November 14: “My Lord, What a Morning”

“‘Immediately after the suffering of those days

the sun will be darkened,

   and the moon will not give its light;

the stars will fall from heaven,

   and the powers of heaven will be shaken.

Then the sign of the Human One will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Human One coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.’” Matthew 24:29-31

“My Lord, What a Morning” is a spiritual with a call-and-response, verse-refrain structure. As with many spirituals, the text does not have a single author or composer but was probably written collectively. Many spirituals were indeed written by enslaved people, but “My Lord, What a Morning” was more likely written by free Black people in a northern city. An early version was published in Philadelphia in 1801 by Richard Allen. The text of the spiritual refers to multiple passages in scripture, from falling stars in Revelation and Matthew to the trumpet blasts in 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians.

Different spellings of the word “morning,” which appears as “mourning” in some publications of the hymn, date to the mid-1800s. Though most modern hymnals use “morning,” the “mourning” spelling has persisted, and it resonates. After all, it is deeply biblical to struggle with the day of the Lord and the second coming of Jesus: is that day a morning in which hope dawns on the horizon or a mourning in which the old world trembles, falls apart, and passes away? (Spoiler: it’s both.) The publication history of “My Lord, What a Morning” suggests that the morning and the mourning alike are important for our spirituality.

The music that accompanies the text is anonymous. Like the text, it may have been composed by groups of worshipers singing and improvising together. It is named for the famous Black composer Harry T. Burleigh, who popularized many spirituals among white audiences and narrowed the perceived gap between white Western art music and the music of Black Americans. Listen for the music’s deliberate and flexible pacing, its expressive latitude, and its ability to paint a whole musical picture, one phrase at a time.

The ambivalent anticipation of morning and mourning help us lean into the birth pangs described by Jesus in today’s gospel text. As God’s promises come to fruition, the stars will fall and the nations will tremble. Old systems of oppression and control will be destroyed to make way for God’s reign. Even the people who died before they saw God’s promises fulfilled will rise as the stars fall to inherit a world where they will be free.

Bulletin version: Though authorship is anonymous, “My Lord, What a Morning” was written and composed by free Black people in the early nineteenth century. The text is full of biblical imagery of the second coming of Jesus. While it expresses awe and dread of the trumpet and the falling stars, it is also hopeful that God’s promised justice has finally arrived, and even “the nations underground” are included in the promise.

Resources: You can learn more about this hymn in Paul Westermeyer’s Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2010) and in C. Michael Hawn’s “History of Hymns: ‘My Lord, What a Morning’ (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-my-lord-what-a-morning).

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