We may put on a brave face for our friends, keep a stiff upper lip for our families, and exude confidence in our workplaces, but sometimes we wish we could just lay it all down and rest, enfolded in a place of absolute love and security.
“THY HOLY WINGS, O SAVIOR” (1865) is a lullaby of comfort in which Jesus is likened to a mother hen, spreading her wings over trembling chicks. Trembling chicks — that would be us. And if the hen image has too many feathers, here too is an image of the savior as a rock and hiding place.
FAITH FORGED BY TRAGEDY
The author of this gentle hymn was Sweden’s Karolina (Caroline) Sandell-Berg (1832-1903). By age 23, she had two published books of poems, although she did not put her name on the collections.
Her modest biography always features one central, life-changing event. When she was 26, she accompanied her beloved father, Jonas Sandell, a Lutheran pastor in Fröderyd, on a ship crossing Lake Vättern. Midway, the ship bucked in the waves and Rev. Sandell fell overboard and drowned. Lina (as she was known) watched in horror, unable to rescue him.
Following the tragedy, Lina sought and shaped her own consolation by writing hymn lyrics. It is believed that she penned as many as 2,000 hymns. Over 600 of them were published. Because she wrote so many hymns, she’s been called the “Fanny Crosby of Sweden.”
Her words were often sung at revival services throughout Scandinavian countries. Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” sang them in concert and helped finance their publication. Lina’s hymns were further promoted by guitarist Oscar Ahnfelt, Sweden’s “spiritual troubadour.” We are grateful to North Dakota-born Gracia Grindal (b. 1943) for translating this hymn into English.
Two years after her father’s death, Lina married Oscar Berg, a merchant who eventually served in the Swedish Parliament. Although her last name is usually presented as Sandell-Berg, she initialed her hymns with L.S.
IMAGES OF COMFORT AND CLEANSING
“Thy Holy Wings, O Savior,” set to a Swedish folk tune, recalls Jesus’s lament for Jerusalem in Luke 13: 34, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”
Given her father’s drowning, it is a little surprising that Lina used the image of “Noah’s cleansing flood” as a positive image in this hymn. Still, a good bath before bedtime fits, with a mothering savior reminding us to scrub behind the ears before we are tucked in for the night. How little and safe we feel — just for now.
It can be disconcerting if not downright embarrassing to admit that we long for a savior to cleanse us, tend us, mother us, protect us, loathing vulnerability as we do. Sometimes the only way to keep up our courage is to let down our defenses.
TO GO DEEPER
History of the hymn, by C. Michael Hawn on Discipleship Ministries UMC website
Words and Music, “Thy Holy Wings, O Savior” at Hymnary.org