|6:00pm||Passion Sunday Organ Recital - Simon Johnson|
Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Lent (25 February 2018) by Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain
The Chaplain explores the value of hymns and how they can give voice to faith in a way that is personal to each of us.
It may or may not have been St Augustine who said, “He who sings, prays twice”, and it doesn’t matter anyway, we understand what is meant. There is something altogether more engaging about our faith when it is not only put into words, but those words are set to music, and then that combination of words and music is brought to life by a human voice - expressing our deepest hopes and fears through an engagement of body, mind and spirit as our physical self connects, in a particular way, with our intellectual and emotional selves. Even if you are not a singer yourself, you know how powerful this combination is when we are moved by hearing words sung with real emotion behind them.
Singing our faith has been part of religious practice since the earliest days, and many of our hymns are based on the psalms, the song books of Israel and Judah. Of course I find some hymns truly dreadful, as I do some scripture, but all are a human attempt at truth telling. Hymnody is a very precious expression of our beliefs about ourselves in relation to God, and the meaning and purpose of our lives.
And as we move through the church’s year, or even through the course of the day, the content of our hymns reflect our human experience, hope for a new day and new beginnings, the anxiety and fear that might come as the day draws to a close.
Who can sing My Song is Love Unknown or When I survey the Wondrous Cross on Good Friday without finding a lump in their throat?
This form of truth telling through hymnody can surprise, challenge and change us. Giving voice to our faith - proclaiming it aloud, in private or in public, can be truly transformative, if we pay attention to what we are doing. Hymns are a profession of our faith which we inhabit and own in a very distinct way.
We might recite the Creed, and of course we know that people have given their lives for its proclamation, but reciting the creed simply doesn’t touch me as deeply as singing a hymn because I don’t own it for myself in the same way as I do a hymn.
Good hymns are poetry and poetry expresses truth not only in itself but through the interaction between the text and the reader. Every time we sing a hymn, if we engage with the singing of it, then its truth resonates in a new way with our experience or the experience of those we know and care for. Hymns are somehow dynamic because of an interplay between, theology, faith and our lived experience.
What of the hymns we have in our Eucharist this morning (see below)?
Our first hymn The God of Abraham Praise is based on the 13 principles of faith formulated by Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher and scholar. It is a Hebrew creed set to music by an eighteenth century Methodist who experienced a profound conversion to Christianity. The writer Thomas Olivers lost both his parents at a very young child and was wayward and uneducated, being so notorious that he was forced to leave his home town but on happening to hear George Whitefield a notable preacher of the Evangelical revival speak his life turned a corner. He met John Wesley and became an itinerant preacher himself.
I find it a compelling hymn because of its focus on Divine Glory and the bigger story of which we are a part. It’s not all about us, it’s all about God and its imagery reaches out beyond earth to the whole universe, and beyond time to eternity. It sweeps us up and brings us to join the choirs of heaven in praise of God.
This is a hymn that helps me to put things back into perspective. I can all too easily get caught up with whatever the current agenda is, whether that is what is of immediate concern to my family, community, church or nation and this is a hymn that helps me to put first things first rather than to be reacting to whatever happens to be the loudest voice of the moment.
Henry Williams Baker the translator of our second hymn Jesu Grant Me This I Pray was one of the forces behind the publication of Hymns Ancient and Modern and the Tractarian revitalisation of Anglican hymnody in the nineteenth century. Its sentiments are fairly typical of Bakers rather typical Victorian plaintive sentimentality. The overriding emotions that come from this hymn to me are frailty, and dependence. Of course we are frail and dependant but this is surely not a place we can stay for long. In the singing of this hymn perhaps we open ourselves to receive from God the assurance of love that we need to give us the confidence to continue our journey through life.
Our third hymn Jesu Lover of My Soul was written by the Methodist Charles Wesley and for many it is his greatest hymn. There are various stories about the circumstances in which the hymn was written and like our last hymn it focus’ on our need for God’s grace and protection. It has an urgency about it which is undoubtedly amplified by the accompanying tune, Parry’s Aberystwyth which was written about 130 years after the hymn itself.
I’m sure our musicians could explain what it is about the particular combination of notes and rhythm that makes this tune, and so the hymn, so stirring. And depending on the speed at which it is played, there’s almost a note of panic in it! It’s not one you want to be singing when you are trying to make a deadline! Or perhaps it is, there’s nothing like a deadline to focus our thoughts.
Our final hymn Take Up Thy Cross was written by the nineteenth century priest and poet Charles Everest and published in his anthology, Visions of Death and other poems in 1833. That title might strike fear rather than courage into a heart but it is a hymn that I think inspires courage. Confidence in what Christ has achieved for us and the assurance that if we persevere then we will not be disappointed.
Four hymns, based on centuries of human experience and expressing a faith which sustained the writers of this poetry and can sustain and transform the experience of those who sing them today.
I wonder which hymns you find sustaining and transforming. What combination of words and music inspires you to look beyond your immediate context and to appreciate yourself as part of something of cosmic eternal significance. What gives you courage, calms your fears, engages your body mind and spirit. What hymn sums up for you the most important truth of the faith which sustains you.
For those of us who find it a bit of a stretch to talk theology, talking hymnody can be quite a helpful and revealing way in. And in this season of Lent may help us to reflect upon where we are in our journey of faith.
The God of Abraham praise
Who reigns enthroned above,
Ancient of everlasting days, And God of love:
To him uplift your voice,
At whose supreme command
From earth we rise and seek the joys At his right hand.
There dwells the Lord our King,
The Lord our Righteousness,
Triumphant o’er the world and sin, The Prince of Peace:
On Sion’s sacred height
His kingdom he maintains,
And glorious with his saints in light For ever reigns.
Before the great Three-One
They all exulting stand,
And tell the wonders he has done Throughout the land:
The listening spheres attend,
And swell the growing fame,
And sing in songs which never end The wondrous name.
The God who reigns on high
The great archangels sing,
And ‘Holy, holy, holy,’ cry ‘Almighty King!
Who was, and is the same,
And evermore shall be:
Eternal Father, great I AM, We worship thee.’
The whole triumphant host
Give thanks to God on high:
‘Hail, Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ They ever cry:
Hail, Abraham’s God and mine!
(I join the heavenly lays)
All might and majesty are thine, And endless praise.
Words: (148) Paraphrase of a Jewish hymn, Thomas Olivers (1725-99), alt.
Tune: Leoni, Hebrew melody noted by Thomas Olivers (1725-99)
Jesu, grant me this, I pray,
Ever in thy heart to stay;
Let me evermore abide
Hidden in thy wounded side.
If the evil one prepare,
Or the world, a tempting snare,
I am safe when I abide
In thy heart and wounded side.
If the flesh, more dangerous still,
Tempt my soul to deeds of ill,
Naught I fear when I abide
In thy heart and wounded side.
Death will come one day to me;
Jesu, cast me not from thee:
Dying let me still abide
In thy heart and wounded side.
Words: (382) Latin 17th century trans. H. W. Baker (1821-77)
Tune: Song 13 Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)
Jesu, Lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high:
Hide me, O my Saviour, hide
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide,
O receive my soul at last.
Other refuge have I none,
Hangs my helpless soul on thee;
Leave, ah, leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me.
All my trust on thee is stayed,
All my help from thee I bring;
Cover my defenceless head
With the shadow of thy wing.
Thou, O Christ, art all I want,
More than all in thee I find:
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint,
Heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is thy name,
I am all unrighteousness;
False and full of sin I am,
Thou art full of truth and grace.
Plenteous grace with thee is found,
Grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound,
Make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art,
Freely let me take of thee,
Spring thou up within my heart,
Rise to all eternity.
Words: (383) Charles Wesley (1707-88)
Tune: Aberystwyth Joseph Parry (1841-1903
Take up thy cross, the Saviour said,
If thou wouldst my disciple be;
Deny thyself, the world forsake,
And humbly follow after me.
Take up thy cross; let not its weight
Fill thy weak spirit with alarm;
His strength shall bear thy spirit up,
And brace thy heart, and nerve thine arm.
Take up thy cross, nor heed the shame,
Nor let thy foolish pride rebel;
The Lord for thee the Cross endured,
To save thy soul from death and hell.
Take up thy cross then in his strength,
And calmly every danger brave;
’Twill guide thee to a better home,
And lead to victory o’er the grave.
Take up thy cross, and follow Christ,
Nor think till death to lay it down;
For only one who bears the cross
May hope to wear the glorious crown.
To thee, great Lord, the One in Three,
All praise for evermore ascend;
O grant us in our home to see
The heavenly life that knows no end.
Words: (76) Charles Everest (1814-77), alt.
Tune: Breslau from As Hymnodus Sacer (Leipzig, 1625)
arr. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47)