Year by Year, from past to future

Image courtesy of

At last, we come to the end of this year-long project of singing and blogging about every one of the 330 hymns and songs in the Sing Praise hymnbook.  I have enjoyed the singing, alone or to John’s online accompaniment, and reading the words carefully to find something to write about them.  I have written very nearly 100,000 words in the last 365 days and I hope that someone will find some of them helpful, sometime. I will now ‘unpin’ the explanatory text from the home page, but it can still be found here

For the last one, New Year’s Eve, I picked ‘Year by year, from past to future’ by Alan Luff.  Although not specifically written for a New Year service, its theme is very much about our progress through life one year at a time, which makes it suitable. The first verse talks of worship ‘marking our upward climb’ (in the metaphorical sense of getting closer to God, presumably) and ‘following God’s heavenward calling’.  The Christian should seek to be closer to his or her master with each passing year, though of course in practice we must recognise that it isn’t always so.

The second verse uses a vivid imagery of our life being woven like a pattern on a loom, longer with each passing year, a different pattern for each, and with any mistakes ‘grieved over by the Father, master craftsman’ and showing up as a flaw in the textile.  But a well woven cloth can contain flaws without falling apart, and sometimes it’s only when the piece is complete that its true beauty from start to finish can be revealed.

The last verse uses a different imagery, that of pilgrimage. It acknowledges that our journey on this earth must come to an end in what seems like an abyss, a deep canyon that cannot be crossed.  But in a striking phrase we are reminded that ‘Within the dark are waiting hands that bear the print of nails, which will hold us safe and bear us where the worship never fails’. This is the faith of the Church, that Christ has gone before, has emerged from the abyss and will take us safely across to his eternal home.  It is a message of hope rather than fear, and expressed more poetically than in yesterday’s hymn.

Like the last two days’ tunes, the one suggested here (Eifionydd, a Welsh tune presumably) is in two flats, but my more musically knowledgeable mother realised straight away when she saw it that this is in the relative minor key.  I wondered at first whether that was appropriate, but I think it is.  New Year is often a time of reflection on the past as well as looking to the future. The hymn notes the challenge of getting closer to God, the mistakes we make on the way, and the reality of death.

This year with the combined weight of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic and climate change evident in disasters all around the world, both reflection and looking forward demand a more sombre outlook than usual.  The ‘days of auld lang syne’ may look increasingly appealing compared with what the new year may bring, but however deep the abyss, Christ is beyond it.  Happy New Year, whenever you read this.

Faith overcomes

The hymn from Sing Praise for 30th December was ‘Faith overcomes’ by Christopher Jones.  To be honest I wasn’t much taken with this hymn, and apart from these two words that start each of the six verses, it doesn’t seem to be about our faith overcoming life’s problems, as the title might suggest. The first four verses, at least, are more a form of credal statement, about the eternal God, Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry, his death and resurrection. A creed is important in its own way, but it complements rather than establishes our faith.

The last two verses are more personal, or rather corporate, as a response to this creed. Faith is present in the statements ‘We have not seen, yet now we dare believe’ and ‘we yield ourselves to follow his commands’.

The suggested tune, Highwood, was also difficult to follow, and as I didn’t watch the online video I don’t know whether John used it.  

Ring out the bells

The bells of St Peter & St Leonard, Horbury, recast in 2019
Image © Stephen Craven

I’ve been away from the computer for a few days so now catching up. My choice of hymn for 29th December, as we approach the year end, is ‘Ring out the bells’ by Michael Perry.  The tune ‘Yanworth’ was familiar (but I can’t recall to what words) but John used a different one.

Ringing bells to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of the next is an ancient English tradition, and probably in other countries too, though only the English have developed the complex art of change-ringing on church bells. In popular culture it has now been replaced by setting off fireworks. I can hear them outside as I write this on New Year’s Eve, but some churches do see in the new year with bells. The hymn looks at the symbolism they bring with them, in four verses.

First is to ‘let the people know that God is worshipped in the church below’ and that prayer is being offered.  This was the first and most important role of the bells, to summon to worship those who could attend, and to remind those who could not to offer up their own prayers instead, as in the French tradition of sounding the Angelus at midday.

The second symbol is ‘to let the people hear, let hearts be open now and faith draw near’. The joyous sound of bells is intended to lift our hearts, wherever we are. The third is to ‘let the people sing through changing seasons to our changeless King’. While one cannot sensibly ‘sing along’ to change ringing (though one could to a carillon), the correct response to having one’s heart lifted is to praise God, whether aloud or in silence.

Lastly, the bells signify ‘that glorious day when death shall die and sin be done away’.   A single tenor (deep note) bell is usually tolled to indicate a funeral, the passing of a human life.  But bells have also been rung, as may as possible, to signify invasion or other national calamity. Together, they form a call to action.  Like the ‘final trumpet’ they can be a reminder that Christ will come again, and we need to prepare ourselves for that eventuality, which for the believer is not a threat but a promise of eternal life.  In anticipation of that final day, we are invited in the venerable New Year tradition to resolve, with God’s help, to live a more Christ-like life.

Like a candle flame

Desmond Tutu.
Photographer Lord Ru, image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Like a candle flame’ by Graham Kendrick.  It’s a simple, gentle song of the Nativity, at least at the start – ‘Flickering small in our darkness, uncreated light shines through infant eyes’.  The second verse gives a hint that there is more to come from this miraculous baby: ‘Can this tiny spark set a world on fire?’

The last verse bursts forth in splendour: ‘Yet his light shall shine from our lives, Spirit blazing, as we touch the flame of his holy fire’.  For through Christ’s resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit he not only brings the light of God’s truth and love to the world, but sometimes too the ‘blazing’ of signs of power. 

Those who stay at the manger miss the real implications of the birth. Just this morning we heard of the death on Christmas Day of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and our vicar referenced this in his sermon on St Stephen, the first Christian martyr whose feast day we celebrate.  Tutu wasn’t a martyr in the sense of being killed for his faith, but he did share the martyrs’ courageous faith that meant preaching the truth (in his case, the truth of the equality of black and homosexual people) at a risk to his own job and possibly life.  Here was a man in whom the Spirit of Jesus blazed. 

Christmas Day: Lift your heart and raise your voice

Image: Madonna and child at the top of the Jesse Tree.
Detail of Kempe window, Alfriston St Andrew (dated 1914)
Photo © Julian P Guffogg licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

The hymn I chose from Sing Praise for Christmas Day is ‘Lift your heart and raise your voice’ by Michael Perry.  It’s very much a song for this day (or its eve), as the first and last verses encourage us to lift our hearts and sing praise for the gift of the Christ child, using as a refrain the chant of ‘Gloria!’ often associated with Christmas carols.  The second and third verses refer to Jesus in the cattle stall and the shepherds hearing the angels’ song, then coming to see him.

I can do no better at this point than refer you to the short sketch about the shepherds  that I wrote to be performed to the Christmas morning service at my own church today. You can download it here.

Merry Christmas!

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.