Written by Barbara Brown Zikmund
A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ
In our society, when someone has a birthday, we all know what to do. We sing "Happy Birthday."Most of us can sing popular Christmas carols from memory—"Silent Night," "Away in a Manger," "O Come All Ye Faithful." We don't even remember when we learned these songs. We always knew them.
There are things like that in the church, too.
Many of us know the 23rd Psalm or the Lord's Prayer. Some of us memorized the questions and answers of a Catechism.
Within the German Reformed tradition of the United Church of Christ, the Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563, was, and still is, deep in the memory bank of many church members.
Unlike some catechisms, which are very intellectual, the Heidelberg Catechism is personal and pastoral. It begins with the question, "What is your only comfort in life and in death?" It answers with confident faith, affirming that Christians belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to themselves, but to their faithful Savior, Jesus Christ ..." It is a Catechism that reassures us of God's love and care.
This message of divine support for the faithful is at the center of German reformed theology. It also is captured in the music of the so-called "Mercersburg Hymn," which many UCC people memorized as children, "Jesus, I Live to Thee/You" (# 254 in The Hymnal and # 457 in The New Century Hymnal).
This hymn, written around 1860 by a local Pennsylvania pastor and later seminary professor, the Rev. Henry Harbaugh, insists that whether we live or die, our lives depend upon God in Christ Jesus. "Jesus, I live to you, the loveliest and best; My life will be your life in me, in your blessed love I rest."
Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ.