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

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 bless├Ęd 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

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