For all the saints who showed your love

Procession for All Saints day, Wyoming, USA

Today is the eve of All Saints day, and so for a few days we have hymns on that theme.  The first is ‘For all the saints who showed your love’ by John Bell and Graham Maule. The theme is set by the last lines of the first three verses, that all begin ‘Accept our gratitude’.  We are thanking God for what previous generations have done by way of example.

‘Saint’ simply means ‘sanctified’, or ‘set apart for God’.  Whenever it comes to talking, singing or preaching about saints there always seems to be a tension between the idea of ‘every Christian believer is equally a saint’ and ‘Saints are people with a special calling to do something out of the ordinary for God’ (such as found a monastery, challenge the status quo, or proclaim the faith in the face of opposition until they are murdered for it). 

There are elements of both these in the lyrics of this hymn. The first two verses focus on the first idea: ‘all the saints who showed your love in how they lived and where they moved’; ‘who loved your name … sang your songs and shared your word’. These are the ordinary people who in the way they lived their ordinary lives witnessed to the presence of Christ in them.

The third verse speaks of those who rose to a challenge: ‘who named your will, and saw your kingdom coming still through selfless protest, prayer and praise’.   The last verse brings these together, asking God to ‘bless all whose will or name or love reflects the grace of heaven above’.  Whether we live ordinary lives inspired by Christ, or feel called to be set apart in some special way, we are among the saints.

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Kirche, Sydenham
Photo © Malc McDonald (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered’ by Fred Pratt Green.  In the book it’s set to the tune Finlandia, but John wrote his own, perhaps more appropriate with its melancholic melody for the darkness that is in the lyrics.

The words are based on the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who notably wrote his late theology from a prison camp.   That is important background as we read or sing some of the words of the hymn: ‘hearts by their old foe tormented’, ‘evil days bring burdens hard to bear’, ‘bitter suffering, hard to understand’.   

Fortunately we who sing this hymn now are not persecuted by fascists or tortured for our faith. But such things are still going on in the world, and increasingly so.  As the crises now facing the world come together – climate change, overpopulation, increasing division between rich and poor, and increasing hatred between different racial or religious groups – who is to say that we might not end up there within the lifetime of those now living?  In the meantime, we each have or own foes, burdens and  suffering, however small in comparison, and we can have them in mind as we sing.

What makes Bonhoeffer’s words remarkable is the hope and faith that shine through the darkness.  ‘Confidently waiting, come what may’ from the pen of a man knowing he would face execution is remarkable. ‘God … never fails to meet us each new day’ is a statement of faith in a life that survives death. If that seems unachievable, ‘trusting though with trembling’ is perhaps a more realistic aim. And the last verse asks ‘If once again, in this mixed world, you give us the joy we had … we shall … dedicate our lives to you alone’.  We ask here not for a life free of suffering, but one in which Christian joy can be found amid its troubles.

Before the War, Bonheoffer had been the pastor of a German-speaking congregation in South London. The church illustrated above is the building that replaced his church that was destroyed in wartime bombing in 1944, even as he himself was imprisoned back home in Germany for his part in plotting the overthrow of the Nazi regime.

Give thanks with a grateful heart

Today’s song from Sing Praise is by Henry Smith. The words as printed are few, and I set them out here in a clearer form than in the book:

Give thanks with a grateful heart,
give thanks to the Holy one,
give thanks because he’s given Jesus Christ his Son.
And now let the weak say ‘I am strong’,
let the poor say ‘I am rich
because of what the Lord has done for us’.
Give thanks.

But as demonstrated by St Luke’s choir in this morning’s video, the first three lines are repeated, then the next three, then the whole repeated again.  There are essentially three reasons set out for being thankful: the gift of Jesus, God’s strength to the weak, and the spiritual richness of the humanly poor. These are signs of the Kingdom of God (the Church season that we are about to enter) as Jesus enters the world to make the last first.

We praise you Father for your gift

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is the last, for now, in the series of evening ones: ‘We praise you Father for your gift’. It is attributed not to an individual but to St Mary’s Abbey, West Malling (Kent). The tune (Gonfalon Royal) is not written for it, and we’ve used it twice already this year (see 7 March and 5 April).

In the first verse we praise God for dusk and nightfall. Why? Because they ‘foreshadow the mystery of death that leads to endless day’.  The assumption we have as we go to sleep that whether our dreams be good or bad we will awaken in the morning, should also be the assumption we have at the end of life that whatever experiences lie beyond it, we will be received into a new life with Christ.

The second verse is more earthbound. We ask for quiet sleep to renew strength, gain looking ahead to morning when may wake in the love of God.  The third and final verse of this short hymn asks that we may seek God’s glory in rest as well as in activity – a reminder to us who are naturally active that rest and sleep are an important part of life.

Light of Gladness

Lights at the Candlemas service,
Drighlington St Paul, 2020

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is another evening hymn by Christopher Idle, ‘Light of gladness, Lord of glory’. It is set here to the tune ‘Quem pastores laudavere’. The tune, whose name refers to shepherds, is not surprisingly in the form of a berceuse (pastoral chant or lullaby), also appropriate for an evening hymn.

The words are a setting of the ancient evening hymn ‘Phos hilaron’ (light of joy) which is usually thought of as an evening hymn, though there is only a passing reference to evening. Maybe the intention is to contrast the fading of daylight with the eternal light of Christ.

The first and last verses praise Jesus specifically, addressed first as ‘light of gladness, Lord of glory’ and asking him to ‘shine on us in your mercy’, and later as Son of God, with no petition but praising him as the one whose light shall never grow dim.  In between is a doxology (‘Father, Son and Spirit praising with the holy Seraphim’), which usually would come at the end of the hymn: is this the order of the Greek original, I wonder?

The rhyming scheme is unusual:  the first three lines of each verse are mostly half-rhymes (glory/holy/mercy, descending/evening/praising, ages/praises/ceases) and the last lines of the three verses form a rhyming set (hymn/seraphim/dim).

Eternal light

Sunrise over the Bay of Bengal
(c) Stephen Craven

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Eternal light, shine in my heart” by Christopher Idle.  John noted in Morning Prayer that this is actually an evening hymn, but as it makes reference to light and brightness it seems equally applicable to morning use. John also set it to the tune of ‘Colours of Day’ which certainly is a morning hymn.

The most frequent word in this hymn, though, is ‘eternal’, used nine times. The Almighty is addressed as the eternal light, hope, power, wisdom, life, brightness, Spirit, Saviour and God.   I’m reminded that the Biblical vision of eternal life is of a place where, in the words of another hymn, “they need no created light” for Christ is “its sun which goes not down”.  And as it says in Psalm 139 “the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

The image I selected for today was taken when visiting Christian development projects in India some years ago. I have a framed print of it, with the words of Proverbs 4:18, “the path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter until the full light of day.” If we have eternal life, then evening and morning are equally times to praise God for his spiritual enlightenment.

This is the body of Christ

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘This is the body of Christ’ by John Bell.  It’s a short song, in four-part harmony, probably intended for a choir to sing as many times as required during the distribution of Communion.  “This is the body of Christ, broken that we may be whole; this cup, as promised by God, true to his word, cradles our Lord: food for the good of the soul”. The paradox of ‘broken that we may be whole’ is at the heart of the service, and indeed the story of Christ. I also like the imagery of the cup or chalice ‘cradling’ the Lord, a reminder that he first appeared as a baby.

In Christ alone

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is in Christ alone my hope is found’ by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty.  It’s a candidate for ‘most popular hymn of the last decade’ – the copyright is dated 2001, but in the last ten years it has found popularity well beyond its original evangelical roots.

The phrase ‘In Christ alone’ seems to hark back, maybe deliberately, to the Reformation, where it is one of the five balancing principles: ‘By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to scripture alone, for God’s glory alone’.  Here we focus on one of those, but perhaps the most important, because whatever view you might take on the relative merits of faith and works, or the extent to which scripture is God’s direct revelation, surely all Christians can agree that without Christ, our faith would be in vain.

The first verse of the hymn praises Christ by giving him many honorific titles – ‘my light, my strength, my song, this cornerstone, this solid ground … my comforter, my all in all’.  Many of these have Biblical resonances of course, but put together make a firm basis for a hymn of praise. 

The second verse reminds us why Christ came, ‘gift of love and righteousness’ to take away our sin.   Some people prefer to substitute ‘love of God’ for ‘wrath of God’ when it comes to understanding what was happening on the cross, but both versions make sense: he bore the brunt of God’s anger at human sin, while also expressing the self-sacrificial nature of God’s love for sinners.  The last line is a beautiful paradox – ‘her in the death of Christ I live’.

The third verse celebrates the resurrection, ‘bursting forth in glorious day’, and his victory over sin.  The last reminds us that we have no need to feel guilty or fearful of what lies ahead of us, because of what Jesus has done to secure us eternal life. I would only quibble with the phrase ‘Jesus commands my destiny’ which sounds like the doctrine of predestination (that God has determined in advance our every action). I doubt that it’s intended to mean that, but perhaps something like ‘Spirit of Jesus guiding me’ would be better. But all in all, it’s a cracking hymn that brings together Christians of many persuasions to focus on the wonder at the heart of the Gospel.

Come, sing the praise of Jesus / Come to me

‘The Eagle /

The hymn I chose for 20 October (but didn’t have time to comment on yesterday) was ‘Come sing the praise of Jesus’ by Jack Winslow, who was an English priest (and looking him up he was at one time chaplain at Lee Abbey in Devon). But he set it to the well-known American tune ‘Battle hymn of the Republic’.  John found a version in another book with five verses but I’m commenting on the Sing Praise version which only has three.

This is a joyful hymn as befits the stirring tune. We are invited to praise Jesus, in verse 1, for his wondrous birth and life lived for others. In verse 2 we rejoice in serving him ourselves, experiencing pardon for sin and healing for sorrow along the way; and in verse 3 we once again praise him, this time giving him glory as Lord of creation who guides all our ways and looking to the future when ‘the world shall be his empire’. Each verse ends with ‘for Jesus Christ is King’, followed by the chorus ‘Praise and glory be to Jesus… for Jesus Christ is King’.  

Today’s song, in total contrast, was ‘Come to me’ by John Bell.  It’s a short song to be sung repeatedly and reflectively. The words are simple and quoting Jesus: ‘Come to me, come to me, weak and heavy laden, trust in me, lean on me, I will give you rest’.   They are among the Bible verses called the ‘comfortable words’ in the Book of Common Prayer at the invitation to communion, as we remember that Jesus welcomes anyone to his table who comes in faith, whatever their condition.

The ordained staff member who led our office prayers this week commented that we are in a period in the church year between the ‘creation season’ in September and ‘remembrance season’ in November, with nothing particular to focus on, and that the Covid restrictions of the last 18 months have left many people feeling somewhat despondent and some quite isolated. The colder, wetter, darker days of autumn also encourage a retreat from summer activity into a more restful and reflective pattern of life. We might not feel like singing joyfully, and if all we can manage is to sing or say quietly the ‘comfortable words’, that is absolutely fine. But Winslow’s hymn reminds us that even if there is no particular celebration in the church calendar, we are always part of the worldwide Church, and the time is always right to praise Jesus, who is at the heart of our faith, if we can bring ourselves to do so.

Dare to forgive

Reconciliation sculpture, Coventry cathedral

Today’s song from Sing Praise is a Taizé chant, ‘God is forgiveness’.  As with all such chants the words are few enough to reproduce in full –

God is forgiveness
Dare to forgive and God will be with you
God is forgiveness
Love, and do not fear

As so often, brevity of an instruction does not imply an easy task. For many of us, there will be events in our lives where forgiveness is the task of a lifetime, hence the challenge ‘dare to forgive’. Daring means going out of our comfort zone and taking risks.  But God knows the heart and is still with us, even where our attempts at forgiveness fall short as memories recur or as others reject attempts at reconciliation. It is those who rule out the possibility of forgiving another, or for that matter the possibility of being forgiven themselves, who are farthest from God.

I was recently at Coventry Cathedral, which since its rebuilding after the destruction of the Second World War has become an international centre of peace and reconciliation. They pray this “litany of peace and reconciliation” each day:

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,

The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,

The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,

Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,

Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,

The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,

The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,

Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

For some reason I found the melody of this chant harder to pick up than most examples from Taizé, although it’s in 4/4 time and without any very high or low notes.  It’s only attributed to ‘the community’ but it would be interesting to know who composed the tune, or rather what cultural background they came from.