Jesus, in dark Gethsemane

“Gethsemane” by Harold Copping

Today’s hymn for Holy Week in Sing Praise is “Jesus, in dark Gethsemane” by Alan Gaunt, set to a surprisingly upbeat English folk tune, given its dark theme.  The words of the hymn, though, contrast Jesus’ sufferings with what the Prayer Book calls “the benefits of his Passion”.

The contrast in verse 1 is between the disciples who could not stay awake while Jesus wept and prayed, and us who ask him to keep us awake.  I can empathise with those disciples, as when life is hectic, the brief stillness of a prayer meeting can easily lead to unintended falling asleep. Verse 2 reminds us that Jesus’ prayer “remove this cup from me … yet not what I want but what you want” was answered not with deliverance but with the strength to face death.

Verse 3 is marked as optional, perhaps because its topic of Christ descending into hell is not part of mainstream Christian teaching nowadays. Verse 4 refers to the belief that Christ’s suffering, although it was effective “once for all” in redeeming us from sin, still continues (his risen existence being beyond concepts of time): “faith … knows the anguish love still undergoes to heal our wretchedness”.

Verse 5 refers to the times we must shoulder our own cross, asking for his help to “cling to your nailed hands and, trusting, sing the triumph of your cause”, in other words, to continue praising Christ for what he has done, as a way of receiving his strength in our own troubles. The last verse asks for the Spirit to keep us praising him through both life and death.

To summarise: Jesus, then, suffered agony once upon the cross (and in the events leading up to it) but both his suffering, and his power to relieve ours, remain valid today, as do the forgiveness and reconciliation that it achieved, for Jesus has gone to hell and back, and now reigns as the everlasting Christ.

This is the night, dear friends

Judas betrays Jesus.
Copyright Florida Center for Instructional Technology.

Today’s hymn for Holy Week from Sing Praise is “This is the night, dear friends” by Richard Sturch to a tune by CHH Parry.  The original text was apparently in Latin by the 12th century French theologian Peter Abélard (perhaps better known for his romance with Eloïse), so if the theme seems strange, it’s because we don’t share the medieval mindset.

The overall theme of this hymn is Christ’s betrayal, which of course was most clearly seen in the actions of Judas. He is not named here, but clearly referenced, and described in verse 2 as the “wolf within the sheepfold”, picking up on one of Jesus’ own images of himself as the good shepherd in contracts to the wolves of evil.  His act of betrayal in leaving the table of fellowship is described as “injustice joining its hand to treason’s, and buying the ransom price of humankind”. (Or should that really be “selling the ransom price of humankind”, since Judas gained money by handing Jesus over?)

That contrast or irony – that in accepting money in return for betraying Jesus he was actually enabling God to pay the ransom price for all our sins – is one of several in the words of the hymn. In verse 2 again, “the wolf … betrays himself to his victim’s will” (Jesus knew all along that he would be betrayed by one of his disciples, it was part of God’s plan) and “sin brings about the cure for sin’s own ill” which is a similar image to that of buying our ransom. 

In verse 4, there are other ironies: Jesus is arrested by slaves – “he who destroys our slavery to sin”, another irony, perhaps symbolised when he heals the slave’s ear that has been cut off by one of his own disciples (although a bit of research suggests that the unfortunate servant was the high priest’s right-hand man rather than a mere slave).  Also, “accused of crime, to criminals (he was) given” and he, the righteous Judge, is judged.

All these examples point to the fact that even in his last hours as a man, and subject to forces beyond his human control, Jesus continually demonstrated that he was overturning usual human expectations in order to bring about God’s kingdom.

Prepare a room for me

East window, St Edmund’s, Kellington – photographed today
Copyright Diocese of Leeds.

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘Prepare a room for me, your Saviour’ by Herman G Stümpfler Jr.  It takes the form of a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples in the alternating verses (six in all). It’s suggested that a choir sing the part of Jesus (or it could just be a soloist) and the congregation take the part of the disciples. In the hymn book the tune for both is the same, though I note that John wrote a new setting for morning prayer with the two parts having different tunes.

The first two verses could be seen as being specifically about the Last Supper, referred to here as the ‘feast’ (possibly the Passover itself, although some scholars think the last supper, apparently celebrated without women or children, was some other form of fellowship meal). Jesus asks his disciples to prepare a room to celebrate the feast; they respond by doing as he says and awaiting his presence. 

The remainder of the hymn refers, rather, to the commemoration or re-enactment of the Last Supper (depending on your theological stance) in the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Jesus promises that he will be present, though unseen, where two or three of his disciples meet to share the meal in his memory; the disciples  respond that we “seek the food your grace alone can give”. Jesus promises in return that our hunger will be fed as he offers himself as the Living Bread. Finally we praise him that “through this loaf and cup you share your love that has no end”.

The whole does probably work better when sung as intended, i.e. as a responsorial hymn with several people singing as “the disciples”, than when used in personal prayer.

There’s a man riding in on a donkey

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is, unusually for this hymn book, one intended mainly for children. “There’s a man riding in on a donkey” is a telling of the Palm Sunday story set to the tune of an established favourite baptism song, “give me oil in my lamp”. This is no doubt because the chorus of the original – “Sing hosanna to the King of Kings” – is the chant always associated with Palm Sunday, as sung by the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem.  (incidentally, I didn’t bother to write a blog post for yesterday’s song, as the words of ‘Sanna Sannanina’ are just that, ‘Hosanna’ in an unspecified ‘South African’ language).

The words of the verses explain simply that this “man riding in on a donkey” is in fact a king, but (verse 2) “why a king wearing no fine crown? Where the drums, where the high-sounding cymbals if a king is riding into town?” The question isn’t really answered in the text of the song, as verse 3 moves straight to “the joy of the news he brings” and proclaiming Jesus as “the Son of the Highest, the King of Kings”.

Why is the question not answered?  Because this Sunday’s theme is seen as more accessible to children than the rest of the events of Holy Week and those who write songs or plan services want to keep things simple and happy for their sake.  The correct answer to “why a king wearing no fine crown?” is around the understanding of leadership that Jesus demonstrated, leadership that is not only humble and willing to serve those he leads, but even to die for them.  It’s easier to have songs and activities around someone riding a donkey and others waving greenery and singing “hosanna!” than it is to arrange something age-appropriate around the arrest, trial, torture and death of an innocent man. 

Even many adult Christians find it easier to stick to the joyful themes of Palm Sunday and Easter morning and pay less attention to the events in between. Clergy often complain how few people turn up for Maundy Thursday footwashing and Good Friday reflections – even though Friday is still a public holiday, even in our largely secular society, and most people will have the day off work.  It takes more of an effort to enter into the sombre mood of the days leading up to the Crucifixion, all the more so when that secular society is unaware.  I heard someone in a Zoom meeting yesterday telling of the shock he felt at the contrast between the silent reflection of a Holy Week retreat, and the busyness and jollity of the crowds he found back in town when it ended on Good Friday evening. 

But it was no different in Jesus’ day – the crowds had gathered in Jerusalem for Passover and most of them were probably there for the jollity, to meet up with friends and relations, to take part in the Passover meal where I expect more than a few sips of wine were drunk to celebrate the people’s freedom.  But you can’t celebrate Passover properly without remembering the slavery from which the Hebrews were freed, and you can’t celebrate Easter properly without having remembered the tragic events leading up to it.

Make way, make way

Today’s offering from Sing Praise is another one that’s familiar to me, Graham Kendrick’s “Make way, Make way”.  It comes from a suite of worship songs called “Make Way for the Cross”, described as “a celebration and a proclamation of the heart of the Gospel, designed to be used as an outdoor or indoor event”.  Several of the other songs from that suite have also remained popular, such as “Come and see the King of Love” and “Let the flame burn brighter”. Taken as a whole, they cover the story of Holy Week, but this one can stand alone as a processional song for Palm Sunday, a joyful celebration of Jesus coming into Jerusalem as the Messiah, before the leaders turned the crowd against him.

In the first verse we are encouraged to “fling wide the gates and welcome him”, not into Jerusalem, but in to our lives. It’s widely understood in evangelism that no amount of preaching and teaching will bring someone to Jesus until they make that decision to open their heart to him.

The second verse is what is sometimes called the ‘Nazareth manifesto’ in which Jesus explained at the start of his public ministry the signs that he would do to show who he was – heal broken hearts, set prisoners free, make the deaf hear, the lame walk and the blind see.  These signs he did in fact perform, both physically and also spiritually as he set people free not only from actual diseases and disabilities but also from various forms of religious oppression, discrimination and persecution, as explained in the third verse – “those who mourn with heavy hearts, who weep and sigh, with laughter, joy and royal crown he’ll beautify”.

The last verse is again a call to a personal response: “We call you now to worship him as Lord of all, to have no other gods but him – their thrones must fall”. Again, this should be understood in the context for which the song was written, an outdoor procession or service as an act of public witness intended to make onlookers think again of the relevance of the life and death of Jesus to their own life.

With Mary let my soul rejoice

Th Annunciation, by J Kirk Richards

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “With Mary let my soul rejoice” by David Mowbray.  It is actually a paraphrase of the Magnificat, usually used at evening prayer but very appropriate for today because this is the festival of the Annunciation (i.e. the conception of Jesus) to which the Magnificat was Mary’s response.

The enduring popularity of this scriptural song is that it celebrates the way God intervenes in human affairs to put injustices right. The ‘strong arm and great power’ of the Lord are not used to ensure victory for one tribe over another, as Israel found out repeatedly, for God was with them if they followed his laws but allowed them to be defeated if they broke them and promoted injustice.  The specific examples given in Mary’s song are (to use the words from this hymn version) that “the proud he will disown; the meek and humble he exalts… the rich our God will send away and feed the hungry poor; the arms of love remain outstretched at mercy’s open door”.  But although these are universal principles, they are linked to God’s promise made over a thousand years earlier to the Patriarchs, that Abraham’s descendants would benefit from God’s blessing, if they kept to his ways.

The principles are the same today as they ever were: Christians (and anyone else who believes in God and seeks his blessing) must strive for justice and fairness in the world, not only by living justly ourselves but taking positive action in God’s name for the benefit of the humble, meek and poor, and to prevent the rich and proud from prospering at the expense of others.  Like Jesus and the prophets before him, those who do so risk incurring human wrath for doing so, but equally receive God’s blessing.  Those saints who take this risk (think especially perhaps of the late, blessed Oscar Romero whose feast day was yesterday) deserve to be celebrated in the final words of the hymn: “with Mary let the world rejoice and praise God’s holy name!”

You are the king of glory

The Triumphal Entry. Albert Decaris, 1953

For today’s choice from Sing Praise, I’m going back a bit in terms of the liturgical calendar, from Maundy Thursday to the preceding Palm Sunday (this forthcoming Sunday).  However, the chosen song, “You are the king of Glory” by Mavis Ford, was not necessarily written with Palm Sunday in mind – there are no references to Jerusalem, palms, disciples or donkeys here, and it is probably only because the of the chorus “Hosanna to the Son of David” that the compilers of the hymn book have put it in this section. 

The song is very familiar to me.  It is dated 1978, and as a contemporary worship song was popular with the Christian Union that I attended 1981-1983.  It hasn’t completely disappeared from the repertoire since then, although perhaps not often chosen as there have been countless other worship songs written since.  I suggest that the factors that have allowed this one to remain in later collections where other 1970s songs have been forgotten are its easy singability, and that it consists largely of Biblical titles for Jesus, that mean Christians of whatever age and tradition are comfortable with its words.

The titles, then.  In this song of praise to Jesus, he is referenced as King of Glory, Prince of Peace, Lord of heaven and earth, Son of righteousness, Son of David, King of kings and Messiah.  That’s a Biblically pleasing seven titles for him, and in addition he is credited with being worshipped by angels and his reign resulting in glory in the highest heaven. 

Singing the praises of Jesus is a good warm-up for any act of worship, a reminder that the one in whom we put our trust is no mere prophet or teacher, but very God and the one the Jewish people had long awaited.  Lent is known mainly for more reflective, sombre songs as we look towards the horrors of the Cross, but Palm Sunday is a joyful interlude when it’s appropriate to sing upbeat songs of praise like this one, just as Jesus’ followers did when he entered the gates of the holy city to their chants of Hosanna!

Christ has gathered us together

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Christ has gathered us together” by Stephen Dean. Like yesterday’s hymn it’s set for Maundy Thursday but unlike that one, is not specific to the occasion and could be sung at any time.

The reason for putting it in this seasonal section of the hymn book may be that the hymn is actually about Christian love, the words of the chorus being “Faith, hope and love, these three shall remain, but the greatest of all is love” (1 Corinthians 13:11). And Jesus’ ‘discourse’ about love in John’s gospel, with its practical demonstration of washing the disciples’ feet, took place on the occasion of the Last Supper on that day.  This year, Covid hygiene rules mean that no feet can be washed literally, but the challenge still remains to find practical ways of showing love for each other in these strange times.

The first verse of the hymn covers the gathering together of God’s people to show our love for him in worship, with the reminder that we must “love our God sincerely, loving one another likewise. God is truly love”.  A love for Jesus that fails to be matched with love for his other disciples is not sincere.

The second covers being together, and the need when assembled to ‘banish divisions, end bitterness and forget quarrels’. That’s easier said than done, and while we may manage to be all smiles at the sharing of the Peace, what is harder is to go back out into everyday life having left those divisions, bitterness and quarrels behind for good, truly having become the one body of Christ that we profess to be.  The setting of this hymn for the day before Good Friday may, then, be quite appropriate, as it is by the Cross and Resurrection that Jesus demonstrates the extent of his own love and creates the new fellowship in his Church (fully realised at Pentecost, so it would also be a good choice on that occasion).

The final verse looks towards heaven, where we will have “joy with all the saints … peace and happiness unbounded”.  But the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus was wont to say, starts here and now.

Redeemer Lord, your praise we sing

The last Chrism mass at Bradford cathedral in 2017 (c) Diocese of Leeds

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Redeemer, Lord, your praise we sing” by Michael Saward.  The opening line is quite generic and suggests a hymn suitable for any occasion, but as John found when preparing today’s morning prayer, this is actually a very niche hymn, intended for the annual service of blessing of oils, which happens on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday), usually in cathedrals. The Bishop blesses oil (traditionally olive oil from Israel/Palestine) and shares it among his or her parish priests to be used in their parishes in the coming year. The priests in return renew their vows of obedience to the Bishop and in the service of their congregation and community. So John is right, that it seems out of place to sing it even ten days early, in the context of private prayer or worship shared online.

Having said that, Covid has changed everything, and this year the Bishop of Leeds will bless the oil in Bradford Cathedral while the priests of the diocese join him on Zoom with their own supplies of oil to be blessed remotely.  For a religion that believes in the power of prayer to heal the sick and otherwise change lives at a distance, that should not stretch our faith uncomfortably.

What is the blessed oil used for? Traditionally for three purposes: at baptism where the sign of the cross is made on the head of the person being baptised (referenced in verse 4, “From those baptised let Satan flee”); with prayer for healing of the sick (referenced in verses 2 and 3, “give oil for our infirmity… bring healing in a needful hour”) and the separately prepared and consecrated “chrism oil”.

The use of oil in healing is not confined to Christianity or even to religious practice, and indeed I understand that the Greek word used in James 5:14 (a key Biblical text here) is ‘aleiphantes’ which means something closer to ‘massaging’ than ‘anointing’. Oils (balm) were widely used in ancient times for medical purposes, and still are. The second verse of the hymn reminds us that olive oil is a natural product from a tree.  The distinctive Christian element is to pray for God’s healing power to accompany medical treatment. 

The other two uses, baptism and chrism, are more specifically religious.  The sign of the cross in oil marks the baptised person as chosen by God to serve him in Christ as part of the fellowship of the Church. As to the Chrism, anointing the head with oil was (at least in Old Testament times) a sign of acknowledging a king or other leader as chosen by God, a tradition that has continued through the European monarchies.  It is used on special occasions such as confirmation and ordination when someone is being specifically commissioned to a role in the Church. 

So, not a hymn for today, but one to remember next week.

Jesus Christ, I think upon your sacrifice

Today’s offering from Sing Praise is one that I am already familiar with: “Jesus Christ, I think upon your sacrifice” by Matt Redman.  It’s clearly a ‘song’ rather than a ‘hymn’ both in its structure and in being phrased in the first person as a personal act of devotion rather than a statement of faith.

In the first verse I (as singer) contrast Jesus going willingly to his death with the gift of life that he gave to me by doing so.  The response, expressed in the chorus, is to be humbled (because there’s nothing I can do adequately to repay him for such a gift), broken (because I recognise the sin in my own life that caused him such pain), thankful (because that life is a free gift), and in return “pour out my life”, not in the same way but in the sense of offering my time and talents in his service.  Humbled, broken, thankful and committed: the four steps of repentance beautifully expressed in this short chorus. That, I think, is why the song appeals to me.

The second verse looks beyond the cross to the resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ as “King of the heavens”, but quickly returns to the present reality: “But for now I marvel at this saving grace, and I’m full of praise once again”.  There is also a short bridge before a repeat of the chorus, “thank you for the cross, my friend”.  Calling Jesus, King of the heavens, “my friend” seems incredibly arrogant, yet that is what he calls us, and friendship once established is mutual. Its another of the deep mysteries of faith that the one who is beyond time and space is at the same time so close and intimate, that we can call him ‘friend’.