I was trying to decide which hymn to write about this week, and my sweet son decided for me. He has been singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” for the past couple days, and it sure warms my mama heart. I didn’t realize how many of the lyrics he had memorized from this song! This particular hymn will forever hold special meaning and memories for me. When I sing it, I often picture all the saints and angels singing together in Heavenly Glory one day. It almost takes my breath away. As Stanton Nelson points out in his article about “Holy, Holy, Holy,” this song is unique in that it doesn’t initiate praise as most hymns do, but rather draws us in to “join in an endless song” for all eternity.

Back in 2015, after my brain surgery, I held onto the promise that one day I would be able to sing God’s praise again. Although the surgery left me with a daunting recovery, with so many of my cranial nerves temporarily damaged, one of the incredible miracles God did was to spare my vocal chords. The brain tumor was only millimeters away from the nerve which controls the vocal chords. This nerve was at high risk along with all of the other nerves, yet God guided my surgeon’s hands so perfectly. Before surgery, I had to be ready for anything, including the possibility of never singing again. I had to surrender that especially to the Lord, and trust that He would have another calling for me if singing was not in my future. I wrestled with my identity being not in what I do, but rather in who I am in Christ- a beloved child of God. I had to trust that even if my life held challenges or disabilities, that my life would still have purpose here on earth. Every life matters, even when there is suffering. Nothing is without purpose. There is redemption and beauty, even in pain, when we trust that God is Sovereign and good.

When I awoke from surgery, even though I couldn’t see anything clearly and the hearing was gone in my left ear, I knew immediately that my voice was going to be okay. Although my head was spinning and throbbing in unbearable pain, I had no pain at all in my throat. Even the anesthesiologists took so much extra care with my vocal chords (I remember during other minor surgeries in the past waking up with so much pain in my throat). As I made my way through the journey of recovery, and then was walking with Jamie through his own cancer battle, I eventually began to sing quietly at the piano again, months later. For some reason, God just put this old hymn on my heart. I fell in love with the lyrics and tune like never before. The Lord inspired a short bridge that I wrote in-between the verses. I was ecstatic to be arranging music again and writing, while also treasuring an old hymn. It felt so right to praise the holiness of God. It was a reminder that God was and is and always will be on the throne, and that to worship Him is truly an honor and joy. Every morning is filled with His mercy and hope. The darkness can never stop His glory and power from shining through.

Six long months after my surgery, it was August and week seven of Jamie’s chemotherapy (just three weeks before our wedding day). I had the joy of singing on Sunday, August 23rd at my home church in Delaware, Brandywine Valley Baptist. It was my first Sunday to sing again in church. That morning was raw emotion. The Holy Spirit was so present. We were in the thick of the battle still, yet the victory had already been won. The last six months had been filled with such pain and joy, and around the corner was the promise of a new journey- marriage. To be there with my church family and to give God the glory for all He had done and all He had yet to do, and to magnify Him for Who He is- forever Faithful and completely Holy- that was a gift beyond measure. To be able to open my lungs and sing His praise…something I didn’t know I’d be able to do again…I was overwhelmed in that moment.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!
You are Holy, my God
Thou art Holy, Lord God
You are Holy, my God
Thou art Holy, Lord God
Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Who wert and art and evermore shalt be.
You are Holy, my God
Thou art Holy, Lord God
You are Holy, my God
Thou art Holy, Lord God
Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see,
Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.
You are Holy, my God
Thou art Holy, Lord God
You are Holy, my God
Thou art Holy, Lord God

(Arrangement by Caitlin Jane © BMI)
The words of this old hymn were written by a man named Reginald Heber. Young Reginald was born in 1783 to a minister and his wife in Cheshire, England. From what we know, his childhood was a happy one in the small English village of Hodnet. Later, he went on to study at Oxford and became close friends with Sir Walter Scott. An avid poet, Heber won the Newdigate Prize for his poem “Palestine” at age twenty. He eventually took on his father’s role as vicar at the parish where he grew up in Hornet.

(Reginald Heber)

His gift of poetry turned into a passion for hymn-writing. During an age when most parishes were only singing the metrical Psalms, Heber dreamed of publishing a hymnal that would correspond to the church liturgical calendar. However, his Bishop disagreed and turned down his idea. In fact, hymn singing was prohibited by the Church of England (it was the Methodists who brought hymn singing to life, and other “dissenting” churches who sang the hymns of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and the likes). Heber actually eventually helped change the common thought that hymns were only something that “extreme Evangelicals” and Methodists could sing… (It is quite sad how style of worship has always been a cause of contention between Christ-followers down through the centuries. Unfortunately, we often idolize the songs and style instead of giving true worship and preference to Christ himself, the Person of our Worship). 
Heber did not give up writing hymns for his parish as he felt so convicted to do so, and he wrote a total of 57 hymns during his 16 years as vicar. With a heart to carry the gospel throughout the world, Heber eventually went to India as a missionary in 1822. From 1823-1826 he oversaw the Anglican Church’s mission to India as Bishop of Calcutta. There, he visited mission stations and churches throughout the country, preaching the gospel, confirming new believers in Christ, and building a training school for local preachers. He died suddenly, only a few years into his service there. He was in Trichinopoly, India the day he died, and had just preached to a large crowd. Afterward, he took a swim to bathe and cool off from being out in the hot sun, and ended up drowning due to a stroke. It was the year 1826. His dear widow found his 57 hymns in a trunk and eventually made his dream come true. The next year, in 1827, she had them published in Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Service of the Church Year.
Heber specifically wrote “Holy, Holy, Holy” for Trinity Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost) and his intention was that this hymn be sung before or after the congregational reading of the Nicene Creed. This trinitarian hymn celebrates the mystery, the beauty, the power, and the holiness of the God-head: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This hymn magnifies the name of the Lord and puts God in His rightful place. 

In 1861, 35 years after Heber’s death, a publisher discovered the lyrics to “Holy, Holy, Holy” and took them to John Bacchus Dykes to write a tune. He was a good candidate to come up with a tune, as Dykes wrote over 300 tunes to hymns throughout his life. Dykes was the choir director of the Durham Cathedral and co-founder of the Cambridge University Musical Society. As young vicar of the St. Oswald Parish, Dykes’s service to the church began at just ten years old when he started playing organ. He very much embraced the “high-church” tradition, appreciating the Church of England’s roots in Roman Catholicism. He was one that believed in the divine rights of the monarchy. His Bishop disagreed sharply with these views. (Heber and Dykes had at least one thing in common in ministry- their overseeing Bishops distinctly disagreed with some of their strong views about church worship…)

Within just 30 minutes of reading the text, Dykes wrote the tune NICAEA. It is safe to say, and few Christians would argue, this tune was truly Holy Spirit inspired. The tune he wrote was majestic and striking; one’s soul cannot help but be stirred by it. The meter is in the rare form, which is quite long compared to most hymns of its day. Also, the rhyme scheme so unique in that all four lines of each verse rhyme with the word “holy.”
(John Bacchus Dykes)

The tune, NICAEA, was named after the council of Nicaea, which took place in 325 A.D.. At that particular council, the Biblically-rooted theology of the Trinity was embraced and agreed upon by the early church leaders, who wrote down this belief into clear words. The Nicene Creed has continued to be held as true doctrine throughout all centuries since then, all over the world among all believers. These early Christian creeds have been so vital in keeping true to Scripture and unified as believers over the past two thousand years. The Nicene Creed, in particular, has been able to denounce heresies that claim that Christ was merely a man, and not Divine. 

Something that is so special about this hymn, in particular, is that it celebrates the “Trisagion” (Greek for “thrice holy”) that is found in both Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4. Isaiah’s vision dates back to the 8th Century B.C. and John’s revelation is from the 1st Century A.D. The passage in Isaiah speaks in language that indicates clearly the existence of God’s triune nature. God asks Isaiah, “Who will go for us?”  Dykes tune brilliantly interweaves themes of three to highlight the triplet of God’s holiness and the trinity of God’s being throughout the hymn. One of the ways he did this was using a rising third in the finale of the song. The tune is paired so exquisitely with the text- both radiate the truth of Scripture as well as the hope that we hold onto in the Holy, Everlasting Triune God, who is the glorious object of our eternal worship.
“In the year that King Uzziah died,
I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne;
and the train of His robe filled the temple.
Above Him were seraphim, each with six wings…
And they were calling to one another:
‘Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of His glory.'”
“After this I looked, and there before me
was a door standing open in heaven….
At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me
was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it…
A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne…
From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder…
Also in front of the throne there was what looked like
a sea of glass, clear as crystal. 
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures…
And they do not rest day or night, saying:
‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,
Who was and is and is to come!'”
(Revelation 4:8)

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. 
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father. Through Him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit.
He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day He rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
He ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and His Kingdom  will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son He is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. 
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Morgan, Robert J. Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2003.

Peterson, Randy. Be Still My Soul:The Inspiring Stories Behind 175 of the Most-Loved Hymns.Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2014.

Nelson, Stanton. “History of Hymns: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty.'”https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-holy-holy-holy-lord-god-almighty