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

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



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