I’m thinking that by “happy”, you mean hymns of praise. We also have prayerful hymns, as well as the “depressing” ones, otherwise known as laments. We need all three types of hymns for different purposes and seasons to balance the church year.
Praise hymns are great. We use them throughout the year, but especially on festival Sundays like Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, etc. The words are uplifting – “All hail the pow’r of Jesus’ name! Let angels prostrate fall;” (ELW 634) – and strong. They give us hope. The tunes are built on major scales, reinforcing the words’ message.
Prayerful hymns are also wonderful. They are perfect for quiet, reflective points in our services. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (ELW 616) gives a very different feeling from the hymn of praise. Prayer hymns are healing, with tunes that soothe and comfort.
Mixed in with praise and prayer, we need lamenting hymns. The world is a bumpy place; God’s children have personal sorrows and tragedies. When we are in the middle of tough times, we cry to God. We ask God “Why is this happening?” Lamenting hymns, such as ELW 325 “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”, remind us that God is there for us, that we can trust in Him. We are not alone in our grief. Lamenting hymns ask for God’s guidance through tough times.
Frequently, when we are in the midst of grief, it is all we can do just to breathe. We are not able to sing our faith. We need others to sing for us, and lamenting hymns give us words for that time. When we are surrounded by the lamenting songs of our community, we are called back to faithfulness.
The often used passage from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (“For everything there is a season…”) tells us there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh;” (vs. 4). This is true for our church seasons as well. We have two seasons of the church year when we tend to use more lamenting hymns – Advent and Lent. Both of these seasons are times of repentance.
Advent points to the birth of Jesus, but also points us to the time when He will come again. The hymns of Advent say, “Get ready, the Lord may return at any time.” Part of “get ready” is a lament from the assembly that we need to return to God. We need to “create a clean heart”, and “Lord, have mercy”. The well-known “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (ELW 257) says it well.
Lent mirrors the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, denying personal temptation. Lent is a season of knowing that we have strayed, and seeking to make things right with God. Many of the lament hymn-tunes for Lent are also built on minor scales, which make them seem even sadder to some ears. To others, minor melodies are haunting and beautiful – like when we need sour or salty tastes to balance sweet ones.
When we sing ELW 319, “O Lord, throughout These Forty Days”, listen to the lamenting words, the minor tune, and the final stanza’s prayer of “be with us through this season, Lord”. There is balance there, if you look for it.