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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Holy Week in Hymns 10 (Easter Eve): "Ye choirs of new Jerusalem"

Tonight is the climax of Holy Week and the climax of the whole year. This is the night we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the night that heralds a dawn for all creation, when sin, death and hell, everything that would destroy us is defeated for ever. As the hymn puts it so powerfully, For Judah’s Lion bursts his chains, crushing the serpent’s head; and cries aloud through death’s domains to wake the imprisoned dead

It takes poetry to give us the words when cold prose can’t bear the weight of glory that the Easter gospel demands. “He rose again according to the scriptures” – how much is compressed in that brief line of the creed! So you turn to hymns like Ye Choirs of new Jerusalem to fill out the meaning, to be reminded how life-changing this festival is, full of joy and gratitude and hope. If only we could live out our days by the light of this paschal candle and the song called exultet, and the echoing praise of our alleluias, and the Easter greeting “peace be with you”!

It’s one of our most vibrant and energetic Easter hymns, this song that comes to us out of the middle ages. It takes up a single, ancient image of resurrection and plays with it throughout its six stanzas. It’s a picture we have met earlier this Holy Week where the Redeemer offers himself as the ransom by dying on the cross, descending to the place of the dead and rescuing all who were enchained in darkness. And then follows a victory procession. Who is at the head? The Lion of Judah, the mighty warrior who devours the depths of hell, overcomes death, and bursts out of the grave in victory. Behind, his ransomed hosts pursue their way where Jesus goes before. This great procession will not end until it gathers up the whole of creation, and “God has put all things under his feet and made him head over all things” as Ephesians puts it. Triumphant in his glory now, to him all power is given; to him in one communion bow all saints in earth and heaven

This weekend we are troubled by events on the world stage, when huge bombs are dropped in theatres of war, and a fearful parade of weaponry is on show to a world that watches with alarm. In this Holy Week of the cross and resurrection, it feels all the more pointed an insult, a gesture of contempt for the just and gentle rule of Jesus our Saviour. And this Easter liturgy seems like an impossible dream. We long to hear the word of comfort that says to us: "do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid".

Yet tonight we do the impossible and imagine ourselves into God's time of resurrection where our hells are finally harrowed, and deaths the last enemy is defeated, and sorrow and sighing flee away, and all things acknowledge the reign of our crucified and risen Lord. For Christianity is about impossible dreams because it teaches us to “hope against hope”, as the New Testament says of Abraham. For now, the grand vision of our hymn is just that, a vision of how things will be when our prayer "thy kingdom come!" is realised and at last, Christ takes the power and reigns. That day - will it be far off or near? Who can say? 

But in a way, it is never closer to us than here at the Easter liturgy. For our celebration tonight pulls that day of triumph forward into our present experience where it meets the story we tell about the man who came among us from God, and lived and died and was raised on the third day. That was where the Christian story began. It won’t end until all things are gathered up in Christ. But in between, we live out our ordinary days in the light of the past and the future. We bear the marks of this crucified and risen Lord in our baptism. But now he has eastered in us and is alive in our very midst, among us and in us and in all who celebrate this feast across the world. We travel on as the Easter people whose song is alleluia. Our hearts sing and play and dance. We find a new courage to persevere in faith and bear witness to it because we are sustained by our living hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 

What else can we do but celebrate? While joyful thus his praise we sing says the hymn. At the end, we sing the doxology, praising God the eternal Trinity for this resurrection that changes everything, changes all of us for ever, heralds a new creation. And even when our alleluias fall silent, they go on in our hearts as we live the truth of Easter and take our place in the springtime triumphal procession of the ransomed hosts on the way where Jesus goes before us into the kingdom of God.

Wakefield Cathedral, Easter Eve 2017

Ye choirs of new Jerusalem,
your sweetest notes employ,
the Paschal victory to hymn
in strains of holy joy.

For Judah's Lion bursts his chains,
crushing the serpent's head;
and cries aloud through death's domains
to wake the imprisoned dead.

Devouring depths of hell their prey
at his command restore;
his ransomed hosts pursue their way
where Jesus goes before.

Triumphant in his glory now
to him all power is given;
to him in one communion bow
all saints in earth and heaven.

While we, his soldiers, praise our King,
his mercy we implore,
within his palace bright to bring
and keep us evermore.

All glory to the Father be,
all glory to the Son,
all glory, Holy Ghost, to thee,
while endless ages run. Alleluia! Amen

Fulbert of Chartres c960-1028

Friday, 14 April 2017

Holy Week in Hymns 9 (Good Friday): "When I survey the wondrous cross"

“They stood at a distance watching these things.” We’ve already explored that theme of watching, looking, contemplating, seeing into the mystery of the cross. And now we find it continued into our final hymn. Here is another contemplative who can only gaze on the cross in utter wonderment and gratitude, and write about it in an exquisitely beautiful poem. When I survey the wondrous cross.

Some would say it’s the greatest passion hymn ever written. Charles Wesley would have given a thousand of his hymns if only he could have written this one. Isaac Watts wrote it for his collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs that he published in 1707. A nonconformist, it is remarkable that this hymn was originally written as a devotion to be sung at the eucharist. What the poet is surveying is the mystery of bread broken and wine poured out on the table of the Lord where the worshipper sees the visible words of grace spoken from the wondrous cross where from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingling down.

The text Isaac Watts has in mind is a saying of St Paul near the end of his letter to the Galatians. He is discussing things people find it worth boasting about. It brings out of him one of the noblest declarations in all his writings: “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” To Paul, to the hymn writer, the cross is the pearl of great price you would sell everything to gain. It is a treasure of infinite worth. Nothing can be compared to it. You might as well hold up a candle to look at the sun. My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.

One of the psalms reflects on what we human beings tend to envy in others: their names and achievements, their wisdom, wealth or honour. But, says the psalm, don’t make yourself miserable by dwelling on those who boast of such things. In the face of our own mortality, we stand as equals because in the end we can’t take any of them with us. “Human beings cannot abide in their pomp: they are like the beasts that perish.” And St Paul, in a brilliant inversion of that psalm, says yes, death is the great leveller, and in particular, the death of Jesus. Whoever, whatever we are, when we survey the wondrous cross, all that we are proud of is put into the perspective of eternity, God’s perspective. There is nothing worth boasting about any more except this. Forbid it Lord that I should boast, save in the cross of Christ my God. All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.

The next two stanzas explore why the green hill of Golgotha is at the very centre of Christian faith and life. Where else do sorrow and love meet and mingle and flow down together like this? Those two words go to the heart of the paradox of Good Friday. Sorrow would be a natural enough response to this pain and suffering that we survey ­our sorrow for the innocent victim, his sorrow as “a man of suffering and acquainted with grief”: “behold and see if there is any sorrow like unto my sorrow” – words that are familiar to us from the music of Handel’s Messiah.

But linked to the word love, sorrow takes on a more profound meaning. For if the love we see on the cross is nothing less than God’s, then so must the sorrow be too. Perhaps there is a clue in Jesus’s drawing near to Jerusalem when, say the gospels (and how striking this is), he looks down at the city and weeps over it. “if you had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.” So we imagine the cross as the everlasting sign of God’s sorrow for his world, the grief that pierces his heart of love, where divine tears are always shed because human beings have so signally turned away from the paths of goodness and truth, of reconciliation, healing and flourishing. Jesus is the archetypal innocent on whom cruel men have turned in their hatred of all that is beautiful and good. But he is also the sign of the heartbreak of God himself at our ignorance, destructiveness and folly.

Which is why the hymn needs to boast of the love that it sees flowing down from the cross. For when sorrow and love are joined together, sorrow is never desperate or hopeless. It has a redeeming aspect that speaks of God’s intent that this world should be remade, and within it, our own broken lives. Isaac Watts reminds us who is king here at Golgotha. The signs of royalty are in the thorns that press cruelly into the fragile flesh of this Man of Sorrows and compose so rich a crown, and in his dying crimson like a robe.  They tell of a suffering that is intended and is purposeful, and which, far from subverting the kingship of Jesus proclaim its inner nature.

The kingdom of God is not about the panoply of the powerful and proud before which subjects cower in trembling and fear. The fear and trembling we feel at the cross is altogether different. For God’s kingship is both infinitely more humble and infinitely more strong. It announces the power of love and this is what draws us here and makes us to look. The spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And it answers that question by speaking of what goes through us when we say our yes: “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble”.

The hymn writer draws the only possible conclusion. He goes back to St Paul: then am I dead to all the globe, and all the globe is dead to me. What is there to live for if not for the Lord of glory who is crucified before us? And his final verse captures what our response will be, can only be, on this Good Friday when we survey the wondrous cross. Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. So what do we do in the light of Golgotha where we see love so amazing, so divine?

I think the answer is both nothing and everything. The “nothing” is to recognise that we cannot add to what Jesus has done there. When, in our reading from the Passion, Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”, you hear not agonised despair but the trustful affirmation that Jesus’s living and dying have come to a good end, a resolution, and Jesus can offer himself to God as the servant and son who has been obedient to the suffering he was called to undergo. It is his work of redemption, not ours. And because this is a gift without price, nothing can possible equal it, not anything we can offer, not even the whole realm of nature – it would be an offering far too small in the face of God’s infinite sorrow and love.

But there is something we must do. We must say our wholehearted yes to the cross. We must be thankful. We must submit to this kingdom of love, embrace it, live it, give ourselves to it, recognise how it changes everything, for Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. On this Good Friday, there is nothing we would not do for the Love that has searched us out and known us, offered itself for us so that we might live again and find our hope once more.

So this solemn day is not for mourning. It is a time for profound thankfulness, a time to be glad. We who walked in the darkness of Golgotha have seen a great light. It is a good day.

Wakefield Cathedral, Good Friday 2017
Luke 23.44-49

When I survey the wondrous Cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson like a robe,
Spreads o’er his body on the Tree;
Then am I dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Isaac Watts 1674-1748   

Holy Week in Hymns 8 (Good Friday): "O sacred head"

Earlier in the passion story, St Luke tells us that when Jesus had been crucified, “the people stood by, watching”. The leaders “scoffed” and the soldiers “mocked”, but the people just “watched”. I wonder what Luke intends us to see in this crowd of onlookers. Some of them will have shouted Hosanna! on Palm Sunday and others Crucify! a few hours earlier. And no doubt there will have been people who cried both with the same conviction. Crowds are notoriously wayward. Never trust them.
But what if there were those, possibly only a few, who “watched” for a different reason, who wondered why this innocent man was being strung up on a cross, what crime he had committed. What if among the crowd were those who had followed him, who loved him, who were devoted to him? What would they read in the features of the agonised, pain-bearing, crucified Christ at the Place of the Skull? And the criminals being executed on either side of Jesus when there was nothing left to do but gaze around and think their own thoughts: what did they see in this man who shared the final hours of their lives on that green hill?
Our next Good Friday hymn imagines us on that hill of Calvary and asks us the same question: what do we see? O Sacred Head is one the most famous of all the passion hymns. The version we know is a translation of a German hymn that itself draws on a medieval Latin text. Paul Gerhardt, the German author, was a seventeenth century hymn writer, probably the greatest in the Lutheran tradition apart from Martin Luther himself. So well known was the tune that it simply went by the name of the “Passion Chorale”. Many of us learned it not through singing it in church but by hearing Bach’s St Matthew Passion where it features no fewer than five times. 
Gerhardt was famed for the intense devotion of his hymns and the vividness with which they made Christian experience real and alive to the worshipper. If ever congregations learned theology through hymn-singing, it was as true of Reformation Germany as it was of eighteenth century Methodism. And the skill of this hymn is to get us to see what is in front of us as we come to the cross on this holy day. Like There is a green hill, the Passion Chorale doesn’t speculate about the crucifixion. It isn’t interested in metaphysical questions about how God could die, and how this death makes a difference in the cosmic scheme of things. It is concerned simply with faith, trust, gratitude and adoration. Indeed, of all the hymns we sing at this season, this is the most personal and direct. There is a burning, passionate intimacy in Gerhardt’s words. There are only two people who matter: the believer, and the crucified Lord.
Like the people in Luke’s account, Gerhardt watches. But this is more than just looking. This is gazing with a contemplative eye that is fully present to everything that the crucifixion means. He takes it all in and meditates on it: the crown of thorns, the bleeding head, the pallid hue as the colour drains from his features as death draws near. If you have ever waited by the bedside of someone who is dying, you will recognise the language. But this is more than the brilliant depiction of how a life subsides into nothing. In his devotion, the poet sees into what is of eternal importance here. Yet angel hosts adore thee, and tremble as they gaze ­just like this poet, this follower, this lover does.
The middle stanza develops this image of the dying Jesus. Like Grünewald’s Crucifixion on the Issenheim altarpiece at Colmar, or Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ you are not spared the detail. Nor should you be, says the poet. Thy comeliness and vigour is withered up and gone, and in thy wasted figure I see death drawing on. Because of the immensity of this death, because of the love it demonstrates, the least we can do on Good Friday is to gaze on the Saving Victim for a while, learn to love and serve him in his disfiguring, unlovely dying as well as in the beauty we remember.
Here at last is Isaiah’s suffering servant for all to see. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him” says the prophet; there was “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him of no account”. Except we did; we do; we always shall. O agony and dying! O love to sinners free! Was ever love like this? In his very disfigurement, says the hymn, we can see the form and the majesty of God, and through them, the extent of love poured out to bring us back to ourselves, to remake us as new people, to reawaken us to a vision of life as his followers and friends, and who we could be in the service of this Jesus whom we resolve to love and serve till our lives’ end.
The last verse is a prayer. In this thy bitter passion, good Shepherd, think of me with thy most sweet compassion, unworthy though I be. In the passage from St Luke that we read just now, we hear about the man who made just such a plea to the crucified Jesus. The two criminals on either side of him stand for the two ways with in which we see him. One is to deride him, taunt him or (what comes to the same thing), ignore him, turn our face away. The other is to find ourselves strangely drawn to him.
We may not know why he attracts us so, but we know that only in him shall we find the resolution of all that is conflicted and chaotic in our lives. Listen to the voice of the criminal: “we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds. But this man has done nothing wrong.” And then we imagine him turning to Jesus and looking at him – if such a movement is possible in the terrible pain of crucifixion - and pleading: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. And he replies in words generations of believers have treasured down the ages, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”.
This is the music I hear in this last verse of Paul Gerhardt’s wonderful hymn. Beneath thy cross abiding, for ever would I rest, in thy dear love confiding, and with thy presence blest. The place Jesus welcomes the penitent thief to is Paradise, that is, a garden. It is where the story of humankind began, and it is where it begins again, in the garden where his body is laid, and where the risen Lord will greet another penitent early on Easter Day, and call her by her name.
Those rhyming words at the end of the hymn – abiding, confiding, rest, blest – yes, I know they are in the English translation, but they sum up so well the sense of trustful resolution and fulfilment that Good Friday and Easter Eve are all about. When the ordeals of this dreadful day are over, the darkness begins to lighten a little. Jesus breathes his last, a peaceful goodnight prayer, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. In the restfulness and peace with which this hymn closes, we know that something has shifted. It will soon be the time when earth’s morning breaks and shadows flee away.
Wakefield Cathedral, Good Friday 2017
Luke 23.39-43
O sacred head, surrounded
  By crown of piercing thorn!
O bleeding head, so wounded,
  So shamed and put to scorn!
Death's pallid hue comes o'er thee,
  The glow of life decays;
Yet angel-hosts adore thee,
  And tremble as they gaze.
Thy comeliness and vigour
  Is withered up and gone,
And in thy wasted figure
  I see death drawing on.
O agony and dying!
  O love to sinners free!
Jesu, all grace supplying,
  Turn thou thy face on me.
In this thy bitter passion,
  Good Shepherd, think of me
With thy most sweet compassion,
  Unworthy though I be:
Beneath thy cross abiding
  For ever would I rest,
In thy dear love confiding,
  And with thy presence blest.
Paul Gerhardt 1607-76 (translated H W Baker 1821-1877)                        
From a 14th century Latin hymn                 


Holy Week in Hymns 7 (Good Friday): "There is a green hill far away"

This Holy Week we are looking to some of our best-known, best-loved hymns to help us enter into the meaning of the cross. In this hour on Good Friday, we shall be singing three of the most famous. And where else to begin but with a hymn that once upon a time you could assume every child had learned at their mother’s knee. There is a green hill far away.
Mrs Alexander was the hymn writer for children par excellence. Her book Hymns for Little Children was published in 1848 and as well as this hymn included Once in Royal David’s City. What would Christmas and Good Friday be without them? She had the gift of writing with the kind of simplicity that speaks directly to the heart. Perhaps we adults love them not just for the way they make so personal the events of Jesus’ life and death, but also because they evoke our own upbringing, those remembered childhood Christmases and Easters that have helped show us how to believe and how to love.
We are reading from St Luke’s account of the crucifixion in this next hour. And in the first of these passages we hear how Jesus comes to the green hill far away, without a city wall – outside the city, of course, where criminals would be put to death without defiling the precincts of the temple. “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” We mustn’t be seduced by the hymn’s green hill. The Skull, Calvary, Golgotha is a brutal place of torment, and the hymn requires us not to evade it but to try to imagine. We may not know, we cannot tell what pains he had to bear. And if St Luke can be believed, maybe what hurt Jesus most were the mocking insults of the crowd and those who crucified him. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah, God’s chosen one!”
But this is not to indulge morbidly in a tale of suffering: that would be cruel in a hymn intended for children. Nor is it that we should feel sorry for Jesus in his agony: the hymn is remarkably free of the kind of piety that is based on sympathy.  No, Mrs Alexander wants us to see into the paradox of Good Friday, that in the pains he had to bear, there is a gift held out to us who look on and believe. It looks dreadful, or at best absurd, without point. Yet there is meaning there, though it takes faith to see it. But we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there.
How can it be “for us”, this death outside a city wall? Theologians have spilled ink over theories of the atonement for a thousand years or more. In this week’s addresses we hinted at some of them. But Mrs Alexander wisely steers clear of over-explaining. And not simply because she was writing for the young: for her there is a proper reticence we should keep in the face of mystery, a respect for what can never be put into words. We contemplate the green hill where the Son of God hangs. How could it be that the Lord of glory should not simply die a criminal’s death, but do so willingly, voluntarily, out of deliberate, conscious choice, and for us? That is the true mystery of this holiest day of the year.
The writer goes on to explain, as far as she can, or any of us can. He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good; that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood. How the cross effects that change in us is left unexplained. But that the cross is the source of forgiveness for all who know how far we fall short, how broken we are, how we have marred the beauty of life by the collusions of this world and our own propensity for self-love - this is what Christians have always believed. “He died for our sins according to the scriptures” says the creed; “he suffered and was buried”. In this language, heaven stands not only for our ultimate destiny but for the hope that has been given back to us in Christ. And saved by his precious blood is not to speculate about some divine transaction between Father and Son but to focus on the infinite cost of our reconciliation. The blood that flowed from the side of the Crucified is not any blood, but his precious blood, the divine gift that washes, feeds and nourishes us, that gives us back our lives, the gift of being remade that only God can give. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.
In one sense, Jesus dies like any common criminal in a world where life is cheap. That by itself suggests how we might read the cross in the light of the human suffering today, so many crucifixions, so many Calvaries. Where people suffer and die as nobodies, they follow in the steps of Jesus, for that is how he died too. And yet, no-one is a nobody. Every life is of infinite worth because each child of God is cherished for ever, loved to the end. And this is what the cross affirms: it gives value to every death by neutralising its power to hurt us. So when Jesus is led out to be crucified, when the Creator submits to our mortality and faces his end at the hands of cruel men, we say of him that only he could die like this, only perfect love could undergo this death that redeems our human life.
And let’s make no mistake. In this laying down of his life, what another hymn calls “love’s endeavour, love’s expense”, there is a transformation that is real and lasting. We are not the same as we were before we came to this green hill. His perfect giving of himself turns around, re-orientates our distorted hunger and desires, breaks destructive patterns of behaviour arising from our innate love for ourselves above all else, our endless capacity to hurt, damage and destroy. Whoever is forgiven much, loves much says Jesus in the gospel. So by paying the price of sin, by unlocking the gate of heaven, by holding it wide to let us all go in, a whole new world of wonderful possibilities is opened up for us. There is a new creation. Life can begin again.
What do we do when a great love is held out to us? There is only one possible response. It’s there in the last verse. O dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too. This is what Good Friday is for: to expose us once more to this love that is so dear to us that it passes understanding. And as we allow ourselves to be drawn into it we find that a strange work is happening within us. We are learning to live not out of fear but more at ease with ourselves because perfect love casts out fear. We are becoming those who look beyond ourselves, trusting not in our own resources and powers but in his redeeming blood. To come to the cross and venerate the paschal victim changes everything. It opens up a new and better way to live. We try his works to do, not as a burden but as a joy motivated by thankfulness for Love’s work on that green hill far away.
Wakefield Cathedral, Good Friday 2017
Luke 23.32-38


There is a green hill far away,
outside a city wall,
where our dear Lord was crucified
who died to save us all.

We may not know, we cannot tell,
what pains he had to bear,
but we believe it was for us
he hung and suffered there.

He died that we might be forgiven,
he died to make us good,
that we might go at last to heaven,
saved by his precious blood.

There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin,
he only could unlock the gate
of heaven and let us in.

O dearly, dearly has he loved!
And we must love him too,
and trust in his redeeming blood,
and try his works to do.

Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895)

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Holy Week in Hymns 6 (Maundy Thursday): "Soul of my Saviour"

On this night of Maundy Thursday, we gather at the table of the Lord to do what he has commanded in memory of him. In bread and wine, we enter into the movement of God’s tender love for the world with which he loves us to the end. And because the upper room has taught us that love is his meaning, we act out at the Maundy eucharist love’s visible signs, the washing of feet, the kiss of peace and the breaking of bread. For the God who comes to us in Jesus, the God who pours out his very life for us, is the God who is both among us as one who serves and at the same time counts us his intimate friends. He bids us love one another as he has loved us.

Our hymn tonight breathes this spirit of intimate tenderness. “Soul of my Saviour” is a version of a famous fourteenth century prayer known as Anima Christi. Here it is in a translation by last night’s hymn writer, John Henry Newman who treasured this prayer:

Soul of Christ, be my sanctification; Body of Christ, be my salvation;
Blood of Christ, fill all my veins; Water of Christ's side, wash out my stains;
Passion of Christ, my comfort be; O good Jesu, listen to me;
In Thy wounds I fain would hide; Ne'er to be parted from Thy side;
Guard me, should the foe assail me; Call me when my life shall fail me;
Bid me come to Thee above, With thy saints to sing thy love, World without end. Amen.
What is it about this prayer that is so lovable, that draws us to make it our own especially in Passiontide? I think it is what T. S. Eliot called the “condition of complete simplicity”. It is utterly artless, unpretentious, childlike, without any sense of self-importance. It does not set out to make grand statements. It does not fall into the trap of flattering God in elaborate, courtly language. It is the naked, unadorned plea of a human soul kneeling before the crucified Jesus. It is written out of a deep personal realisation of our dependence on God's love. You feel it would be wonderful to pray like this, honestly, directly, wonderful to find it in us to cling to the cross with our hearts overflowing with love.

And this is why we observe Holy Week with such devotion. To walk with Jesus in the way of the cross is not meant to be an act of self-flagellation. The via dolorosa should deepen our love. It’s as simple as that. To contemplate the Passion is to be drawn ever deeper into the Soul of our Saviour first and foremost in thankful recognition of Christ’s work of redemption and grace, and then to offer ourselves to him as people who love him in return, who find safety and protection in the cross for this life and the next.

The themes of the first verse suggest the spirit of Maundy Thursday in the intimacy of its images. The soul of the worshipper comes face to face with the soul of the Saviour as if the author were present in the upper room, as close to Jesus as it is possible to be as words of love are spoken, and feet are washed, and bread is broken and wine is poured and hearts are sanctified and strengthened for the ordeals that lie ahead. Always the cross is in view, even as Jesus gathers with his followers and friends to celebrate a joyful Passover feast. The theme of this stanza is simply stated: that the love we glimpse in the Passion should embrace us, overcome us, purge out of us all that would pull us away from the Crucified One who is our life and our salvation. This highly physical, sacramental, almost erotic language may not be our usual register as Church of England people but the mystics of every age recognise it. They tell us that in the face of an overpowering vision of grace and truth, ordinary words run out.

The second verse introduces the idea of the cross as the source of strength and protection. Here the prayer becomes needier, as if the writer were trembling before some awful threat. “Strength and protection” - from what? We don’t know, but we can sense the fragility of life in the middle ages, ambushed by ever-present threats of war, famine, disease and death. Maundy Thursday is just such a day when we sit and eat under the awful shadow of the coming cruelty, suffering, darkness and death. You can hear the desperation in the cry for help: O blessed Jesu, hear and answer me. And then the lovely paradoxical image of the gaping wound as a good place because it offers shelter and safety. From a terrible injury that breaks open a precious body, life-giving blood and water flow. Deliverance brings healing, and healing a perfect union of heart and soul. So shall I never, never part from thee. As Peter said to Jesus when others forsook him and fled, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”.

Guard and defend me from the foe malign enlarges this sense of threat. The dangers we sense in this prayer are not only physical, but spiritual. Eternity is at stake here, not just the moments of each day we are alive. And so the prayer turns to the last things we must all face one day. In death’s dread moments make me only thine. Death hangs over this Last Supper of the Lord as I’ve said. So we could read the prayer as asking that we may die as we have tried to live, in imitation of Jesus in his living and dying, knowing his tender love, never never parted from thee. And it ends on a truly eucharistic note, that is, in thankfulness and praise with the whole company of heaven: Call me and bid me come to thee on high, where I may praise thee with thy saints for ay. Even in Holy Week, in this Maundy eucharist, we do not lose sight of the saints triumphant who are with us as we sing the praise of him who died.

I’ve spoken about the Anima Christi in personal way because that reflects how it was written all those centuries ago. But I want to end by suggesting another way of praying it and of singing the hymn that’s based on it. Tonight we recall how, after supper, Jesus and his disciples went out to Gethsemane to watch and pray. St John depicts that high-priestly prayer as a majestic act of intercession for people of all times and places who trusted and hoped in God. I think that on this day, and the next, we should place the world and all its peoples under the strength and protection of Christ and his Passion. In our imagination, could we, so to speak, shelter this broken world in the broken side of Christ where the eternal source of its help and healing lie?

We come to this altar keenly aware of the tears that are being shed in many places through suffering and pain of different kinds. God’s tears, I am sure, mingle with ours as we break the bread and share the cup. What better than to offer this mass for a hurting world with the intention that all the human family should be guarded and defended from its foes? In the fervent hope, and longing, and prayer for the day when it will never, never be parted from the Friend of all humanity who loves us to the end.

Wakefield Cathedral, Maundy Thursday 2017
Soul of my Saviour sanctify my breast,
Body of Christ, be thou my saving guest,
Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide,
wash me with waters gushing from thy side.

Strength and protection may thy passion be,
O blessèd Jesus, hear and answer me;
deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,
so shall I never, never part from thee.

Guard and defend me from the foe malign,
in death's dread moments make me only thine;
call me and bid me come to thee on high
where I may praise thee with thy saints for ay.

Latin, 14th century

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Holy Week in Hymns 5: "Praise to the Holiest in the height"

Tonight’s hymn is one of the best-known and best-loved in the English language. It’s by John Henry Newman whose long life stretched across almost the whole of the nineteenth century. He was a brilliant Church of England priest who, with John Keble and Edmund Bouverie Pusey played a formative part in the Oxford Movement that was launched in 1833. They were called Tractarians because they published their ideas in a series of ninety tracts which, circulated, read and discussed in every corner of the land, you could think of the equivalent of social media today.

The Tracts called for the return of the Church of England to the historic catholic Anglican position that stood “’gainst popery and dissent”. They believed these ideals had been upheld by the Christian fathers and by those we now call the high churchmen of the 17th century in England. To them, both medieval catholicism and Reformation protestantism had departed from an ideal of Christian faith and life that the church urgently needed to rediscover. The Oxford Movement only lasted a dozen years in its original flowering. By the 1840s Newman was coming to the conclusion that the Church of England could never have the marks of what he held to be a truly catholic church. In 1845 he was received into the Church of Rome. He died as Cardinal Newman in 1890.

Praise to the Holiest is one of three familiar hymns by Newman, along with the endearing “Lead, kindly Light” written when he was still an Anglican, and “Firmly I believe, and truly” from the same source as tonight's hymn. That source is the celebrated poem Newman wrote in the 1860s, The Dream of Gerontius. The name, at least, will be familiar to many of you from Edward Elgar’s musical setting of it. It depicts the journey of a soul, an idea that at once gives it universal significance, for Gerontius, the dying man, is any of us and all of us. Memento mori, he is saying: remember you must die. None of us is exempt. As Jesus had to face death, so must we. Try not to be afraid of it. Learn what it means to die as a Christian. Let the example of Jesus on the cross inspire, comfort and sustain you.

The name Gerontius simply tells us that he is old: he has lived long and seen much. But age isn’t the point here: he stands for all of us. The Dream of Gerontius imagines his last journey. We meet him on his death bed praying to Jesus and Mary and being prayed for by his friends. Once he has died, his soul awakens to meet his guardian angel who will be with him on the path that lies before him. This takes him through the judgment court where the demons are assembling to “gather souls for hell”. But the hellish cacophony is dispelled by the choirs of angelicals whose unceasing praise of God Gerontius will one day join in. But not yet, not before he has been presented at the very throne of God. “Take me away” he cries, not because the vision isn’t unutterably beautiful, but because the holiness of God is too much for him. It is like looking into the sun. Overwhelmed, he realises that he is not yet ready for the beatific vision. So, filled with love for God, he is led gently into purgatory where God’s work of grace will be completed, so that when the time has come, his angel can return and lead him into heaven. “Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here, and I will come and wake thee on the morrow.”

Praise to the Holiest is the hymn of praise sung by the angelicals as Gerontius nears the throne of God. And when you realise this, you see how beautifully it belongs in its context. For its theme is redemption through suffering, the pain that the dying man went through in his lifetime, and the coming pain his soul must courageously endure as it is perfected and made ready for his meeting with his holy God. But its focus is not Gerontius, not any of us mortals. Its gaze is firmly set on the crucified Christ who has both come to our rescue and has shown us in his example what it means to suffer for love’s sake, for the sake of the Almighty, the Wise and Loving God, the Holiest in the height.

The opening stanza captures the height and depth of God’s concerns: there must be praise not only to the Holiest in the height, but also in the depth be praise. This is because God’s words and works have demonstrated that he is both marvellous and trustworthy: In all his words most wonderful, Most sure in all his ways.

Newman goes on by pointing to where these words most wonderful and ways most sure are seen in their fulness. It is, he says, out of the loving wisdom of our God. In most of our passion hymns it’s God’s mercy and kindness that are emphasised. At this point in Newman’s hymn it is loving wisdom. That phrase says to me that the redemption of the world was the choice of a God who needed to put right a disordered world, restore what was lost at the beginning when a noble, beautiful creation was corrupted and broken by sin and shame. And so he sent a Redeemer to rescue the human race. Here we are close to last night’s Bishop Fortunatus and the heroic rescue that the Son of God has brought about. For he, the second Adam has come as flesh and blood to struggle with the adversary who caused that same flesh and blood to fail in Adam and his children. But now, in Jesus, flesh and blood should strive and should prevail -should, and can, and has done. So the word prevail hangs in the air at the end of the verse as if to say, here is a prevailing that will last for ever. You can trust it, for this second Adam will never fail, will never let you down.

The next verse explains why. Newman speaks about a higher gift than grace given to refine, to cleanse and purify our soiled flesh and blood. What is that gift? God’s presence and his very self, and essence all divine. This is often taken to mean the gift of the Holy Sacrament, the everlasting sign of God’s presence here among us. I prefer to think of it as referring to the Incarnation, for the coming of Jesus imparts to our world nothing less than God’s very self, all that he is, all that he can ever be, now among us as flesh and blood to be broken, to be poured out for all humanity. What higher gift of grace could there be than the full incarnate reality that grace points to? This holy sacrament is precisely the divine gift for all of time that opens us up once more to the presence of the one who is the true Sacrament of God’s presence and his very self, the very Word incarnate.  

It’s the next two stanzas that point to what this higher gift than grace. They look back to the story of the Passion and make explicit what Newman had meant when he spoke about the second Adam coming to strive afresh against the foe. There, it was O wisest love! That is, I think, the resolve, the decision God has made to rescue lost humanity. But now it becomes O generous love! And this tells us what it was that prompted that decision. Grace, as theology understands it, is the choice God makes to act mercifully and kindly towards us, not holding our sins against us but seeing us as we are in Christ.

And, says the hymn, generous love entails that the second Adam, this immortal Man, can prevail only by being smitten himself, undergoing in his own self for mortals what every mortal knows he or she must undergo: this double agony of body and soul that The Dream of Gerontius lays bare so movingly. And like the height and the depth in the opening lines, Jesus models what it means to lay down his life, to suffer and to die in this heroic drama of redemption: And in the garden secretly, and on the Cross on high. In the secret agony of Gethsemane, Jesus prays that the cup may pass from him. It does not. He was born for this destiny. The Son of Man must suffer many things, says the gospel. And so, alone because his disciples have abandoned him, he goes out to Golgotha, to be nailed on the Cross on high.

But the hymn has one further insight to help us make sense of the Passion. What the crucified Lord does, says Newman, is to teach his brethren, and inspire to suffer and to die. Here is the poet taking up another aspect of the cross which is this. When you have recognised how God’s grace has reached out to you at such cost, when you have seen what kind of conflict it took to ransom and reconcile you and make you the human being you were destined to be, ponder the example and live it out yourself.

So Newman ends by inviting us to contemplate the example of Jesus on the cross. Given the setting in Gerontius, he is certainly telling us what makes for “holy dying” as the seventeenth century Bishop Jeremy Taylor put it. To die well is to accept the reality of death, prepare for it, focus on faith, hope and love, go thankfully and gently into that good night if we can. But to die well can have a redemptive effect on other people. I think Newman is telling us that we can be inspired to live, to suffer and to die as friends and companions to God and our fellow human beings, to be at peace with them, to be in a state of love like Jesus loved who, says the gospel, loved us to the end. Our own good deaths can be a gift to those who love us, just as Jesus’s has been.

It seems to me that two New Testament sayings are enfolded in these lines of Newman’s hymn. Jesus says that greater love means to lay down our lives “for our friends”. He also says that that to serve means imitating him who gave up his life “as a ransom for many”. Don’t these embody the redemptive power of goodness in the world when ordinary men and women like us want to try to make a difference to the lives of others? In such ways, in the strength God gives us when we most need it, we participate in striving afresh against the foe. We strive and we prevail, because of the double agony Jesus underwent for us - and because he prevailed. We are “more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

And in the paschal song of triumph we sing in this Great Week of our salvation, this marvellous hymn gives us the words to celebrate this wisest love, this generous love that brought into our very midst God’s presence and his very self. With the angels we praise the Holy One in the height and depth of creation and in the length and breadth of the story of our redemption: in all his words most wonderful, most sure in all his ways!

Wakefield Cathedral, Wednesday in Holy Week 2017


Praise to the Holiest in the height,
and in the depth be praise;
in all his words most wonderful,
most sure in all his ways!

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight
and to the rescue came.

O wisest love! that flesh and blood,
which did in Adam fail,
should strive afresh against the foe,
should strive, and should prevail;

and that the highest gift of grace
should flesh and blood refine:
God's presence and his very self,
and essence all-divine.

O generous love! that he who smote
in man for man the foe,
the double agony in Man
for man should undergo.

And in the garden secretly,
and on the cross on high,
should teach his brethren, and inspire
to suffer and to die.

Praise to the Holiest in the height,
and in the depth be praise;
in all his words most wonderful,
most sure in all his ways!

John Henry Newman, 1801-1890



Holy Week in Hymns 4: "We sing the praise of him who died"

This Holy Week we are exploring the meaning of the cross with the help of some of our best-known, best-loved hymns. This morning I want to take a hymn that has long been a favourite, We sing the praise of him who died.

Thomas Kelly published this hymn in the early nineteenth century. He was an Irishman who was profoundly influenced by the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century. Like John Wesley fifty years before him, his life underwent a dramatic change that he might well have spoken of in the way Wesley did in his Journal. Wesley recalls how, at a Moravian meeting at Aldersgate Street in London in 1738, there was a reading from Martin Luther’s commentary on the Letter to the Romans. “While he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
This hymn breathes that spirit of evangelical confidence in the gospel of the Christ whose cross is the ultimate demonstration of God’s “love so amazing, so divine”, as another hymn writer Isaac Watts famously put it in an even more famous hymn we shall look at on Good Friday. That author speaks movingly about how “sorrow and love flow mingling down”. But in today's hymn , there is not a trace of sadness or grief, only sweetness and love, mercy and hope, worship, glory and joy eternal. It might almost be an Easter hymn but for the fact that its theme is not the empty tomb but the cross.

We sing the praise of him who died, of him who died upon the cross. The opening lines lay bare the paradox of the passion. We tell this story endlessly, we set it to music, we paint pictures of it, we sanctify it with a halo of spiritual disciplines and devotions, all for the sake of a man who died a criminal’s death in a place of execution. If we had been there when they crucified him, we would have been wracked by the pity and the pain that this man was undergoing as the crowd spat and mocked and the sun’s light failed. But here in a lonely sufferer's cruel disgrace, faith sees another story to tell. That story praises of the victim whose passion and death means the very opposite of everything it seems. Just when you would expect a lament, you get a song of praise. And the hint of the treasure beyond price, for which you would sell your soul. The sinner’s hope, let men deride, for this we count the world but loss.

The poet carries this sense of wonderful surprise into the next verse. Inscribed upon the cross we see – what? “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”? Well yes, of course, but we must remember that “King of the Jews” was intended as an irony. To Pilate he is the self-proclaimed king of a rabble of nobodies. But Kelly sees a different and altogether more profound meaning. Inscribed upon the cross we see, in shining letters, “God is love”. And this is the light with which this hymn glows. It’s as simple as that. This death is not like every other death, any other death. On the cross where the Man of Sorrows dies, the King of Glory reigns. And those shining letters tell us what kind of reign he exercises. His is not a kingdom of coercion or brute force, but the power of the love. And this kingdom will never come to an end because as St John says, Jesus loves to the end.

The poet asks us to imagine what we feel as we read that luminous superscription over the cross, God is love. He speaks about it as bearing our sins upon the Tree, echoing John the Baptist at the beginning of St John’s Gospel when he pointed to “the Lamb of God” who would “take away the sin of the world”. And this, he says, is to bring us mercy from above. “Mercy”, or in Old Testament language “loving kindness”, is one of the most beautiful words in the language. It speaks of how God’s heart is turned towards us in tender generosity. Because of the cross, we know that we can trust to God’s everlasting kindness. He will not fail nor forsake us.

I am always moved when I sing the next two verses. Perhaps it’s because they speak so directly out of the poet’s experience. You feel you can make his words your own because like him, you too have wandered in places of fear, travelled through dark times, wondered if you would ever have hope again. Thomas Kelly is only spelling out what the cross has meant to him, but I have found their intimate way of speaking both touching and comforting. They have brought comfort in them. The Cross! It takes our guilt away; - there is the classic evangelical sense of having had a great burden taken off him and rolled away, so beautifully described in that classic work of puritan Christianity, Pilgrim’s Progress. And when we can stand upright again, and travel on, what then? Well, life is a series of ordeals as Christian and Faithful find out on their journey to the celestial city. It holds the fainting spirit up; it cheers with hope the gloomy day, and sweetens every bitter cup.

“Who would true valour see, let him come hither” wrote Bunyan for whom to be a pilgrim was what made being alive worthwhile. Kelly seems to echo that idea of the journey that calls us to be valiant. It makes the coward spirit brave, and nerves the feeble arm for fight. He is speaking about the cross, remember, that transforms us into people who are capable of what we never dreamed we could do or become. I love those words because I am learning, late in life, that it takes courage to be a Christian, or perhaps I mean, to be the kind of Christian who faces life’s challenges and ordeals for the sake of bearing witness to those shining letters on the cross, God is love.

There is a tradition of Christian spirituality that draws heavily on the idea that we must try to imitate Christ in everything so that our living and dying can bear witness to those shining letters.  How can that be possible? asks Kelly. How do we embody and live out in our lives the central truth of religion that "God is love"? His answer is: let the cross be your guide and inspiration. Live by it for all that you are worth. And even at our last and greatest ordeal, it will be there with us to bring strength and protection: It takes its terror from the grave, and gilds the bed of death with light. If only we could look ahead and shape our deaths! Yet I would love to think that when the time comes for me to face my own, I would remember those great lines, be able to whisper them to myself, and be strengthened for whatever awaits.


The poet sums it all up in a great phrase. He speaks about the measure and the pledge of love. He means that the cross is both the measure of a love we already know, and the pledge of a love that is yet to come. Love’s work is what it is. Time and eternity cannot make it any larger or deeper. But our realisation of it, surely, will grow and grow. In the days that are left to us, we have the cross as the balm of life, the cure of woe, the sinner’s refuge here below. But it looks beyond our mortality, beyond the grave and gate of death. The Book of Revelation says of the risen Christ that he is “the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world”, which is to say that the cross is an eternal symbol of love. Is this why, when the risen Jesus greets his disciples, he shows them the marks of his crucifixion?

The inscription above the cross proclaims that the love of God is for all time and for all eternity. It's not only in this life that we sing the praise of him who died. It's also the angels’ theme in heaven above. And ours, always and everywhere.
Wakefield Cathedral, Wednesday in Holy Week 2017

We sing the praise of him who died,
of him who died upon the cross;
the sinner's hope let men deride;
for this we count the world but loss.

Inscribed upon the cross we see
in shining letters, God is love:
he bears our sins upon the tree:
he brings us mercy from above.

The cross: it takes our guilt away,
it holds the fainting spirit up;
it cheers with hope the gloomy day,
and sweetens every bitter cup.

It makes the coward spirit brave,
and nerves the feeble arm for fight;
it takes its terror from the grave,
and gilds the bed of death with light.

The balm of life, the cure of woe,
the measure and the pledge of love,
the sinner's refuge here below,
the angel's theme in heaven above.
Thomas Kelly, 1769-1855

Holy Week in Hymns 3: "The Royal Banners Forward Go"

On our journey through Holy Week, we are exploring some of the great hymns of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Tonight we come to one of the oldest and greatest of them all, The Royal Banners Forward Go, or in the majestic Latin of the original, Vexilla Regis Prodeunt.
I remember we sang it on my first Good Friday after ordination. I was arrested by those first few words, powerful, evocative, strong. They struck me so forcibly because they seemed to cut through the traditional sombreness of the day as suggested by the devout Victorian hymn, not much sung nowadays, “O come and mourn with me a while”. By contrast, the spirit of this hymn felt vigorous and bracing.

“The royal banners”: what on earth are they? A vexillum is a military standard or ensign that rallies the troops and sets off before them. Think of the “eagles” that led the Roman legions and the lengths to which they would go to safeguard the standard or recover it, as n Rosemary Sutcliffe’s great children’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth. On a commander’s tent, the red vexillum would be flown to muster the troops and prepare for battle. So the “banners of the king” are a sign of engagement in conflict. And afterwards, the standards would be raised in a victory celebrated by a triumph with a great procession into the city led by the banners, and the scattering of bounty as the people cried out kyrie eleison and begged to be thrown the spoils of war.

This hymn comes out of the era immediately following the fall of the Roman Empire. Venantius Fortunatus was born in the Veneto in around 530 AD, a few years before the death of another great Italian, St Benedict. It breathes the spirit of Latin antiquity at precisely the time it was transmuting into the early middle ages. The memory of Roman triumphs was recent enough to be given poignancy by the physical signs of a great civilisation falling into ruin all around him. Like Benedict, Fortunatus saw the church as a bastion against the chaos he saw taking control in lands that had once enjoyed the pax Romana with its civic institutions, legal system, market place, temples and academy whose noble buildings, now falling into decay, stirred proud memories in the hearts of those who loved Rome.

He had trained as a poet and orator. Even in translation, his hymns demonstrate his flair for words. However, his sight began to fail until one day he went into a church in Ravenna and washed his eyes with oil burning in a lamp at an altar of St Martin of Tours. He was healed at once, and in gratitude went on pilgrimage to St Martin’s shrine in France. He settled in Poitiers, the city where Hilary had been bishop centuries before. There he was ordained, becoming Bishop of in 599. He died the following year. Our hymn comes out of Poitiers. Fortunatus wrote it in 569 in honour of the relics of the Holy Cross that were brought in a magnificent procession to a royal monastery there, “with much singing and gleaming of tapers and fragrance of incense” says the report. The cross shines forth in mystic glow.

This hymn is rich in theology as well as piety. The opening stanza cuts to the theological chase: “Where he in flesh, our flesh who made, / Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.” In the Latin, the emphasis is not so much on any theory of the atonement, but on the mystery of who it is who is hanging on the cross. Literally, the words speak about the One who made us flesh and blood is himself fastened to a criminal’s stake as that self-same flesh and blood. Mysterium is a big word for this hymn writer, and the profound insight of the cross is the “glow of mystery” that proclaims the identity of this Saving Victim, none other than the Son and Word of the Eternal God himself.

What this means is explored in a later verse. Upon its arms, like balance true, / He weighed the price for sinners due, / The price which none but he could pay, / And spoiled the spoiler of his prey. This stanza is dense with symbolism. The key is the “price for sinners due”. Jesus is hanging on the tree because there is a great work for him to do there. It is to pay that price once and for all, the price of redeeming humanity. In the middle ages, the idea of the ransom to be paid became the dominant way of understanding the cross. Put briefly, the sin of Adam had handed the human race over into the power of Satan. Our freedom needed to be bought back by the payment of a ransom, the perfect victim who was not himself compromised by the fall. That offering put the scales back into equilibrium and made release possible. If you’ve read C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe you’ll understand how the deep magic of an innocent victim has power over evil.

The image of the Incarnate Word on the cross, triumphing harrowing hell, releasing its captives and triumphing over the powers of death runs through many of these ancient Passiontide and Easter hymns. “Sing my tongue the glorious battle” is another of them by this same hymn writer, very close in spirit to “The Royal Banners”. On Easter Eve we shall sing “Ye choirs of new Jerusalem”, another medieval hymn from France that picks up where “The Royal Banners” left off. In their different ways, all the hymns we are exploring in these addresses owe a great deal to this one writer who teaches us what it means not only to commemorate but also to celebrate in Holy Week, and why we call the Friday of the crucifixion Good Friday.

The other stanzas of this great hymn adorn the “mystery” that shines out of the cross by weaving evocative poetry around the suffering of the man who hangs there. For one verse, Fortunatus lingers on the soldier’s spear and the precious flood of water mingled with the blood that flow out of the side of the crucified Christ as St John is careful to emphasise: precious because “the life is in the blood” as the Hebrew law says, and this life is given in the healing, life-giving sacraments that for all time will nourish the church as his new humanity.

But then the hymn writer launches into a passionate hymn of praise for the Holy Cross. O Tree of glory, Tree most fair, / Ordained those holy limbs to bear, / How bright in purple robe it stood, / The purple of a Saviour’s blood! By a brilliant figure of speech, gratitude for the ransom that has been won is transferred to the very object that is the source of the Saviour’s pain and agony. Far from being commemorated as an instrument of suffering, the cross has become an emblem of glory in its own right. This becomes even more extravagant in the poet’s other hymn “Sing my Tongue” in the stanza we know as Crux Fidelis: Faithful cross above all other, / One and only noble Tree, / None in foliage, none in blossom, / None in fruit thy peer may be; / Sweet the wood and sweet the iron, / And thy load, most sweet is he.

Devotion to the Holy Cross is a very ancient liturgical practice. In the liturgy of Good Friday we shall acclaim as the great Cross is brought into the Cathedral, “Behold the wood of the cross, on which the Saviour of the world is hung”. Soon afterwards, when it has been set up in full view of us all, we shall be invited to make our own personal devotion to it by touching it, embracing it, kissing it – in whatever way we want to pay our homage to the crucified Lord. I always find this intensely moving. So many emotions are gathered up for me at this symbolic Golgotha moment: sorrow, lament, repentance, pity, gratitude, rescue, and above all, love. How could the sacred cross not touch us and transform us for ever? How could it not draw out of us all the love we have to give in this most solemn Week? 

You may wonder where the good bishop Venantius Fortunatus got his theology from. After all, this extravagant poem in praise of the Tree of glory, Tree most fair is a thousand miles away from the agony and darkness of St Matthew and Mark with their desolate cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

The answer is, he learned it from St John. We’ve already seen on Palm Sunday how “Ride on, ride on in majesty” culminates in a great acclamation of victory, “Then take, O God, thy power, and reign!” It’s in the same spirit as Fortunatus seeing into the heart of the passion and glimpsing How God the heathen’s king should be, for God is reigning from the Tree. In St John, Jesus often speaks about being “lifted up” and vindicated in “the “hour” that is coming, the hour of his death. He links the cross with exaltation and glory. “Now my soul is troubled” he says. “And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father glorify your name!” And again, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself”. And at the end, when the agony is over, he cries out a single word in Greek, tetelestai: “it is accomplished”. The work is done. Redemption is achieved. On his throne of glory, the King is crowned.

This is why we pay homage, in this Week when we recognise once again who our King of glory is, and what he has made us: subjects, citizens who are a people of the cross and an Easter people, for whom Christ has died and ransomed us from the hells that threaten to devour us, for whom he has triumphed as the heavenly Victor who is forever our Champion and Advocate at the throne of grace. No wonder the hymn ends in a doxology of praise to God the Holy Trinity. For all that needed to be done has been finished. He has done all things well. There is nothing left for us to do but to worship the King all glorious above, and offer him all that we are as our act of wonder, love and praise.

Wakefield Cathedral, Tuesday in Holy Week 2017


Vexilla Regis Prodeunt

The royal banners forward go;
The cross shines forth in mystic glow
Where He in flesh, our flesh who made,
our sentence bore, our ransom paid;

Where deep for us the spear was dyed,
Life's torrent rushing from His side.
To wash us in that precious flood
Of water mingled with the blood.

Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song of old;
How God the heathens' king should be,
For God is reigning from the Tree.

O Tree of glory, Tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear,
How bright in purple robe it stood,
The purple of a Saviour's blood.

Upon its arms, like balance true,
He weighed the price for sinners due,
The price which none but he could pay,
And spoiled the spoiler of his prey.

O Cross, our one reliance, hail!
So may thy power with us avail
To give new virtue to the saint
And pardon to the penitent.

To Thee, eternal Three in One,
Let homage meet by all be done
Whom by the cross Thou dost restore,
Preserve, and govern evermore.

Venantius Fortunatus, c530-600
Translated by John Mason Neale