that visit in my life and future and in that of my fellow human beings.” Hence, the text suggests that not only were the usual characters–shepherds, angels, animals, Mary, Joseph–at the manger, but also Isaiah, who presumably came to see if his prophecies were fulfilled.
The original metrical structure of the text was 220.127.116.11.4.4.2 was modified by me to 12.12.10, a change which Vajda agreed made the lines more fluent and which give additional attention to the refrain. The music, Vajda graciously remarked, “captured the mood and style of the text” just as he had hoped. This hymn or carol ends with the beautiful words: “Can I, will I forget how Love was born and burned its way into my heart–unasked, unforced, unearned, to die, to live, and not alone for me?” The repetition of that final phrase brings this carol to a beautiful conclusion.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jaroslav Vajda (April 28, 1919 – May 10, 2008) was an American hymnist.
Vajda was born to a Lutheran pastor of Slovak descent. His father, Rev. John Vajda, was a pastor in East Chicago, Ind. at Holy Trinity Slovak Lutheran Church. This is where Jaroslav had his beginning learning from his father and his mother, Maria. Jaroslav had two brothers, Ludovit and Edward, both pastors, now deceased.
Vajda received musical training in childhood and began translating classical Slovak poetry at age eighteen. Vajda did not write his first hymn until age 49. From that time until his death in 2008 at age 89, he wrote over 200 original and translated hymns that appear worldwide in more than 65 hymnals. He also published two collections of hymn texts, numerous books, translations, and articles. Vajda served on hymnal commissions for Hymnal Supplement (1969) and Lutheran Book of Worship (1978).
Vajda is a Fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, and is the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates recognizing hymnic contributions. After 18 years in a mostly bilingual ministry he became the editor of This Day Magazine and then became a book editor and developer at Concordia Publishing House. Jaroslav Vajda retired in 1986
List of hymns written by Jaroslav Vajda (not exhaustive):
- "God of the Sparrow"
- "Before the Marvel of This Night"
- "Ever Since the Savior Came"
- "A Dove Flew Down From Heaven"
- "Slumber, Lovely Baby"
- "Someone Special"
- "Where Shepherds Lately Knelt"
- "Peace Came to Earth"
- "Wake, Shepherds, Awake"
- "The King the Wise Men Found"
- "Go, My Children, with My Blessing"
- "Then the Glory"
- "Now the Silence"
- "In Hopelessness and Near Despair"
- "Jesus, Take Us to the Mountain"
- "When You Woke That Thursday Morning"
- Amid the World's Bleak Wilderness