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. 

Glory to you, O God

Today’s hymn is ‘Glory to you, O God’ by Howard Gaunt. It’s another of the hymns from the ‘saints’ section of the book. The suggested tune is that of the hymn ‘My song is love unknown’.  John made some changes to the words and used a different tune.  But these comments are based on the words in Sing Praise.

The first verse gives glory to God for the saints, using the traditional language of the early Church of winning victory in the fight against the evils of fire and sword. The second gives thanks for those saints who walked in humble paths, speaking God’s word and act as shining lights to inform our own lives.  The third verse is about ourselves, asking to know God’s truth and walk his way as ‘saints on earth’.

These are three very different concepts of sainthood.  The language of the first verse is not commonly used in most Western churches today. Even British saints such as Alban and Thomas (Becket) who were martyred are not usually spoken of as winning victory so much as showing courage in the face of evil, and other martyrs such as Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and (on the Catholic side) Margaret Clitherow are not usually called ‘saints’ even though they showed equal courage and loyalty to their beliefs. The language of war and victory does however still resonate with those in countries where persecution is still a reality.  The imagery of the second verse is more commonly found in our British churches, where we remember ‘home grown’ saints such as Cuthbert, Wilfrid and David whose ascetic lives are held up as a model of discipleship.  And the concept of all God’s people, living as well as dead, as being saints, is a popular one in our time.