Christmas Eve: The Servant King

The mother of the sons of Zebedee
(original artist unknown)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘The servant King’ by Graham Kendrick.  It’s not normally thought of as a Christmas hymn, as it focuses on the death rather than the birth of Jesus, but John suggested it for today and with good reason.  The Gospel reading at morning prayer today was from Matthew chapter 20 and concluded with these words of Jesus to his disciples: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many”. The artwork above illustrates the Biblical context of this saying, with the mother of two of the disciples asking for them to be his chief assistants.

That phrase ‘not to be served but to serve’ appears in the first verse of Kendrick’s hymn, reminding us that the ‘helpless babe’ we put in nativity scenes at Christmas would go on to live a totally selfless life and offer himself up to cruel death for our sake, as the rest of the hymn makes clear.

The final verse turns back on ourselves: it’s one thing to give thanks to God for Jesus’ willingness to die for us, but are we prepared to offer our own lives as servants, both of Jesus and of each other?  Christmas, supposedly a joyous festival of the birth of our Saviour, is notorious also as a time when domestic quarrels can escalate into violence, and strained partnerships tear apart.  So may the promise “each other’s needs to prefer” sustain our homes in peace through this season.

O Emmanuel: When the King shall come again

Christ in Glory – detail of the East window at
St Andrew & St Mary, Stoke Rochford
Image © Julian P Guffogg and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

The last of the Advent antiphons, on this eve of Christmas Eve, is ‘O Emmanuel’.  In the best known hymn setting of the antiphons, this comes first, but in ancient traditions it’s the last.  I haven’t been quoting the full text of these antiphons but I’ve just found a web page where you can see them all, in Latin and English (no doubt translations vary). The suggested translation of ‘O Emmanuel’ is “O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of the Nations and their Saviour, come to save us, O Lord our God”.

The hymn I picked to respond to it is ‘When the King shall come again’ by Christopher Idle, based on Isaiah chapter 35. This is one of many passages in Isaiah held by Christians to be prophesies of the Messsiah/Christ.  

Following yesterday’s comment about finding joy in a religious observance of Christmas, this is also a prophecy, and hence a hymn, full of hope. In verse 1, the King comes in power, with life, joy and healing, to end the decay and frustrations of earthly life.   Verse 2 is about new life blooming in the desert (symbolic of any situation where lie seems hopeless, dry and exhausting). Verse 3 calls the listener to ‘strengthen feeble hands and knees, fainting hearts be cheerful’.  Why?  Because God comes to heal all kinds of infirmities (something particularly associated with the ministry of Jesus). Finally, we read of God’s highway, a road (or path of life) where the dangers associated with travel in the ancient world such as lions and robbers are nowhere to be found and the traveller can journey on without fear and praising God.

Putting these ideas together we have something like the ‘Kingdom of God’ preached by Jesus: a world in which we trust in God’s power, live in hope, holistic in our minds and bodies, putting natural fears to one side, and looking towards our eternal home. There is always an uncertainty about which aspects of this eternal life we can expect to experience in this earthly life, and which will only be fully realised when Jesus returns in power, but they are two sides of the same coin.

O Rex Gentium: All nations of the world

group of people with diverse ages and ethnicities in church
Source : PNG Of People In Church

Today’s hymn from sing praise is to go with the 6th Advent antiphon, ‘O rex gentium’ (‘O King of the peoples’) and is ‘All nations of the world’ by Edwin Le Grice, a new name to me among hymn-writers. It’s not specifically an Advent hymn, rather a setting of Psalm 100, which is one of the most joyful of all the psalms.

Its theme is finding joy in serving God. To put that into context, think of all that a ‘secular Christmas’ comprises, at least in ‘normal times’, although this year people are being more reflective as Covid-19 continues to take its toll on society.  Buying and exchanging gifts more out of duty than love, watching whatever the TV companies choose to put forward as entertainment, putting up with our less lovely relations, and maybe eating rather more than is good for the digestion.   

Such things, while not wrong in themselves, don’t usually lead to the sort of joy that the psalmist calls on the nations of the world to seek. Rather we are to serve God willingly, bringing every aspect of our lives to him in prayer, ‘approaching his courts with song’ (i.e. entering fully into worship as a pleasure and not a duty), and adoring him for his ‘gracious mercy, truth and love for evermore’. That needs to be at least part of our Christmas observance if it is to be truly joyful.

O Oriens: People, look East!

Dawn over the Bay of Bengal
(c) Stephen Craven

I didn’t get round to blogging about a hymn on 21 December for the good reason that I was working during the day, and out most of the evening carol singing around the streets with neighbours (OK, and in the pub for a couple of drinks to warm up afterwards).

The hymn I picked for the 21st, when the Advent antiphon was ‘O Oriens’, is the appropriately titled ‘People look east’.  There is a well known hymn of that name, and that’s what I thought I had picked, but this is a total re-write of it by Martin Leckebusch to the same tune.

The phrase “People look east” is intended to suggest that as we look to the east awaiting the new light of dawn, so we look that way (which is also nominally the direction of Jerusalem as seen from Europe) as we wait for Christ to appear.  The image above (not the first time I have used it this year) is a photo I took in southern India, where every day the dawn is celebrated in prayer by Christian, Muslim and Hindu alike.

Unlike the hymns and readings of the earlier part of Advent that seem to focus on our own sinfulness and the judgement that awaits the unrepentant, this one celebrates the good things we can expect when Christ returns. The first is enlightenment: ‘see a brighter day is dawning, rich with the visions long foretold’.  The second is God’s welcome: ‘comfort enough for all our sorrows, justice shaping new tomorrows’, in which we are ‘freed to praise and serve the Lord’.

The third verse speaks of how the coming dawn will put dark fears to flight and clear the clouds of gloom.  That is reminiscent of words from ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’, another great Advent hymn (not in the Sing Praise book). In one translation this is ‘As the light of light descendeth from the realms of endless day, that the powers of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away’.

In contrast to this vision of the triumphant Lord of Creation descending from heaven to execute justice on earth, the last verse focuses on the humanity of Jesus: ‘Born of our race, a child so small, hail the promised Lord of all! Nailed to a cross for our salvation’. Yet the last line takes us back to the future: ‘See, he comes in power to reign!’

O Clavis David: The Lord’s my Shepherd

Good Shepherd window, Whalley parish church
Artist: Edward Burne-Jones. Photo (C) Stephen Craven

Today’s Antiphon is ‘O clavis David’ (clavis=key).  One English translation of the full text is ‘O key of David and sceptre of Israel, you who open and nobody then can close, who close and nobody then can open: come and lead the captive from prison; free those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death’. There are many people in literal prison cells, or in ‘prisons’ of their other circumstances, for whom we could pray as we read this.

The ‘O antiphons’ are usually rendered as plainsong, but today’s hymn from Sing Praise is the well known worship song ‘The Lord’s my shepherd (I will trust in you alone)’ by Stuart Townend.  The connections with the antiphon are that David was a shepherd before he became King, and Psalm 23 of which it is a setting also talks of the ‘shadow of death’.

This modern setting of the psalm has achieved great popularity, although it takes the verses of the psalm in a different order from the original, and oddly doesn’t seem to include the last verse – ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever’.  Perhaps that’s because of its refrain ‘I will trust in you alone’ which has a pleasant descant line.

By coincidence I’ve been able to illustrate two posts this week with stained glass from the same church. Whalley has a real treasure in these windows by Burne-Jones and Whall, two of the masters of their craft.

O radix Jesse: Long ago you taught your people

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Long ago you taught your people’ by Martin Leckebusch, to the Welsh hymn tune Hyfrydol. 

There’s no obvious direct connection, in fact, with the third of the ‘O Antiphons’ which is ‘O radix Jesse’ (radix – root, descendant).  We think today of Jesus in his human descent from Jesse the father of King David, whereas the theme of the hymn is that of generosity.  But read on…

Our Diocese of Leeds had a ‘generosity week’ not long ago, in which local churches were encouraged to consider how they could be more welcoming, more inclusive and more generous with their time and money. The words of the hymn take a similar line, contrasting the Old Testament practice of tithing crops and animals with the New Testament approach to generosity which is not defined numerically but encouraged as part of our stewardship of all the resources available to us.

Jesus is described in the second verse as ‘never snared by earthly treasure’ but as giving ‘riches of the deepest kind’. Generosity includes, but is more than, giving money. It can be giving time to listen or help people with practical tasks, volunteering, opening our homes to visitors, lending tools to neighbours, and so on.   As the last verse reminds us, all this is ‘not a barren legal due but an overflow of worship’.

But going back to the daily theme of Jesus’ ancestors, in our church this morning we finished our series of sermons on the book of Ruth, in which she becomes the mother of Obed, the father of Jesse. So taking this ‘root of Jesse’ three generations further back to Ruth’s second husband Boaz, he was generous in taking this dependent immigrant as his wife, not imagining the implications that would have for the world forty-five generations later with the birth of the Saviour (according to the genealogy in Luke’s gospel). We can never know what effect a bit of generosity will have.

O Adonai: How shall I sing that majesty?

Nativity window, Whalley St Mary & All Saints (detail)
Artist Christopher Whall, photo (c) Stephen Craven

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘How shall I sing that majesty?’ by John Mason. I have heard or sung this often, and assumed it was modern (probably because the usual tune, as printed in the book, is). But in fact it seems the words date from the 17th century, though surprisingly they are nearly all words and phrases still in use today.  The exceptions are the archaic pronoun ‘thy’ and the reference to sounding depths with a [plumb] line. John used a different tune in his video, but personally I prefer ‘Coe Fen’ as provided.

This is the day of the second ‘O antiphon’, this time ‘O Adonai’, that being one of the Jewish names for God, the one usually rendered as ‘Lord’ in English Bibles  (or sometimes by the letters YHYW – see an explanation here) and referring to the one beyond our sight and knowing.   So I picked this hymn which addresses God in his majesty in heaven.

The hymn picks up imagery from the book of Revelation, as well as other parts of the BIble, to imagine God’s angels constantly singing his praises around his throne, as they see his face, behold his brightness and understand his whole being.  We on earth, by contrast, for all our natural and artificial light cannot see the light of God and are spiritually cold and dark, unable to praise God properly.  We ask him to enlighten us with faith and love, the only things that can stir us up into praise. 

These same ideas lie behind the Christmas story with the angels dazzling the shepherds and the heavenly light guiding the magi. Illustrations of the manger in Bethlehem often portray a warm glowing light around the child, or around the whole stable, while it is night outside.  Our God comes to us in ways that show us the right way and warm our hearts to respond to him in song like the angels.

The illustration is a detail of a stained glass window in the south aisle of Whalley parish church, Lancashire, by the arts-and-crafts designer Christopher Whall. It depicts Mary with the infant Jesus and two angels.

O Sapientia: God in his Wisdom

Interior of the Church of Jesus Christ the Wisdom of God
(c) John Salmon and licensed foe reuse under Creative Commons.

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘God in his wisdom’ by Timothy Dudley-Smith.  This is the first of seven that I picked whose first lines suggest they align with the theme of the day, for each of the seven days before Christmas Eve is traditionally associated with one of the titles or characteristics of Christ.  Today is known as ‘O Sapientia’, meaning wisdom. 

The words of the hymn pick up the association between Christ the Wisdom of God, and the Word of God.   This term in itself has a dual meaning. One is the written words of the Bible, more or less unchangeable, in so far as its contents were decided in the early centuries after Jesus. This was a human decision, in selecting which books to include, but we trust that the selectors as well as the original writers and later translators were inspired by the Holy Spirit. 

The other sense of the term is Jesus Christ himself, incarnation of the ‘Logos’ or Word of God, who while never contradicting himself will adapt his words to meet the needs of the moment.   True wisdom is never just a set of rules, but a just and fair interpretation of them.  Sometimes one branch of the church will emphasise one to the relative exclusion of the other, but neither a rigid literal interpretation of the Bible nor an attitude that it can be ignored or changed at will is true to the Christian understanding of wisdom.

The hymn words try to strike this balance, presenting the Bible as the ‘promise of Christ by which our souls are moved and stirred’ and Jesus as portraying the love of God through the Bible’s ‘symbol and story, song and saying’. We are invited to contemplate the Bible to know Christ through it, not to adore it in itself. Peter Moger’s choice of the tune ‘Fragrance’ is appropriate, as it is usually associated with the hymn ‘Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour’, another hymn to Jesus as God’s messenger to humanity.

The illustration today is of the sanctuary of the wonderfully named Church of Jesus Christ the Wisdom of God, Lower Kingswood, Surrey. The Grade I listed building is pretty enough outside but its real treasures are within. Uniquely in England, its basilica-style interior is filled with genuine marbles and mosaics from ancient Rome and Byzantium, including part of a church excavated in ancient Ephesus.  To touch this connects us with the Church that was debating around the 4th century AD which writings should be included in the Bible, a question that is still revisited from time to time, though not concerning the Gospels that are at the heart of it.

My eyes are dim with weeping (and other prayers)

Monument to Thomas Sainsbury – St Mary’s church, Market Lavington
© Mike Searle and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Yesterday I combined two short prayer responses in one comment.  We have three more for the rest of the week (numbers 207 to 209 in the Sing Praise book), equally short, so I’m combining them too.

207 (Tuesday) is a setting by John Harper of the response familiar to all Church of England regulars: ‘Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer’. 209 (Thursday) is by Paul Inwood and is a cantor/response chant: ‘We ask you, Lord / Listen to our prayer’, repeated one tone lower.  Either of these would be used after each section of congregational prayers.

208 (Wednesday), with words by John Bell to a tune by Alison Adam, is also a cantor/response chant, but is slightly longer, and also quite different in tone. In fact it is achingly plaintive in its words and music.  The cantor wails ‘My eyes are dim with weeping and my pillow soaked with tears’, the response being ‘Faithful God, remember me’.  This is not so much intercession as lament.  

Previous generations are sometimes criticised for being over-sentimental in their use of imagery such as the one above. Church monuments like this one from the late 18th century often feature women weeping over a tomb or urn covered in drapes (similar to pillows, I suppose). But sometimes in grief or pain we do find ourselves literally weeping into the pillow, either for our own situation or that of a loved one, and there seem to be no adequate words with which to ask God to help.  These words will do, and
this chant could be used by the individual lamenting over some great crisis in their life. Asking God to ‘remember me’ is asking him not to ignore my plight or leave me helpless.

Alternatively, this could be used corporately, perhaps at a funeral, remembrance service or or if the theme of the service leads itself to intercession for people who might not be known to us by name but with whose suffering we want to empathise: flood or famine victims, survivors of a disaster, etc. But like strong medicines it should only be used sparingly. ‘Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer’ will suffice for most occasions.

The next blog in this series will therefore be on Friday as we look at the ‘O antiphons’ for the last week of Advent.

Sending our petitions to God

Praying together in church.
Image from Horizon Community Church
Original source unknown

I’m combining two days’ choices of songs from Sing Praise in one post, because both are very short, both are by the same composer (John Bell) and both are intended as ‘intercession responses’ to be used between each section of prayers in public or group worship.

The words are short enough to be reproduced in full: the first, which I chose for Sunday 12th December, is ‘Lord, hear our cry / Listen to our prayer’.  It could be used with everyone singing those words, but the suggestion is that the cantor (worship leader, or whoever is reading the prayers) sings the first part, with everyone else responding ‘Listen to our prayer’.  Or it could be used in open prayer, where anyone who has been praying from the heart (the best form of prayer!) using ‘Lord hear our cry’ as a signal for others to respond.

The second one, which I chose for the 13th but which our own church music leader happened to pick for Sunday worship today, is ‘Through our lives and by our prayer, your kingdom come’.  This one is in four part harmony so is more suited to being used by a rehearsed music group, although it could of course be sung in unison or by a single voice. Our vicar introduced the response to each section of the intercessions by saying ‘until your kingdom comes…’. 

The reason such chants exist (and we will be using others for each of the next few days) is that prayer in church should be that of the whole people. Where some traditions including many Church of England congregations have a small rota of people speaking the prayers, a said or sung response to each prayer means that everyone can add their voice.  It’s not surprising that the term ‘petition’ is sometimes used for these prayers that ask God to do something about a problem, as it is for when a large number of people sign a document asking a worldly authority to do the same.  The difference is that God has promised always to take notice of our petitions, although his action in response, with his infinite knowledge of past, present and future, might not always be what we ask or expect.