From ashes to the livng font

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “From ashes to the living font” by the American writer Alan Hommerding, set in the book to an old 18th century tune although it is “common metre” so there are many possible tunes to choose from.  Hommerding has written his own tune to it, which he discusses along with the words on a podcast. He explains that it was written for a particular occasion to help parishioners make sense of observing Lent, and that his intention is that during Lent we should not forget the end of the journey (Easter and Pentecost) but have them in mind throughout our spiritual journey.

The opening verse is intended to sum up the idea of the season of Lent as a journey, starting with confession and repentance (Ash Wednesday) and ending with the celebrations of Easter, traditionally a time for new believers to be baptised (symbolised by the font). 

The second calls us to use “fasting, prayer and charity” as a way to hear God’s voice in this season.   The third verse refers to the Transfiguration of Jesus, a story that occurs twice every year in the lectionary cycle, in Lent and in August. It was a key event in the spiritual journey of his closest disciples (Peter, James and John) as they realised without doubt that Jesus was the son of God, greater even than Moses and Elijah.  Few of us will have such a dramatic revelation, but hopefully we will understand something new about Jesus each year.

There are five verses in this setting, but the web page linked above gives, as well as four set verses, separate verses for each Sunday of Lent, of which verse 4 here is the one set for the third Sunday (“For thirsting hearts let water flow, our fainting souls revive, and at the well your waters give our everlasting life”) which is probably intended to go with the story of Jesus and the woman of Samaria.

The last verse starts with a reprise of the opening line, but is explicit about the end of the journey: “through cross and tomb to Easter joy, in Spirit-fire fulfilled”.  We look forward in the solemnity of Lent to the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit, without which the fasting and self-denial doesn’t really make sense.

Water of Life, Cleanse and refresh us

My choice of song from the Sing Praise book for 22 January. We’re still in the Epiphany season and looking at hymns and songs relating to baptism.

The phrase “water of life” is itself a very common one, not restricted to Christian theology. Even alcoholic spirits are sometimes given the same honour. At its most basic, water is an essential compound for life as we know it to exist at all, and no animal can live long without drinking it (even camels can only go a week or so without water from the plants they eat).

Water is significant in many key passages of the Bible, from the creation stories where God commands the sea not to invade the land, to the symbolic ‘river of life’ flowing out of the heavenly city. Rivers are crossed miraculously, water drawn from the rock with a holy staff, gallons of it turned into wine – and much more. The symbolism in the chorus of this short song is of baptism, where the water that is blessed and poured over the person being baptised symbolises them being cleansed of their sins and filled with the new life of God’s Spirit.

The first chant (as they are intended to be sung solo rather than as verses of a congregational hymn) starts “all you who thirst, come to the waters” and is from Isaiah 55:1, part of a series of prophesies about the reign of peace of the Messiah. When we turn to Jesus we find abundant life in him. The second, “as rain from heaven, so is God’s word, it waters the earth and brings forth life” draws on several Biblical verses rather than a single one, but the metaphor is a striking one – just as the earth will be dry and unproductive in a drought, so people are spiritually dry and unproductive if they are not ‘watered’ by the presence of God

The third chant is not about water but about resurrection, a link that’s often made, for the plunging into the waters and rising up again at baptism (which makes more sense for the ‘full immersion’ of an adult) is a symbol of resurrection from death. Christians believe that not only did Christ get physically resurrected by God, but that in itself is a promise of a new kind of life after death for all of us who have united ourselves with him.

The last chant, which perhaps should be the first, is about repentance, because normally the challenge to repentance comes before the response of being baptised. But equally, being reminded of our baptism is a prompt to note where we have fallen away from following Jesus and turn back to him.

Source and fount of all creation

The Sing Praise hymn book that I am using includes a surprisingly large number of hymns (13 in all) under the heading of Christian initiation, so we have quite a few more to get through. My accompanist and commentator John Hartley has chosen not to include this or some others that refer to the sometime controversial practice of baptism of young children (see my comment on “Child of blessing, child of promise”). However the references to a child here are only brief – “offspring of a human love” in verse 1, which of course is true of people of any age, and and “new creation, new-born child” in verse 3. Most of it is relevant to all of us.

John’s other reason for not including this hymn in his morning prayer videos is that the last verse refers to the eucharist (communion) which is a different Christian sacrament. Although many churches do perform the rite of baptism within the setting of the eucharist, it’s not essential to do so, and other churches including my own prefer to keep the christening of children as a separate occasion with just a few of the church members attending what is otherwise a time for a family to dedicate their child to God. Adult baptisms, by contrast, are best included as part of the main Sunday service where the convert can declare their faith publicly as they become a full member of the church.

Having said that, the focus of the rest of the words is on the contrast between our natural ability to live God’s way (“human hopes and human graces break beneath the weight of sin” … “Human love is unavailaing counterweight to sin and strife”) with the grace that is given through the Holy Spirit, as expressed in the opening lines – “Source and fount of all creation, pour your Spirit from above”.

The second and third verses remind us that it was not enough for Jesus to be baptised with the Holy Spirit, but that he must also go through suffering and death to achieve the full purpose of God in reconciliation. “God and sinner reconciled” in verse 3 echoes the well known Christmas carol “Hark! the herald angels sing” and reminds us that we are still in the extended Christmas/Epiphany season for another twelve days. The world at large has marked Christmas briefly and moved on, but the Church takes its time to take in the full implications. Our own journey of faith, like Jesus’, will take a lifetime to accomplish, but the grace given at baptism gives us strength for facing whatever the journey brings.

Freed in Christ from death and sin

Please see the introduction if you are new to this project.

Another of the hymns of Christian initiation (principally baptism) is “Freed in Christ from death and sin”.  It is probably based on the declarations made by the adult about to be baptised, or by parents on behalf of their child – “I turn to Christ, I submit to Christ, I come to Christ”.  These replaced the older promises to “renounce the world, the flesh and the Devil” and assent to the Apostle’s Creed, which people no longer easily relate to.

The first verse – turning to Christ – is about freedom. The symbolism of baptism is most commonly seen as that of repentance from past sin.  But it’s also about being set free – “free from death and sin, slaves no more to self within”.  In Christian theology, “the Law” (by which is meant the old Jewish system of detailed commandments and regulations”) is seen as rules of life that were intended by God as a way of guiding willing followers to how we should follow him, but had instead become a burden.  As rabbis over the centuries added more and more detail to the basic Biblical laws to prescribe in minute detail what was required to live a ‘holy’ life, it became impossible to follow it exactly, and any serious attempt to do so would take away any joy in living. 

The second verse – submitting to Christ – is about moving from darkness to light, which is a parallel to that of moving from bondage to freedom. Christ has shed light on how we should live, rather than keeping us in the darkness of trying to keep the detailed law.  Although he said that he came to fulfil the Law rather than abolish it (Matthew 5:17), he is seen as embodying the essentials of the law in his character and actions, rather than “laying down the law” in all its rabbinical detail. Following the example of Christ and trusting him, rather than the written Law, as the basis of righteousness before God frees us from the fear that we will attract God’s judgement every time we sin by failing to keep a commandment.  Chapters 3 to 5 of Paul’s letter to the Galatians cover this argument in more detail. “What would Jesus do?” isn’t all that can be said about Christian ethics, but it’s a starting point.

The third verse – coming to Christ – is about the coming of the Spirit. The Spirit’s role is to equip us with fruits (good character) and gifts (talents or capabilities) to follow Christ, and the hymn asks that we may “in fruitful lives show we belong to Christ”.  The fourth verse with its reference to bread and wine reminds us that the baptised are admitted to Communion, and the final verse praises Christ for “his love outpoured, our lives renewed and hope restored”.

Child of blessing, child of promise

Following on from yesterday’s reflection on our calling in Christ, which was the theme for the Sunday Bible readings as well, the hymn for today is a short one, intended to be sung at the baptism (christening) of a child. In the first verse s/he is named as a child of blessing and of promise, one who is claimed back by God who sent them. In the second, the child is reminded that s/he bears God’s image and is urged to listen to God’s call.

The tune chosen is one normally used for a setting of the Creed (the Christian statement of faith in the three-in-one God), “Firmly I believe and truly”, which is appropriate because the parents and godparents of a child being christened are expected to declare their own Christian faith, usually by reciting a set form of creed. The question of whether young children should be baptised before they can express any personal understanding of God is one that still divides the Church. Many books have been written on the subject but let’s summarise it like this:

One side of the argument is that only those old enough to make a lifelong decision for themselves should go through this initiation rite, and certainly people who are baptised as adults or teenagers say the experience stays with them as a foundation of their faith for a long time. Those who support infant baptism (often known as christening) stress the importance of recognising the whole family as being Christian and having a ceremony to mark an addition to the family and the gift of a child from God, adding that God’s call is not conditional on the person’s response. I see the strengths in both sides of the argument, but what seems inappropriate (to me) is christening the child of parents who are not church members themselves and who have chosen friends as godparents who have no Christian faith themselves either. “Getting the child done” becomes simply a cultural tradition with no real religious meaning. Having said that, it does happen from time to time that the christening ceremony, perhaps the first church service the parents have attended for a long time, can be the first step on a journey of faith for them as they consider what they really meant by joining in with the prayers and creed.

But back to this hymn. The last pair of lines reminds the child (if s/he hears it again later in life, perhaps) to “grow to laugh and sing and worship, trust and love God more than all”. That linking of laughter, song and worship is what’s behind my decision to sing through the hymn book in a year. As St Augustine put it, “he who sings prays twice.” Not all hymns help us to laugh, as they help us respond to all life’s events and emotions, the sad as well as the joyful, but if singing praise to God doesn’t sometimes make us laugh, have we really entered into worship at all?

When Jesus comes to be baptised

The daily hymn for 14 January is “When Jesus comes to be baptised”, the second on this theme – I just didn’t get round to typing my notes until the following day.  Its composition is attributed not to an individual but to a community – the Catholic nuns of Stanbrook Abbey in Yorkshire. Perhaps this is appropriate, for the words of the hymn meditate on the sacrifice (in a metaphorical sense) that Jesus made by coming forwards to be baptised in the Jordan river.  He “leaves behind the years of safety and peace”, to bear the sins of humankind, and eventually to suffer death on the cross. 

Anyone who becomes a nun, monk or other member of a religious community, but especially those who take lifelong vows, also has to sacrifice the comforts of their former years, and to take on responsibilities – to pray regularly, to study theology, and usually to work hard at whatever occupation keeps the community going financially, be it farming, craft work or teaching.  It’s not an easy life.  

But there’s another side to this religious commitment.  Jesus, the hymn reminds us, was also called to preach the gospel, to bring comfort and healing.  There were frustrations, of course, where he preaching was opposed or healing was not possible for lack of faith.  But he must have found satisfaction when the message was received and understood, when the blind could see or the lame walk.  Likewise, nuns or monks find their satisfaction in the worship of the community, in serving retreatants or other guests, and (if they are not in an enclosed order) in work with the local community.  

When Simon Peter said to Jesus “Look, we have left our homes and followed you”, Jesus replied “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”  (Luke 18:28-30, NRSV). By which, of course, he meant not money, but satisfaction of a more real and lasting kind.

The last verse of the hymn is a Christian doxology (praise to the Holy Trinity).  Perhaps this is because that is the form of words used at Christian baptism, but it’s widely believed that these words attributed to Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel were an addition by the community that Matthew belonged to.  They cannot have been used by John at Jesus’ own baptism, because he would effectively have been saying  “I baptise you in the name of the father, and yourself, and the Holy Spirit” which would make no sense.  That doesn’t mean the doctrine of the Trinity is not helpful, just that we shouldn’t see it as something taught by Jesus himself.

The sinless one to Jordan came

For the next couple of days we move on from the wedding at Cana to another Epiphany theme of revelation, that of Jesus being baptised. This was the occasion when according to all four gospel writers, the Holy Spirit appeared “like a dove”, and according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, God’s voice was heard calling Jesus God’s beloved son. 

Today’s hymn is “The sinless one to Jordan came”. After four verses of the hymn paraphrasing the biblical accounts, the focus in the fifth changes to us, Jesus’s present-day disciples.  In singing it, we ask God to let us “go forth with [him], a world to win” and to send the Holy Spirit “to shield [us] in temptation’s hour”.  This reminds us that baptism is not merely a symbolic act of showing we believe in Christ, but a commitment (at least for those who are baptised as adults) to actively engage in God’s mission in the world. 

It also acknowledges that when we do so, we face opposition – as Jesus was tempted by the Devil immediately after his baptism, so we find ourselves tempted (maybe only by distractions, maybe by something more sinister) whenever we set our face to work with God. We then need both the assurance of God’s love and the sense of his Spirit within us.

Christ is our light, the bright and morning star

On the three Sundays after Epiphany, Catholic tradition retells three stories from different times in the life of Jesus, which together are considered to reveal his identity.  The three verses of this hymn pick up on those stories.  The first is the nativity itself, the coming of light into the world.  It’s often associated with the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem and the star (i.e. source of light) that they followed, although they are not referenced here.  Rather the emphasis is on Christ’s light or ‘radiance’ which we ask to shine into our hearts and into our world – a world which at this present time needs God’s light more than ever.

The second is his baptism (as an adult), associated here with the love of God (who is recorded as speaking at the time, the heavenly voice declaring Jesus to be God’s son, in whom God was ‘well pleased’ even before his public ministry started).  The reference in the words to God’s love ‘swooping low’ is to the form of a dove in which Saint John says the Holy Spirit appeared to accompany the voice of God.    

The third story is that of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding, which is seen as much more than a gift to those present at the feast, rather a sign of the transformation that Jesus can bring to the life of anyone who follows him – from the plain water of life without him, to the joyful wine of knowing his presence.  It is that presence, that joy, that we constantly must seek, because once given, like wine, it doesn’t stay fresh for long.

Light, love and joy – the three aspects of the presence of Jesus Christ, revealed at his birth, his baptism, and in his presence among us. That is the Epiphany, the revelation of God in our lives.

The Bible in a Year – 12 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

12 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 1-4

The relationship between the apostle Paul and the church in Corinth, as revealed in his two letters (and what some people have deduced from them about their situation), is a fascinating one.  Sometimes he is praising them, holding them up as example to others of what Christians should be like; then a short while later criticising their behaviour and calling them immature.

Paul’s main criticism in this first quarter of the book is that some of the congregation think that they follow, or even worse “belong to”, himself, or to one of the other apostles, rather than Christ.  He has to remind them that all Christians are baptised into Christ (or, in most churches, into the Trinity of God the Father, Jesus Christ who is God’s Son, and the Holy Spirit).  In chapter 3 he uses the analogy of farming, where he and others who have taught them the faith are like farmers, who may plant the crop, but without God’s gifts of earth, air, sun and rain it will not grow.  So it is with Christians: only God grows faith within a person; other people can only provide the “seeds of faith”.

In chapter 4 he uses a different analogy, that of father and child. A parent can teach a child the facts of life, but maturity is something that each person has to work out for him- or herself from experience.  Growth into maturity is what we call wisdom.  But for Paul, human wisdom is not enough in the Kingdom of God.  We also need spiritual maturity, and as far as that was concerned, the Corinthians, although adults, were so immature that they were like babies who are not yet weaned (3:2) – what an insult!  Their immaturity is shown by the division among them according to which of the apostles they wrongly claim to belong to.

Division in the church is not new.  Whether at a global level between “liberal” and “conservative” cultures, at a national level between members of an “official” state church and independent ones, within one church network according to preferences in worship, or even within a single congregation over some trivial issue like whether to replace pews with chairs, we hear it all the time. The media love a ‘divided church’ story, and those of us who are members of such congregations should be ashamed. We need to grow up!

Such divisions not only attract ridicule, they hinder the work of the Holy Spirit who can only work where there is unity of purpose, and mutual love. There was a parody on social media of a well known hymn.  The joke version read “Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God: brothers we are treading where we’ve always trod.”  The original, not often heard these days, is powerful when it is not only sung but believed as true, and lived out: “Like a mighty army moves the church of God: brothers we are treading where the saints have trod.”  The power of the Holy Spirit that Paul hints at in these opening chapters, and which he will discuss later in his letter, is what moves this mighty army.

Choose your metaphor then: growing crops, a family, or an army. Whichever you prefer, be a part of it, growing together in the love of God, and resist division like the plague.