Light of the World, true light divine

We are approaching the end of the extended season of Christmas/Epiphany, which is marked by Candlemas on 2 February (next Tuesday).  So I’m starting a short series of hymns and songs around that theme.  The first, “Light of the world, true light divine” does indeed look back to Christmas – which for many people will be a distant memory by now – with a reminder of the baby Jesus in the manger, and hailing him as the “long awaited light”, which is essentially what Candlemas celebrates. 

But this point in the Christian year is very much a pivot point as we turn away from reflecting on Jesus’ birth and begin to look forward in anticipation to the events of Holy Week, which this year falls around the beginning of April.  There are hints of this in the words of the hymn: “Life of the world, a life laid down, who chose the cross before the crown” (v.2) and “you came to set a lost world right” (v.3).

Behold, I make all things new / Take me as I am

I’m writing a single blog post today (28 January, though you probably won’t see it until the 29th) covering two adjacent songs in the Sing Praise book: numbers 129 and 130, “Behold, behold, I make all things new” and “Take, O take me as I am”.  This is because there are several similarities between them: both are short meditative choruses intended to be sung repeatedly, both are set in three or four parts for different voices, both take the theme of making a new start, and perhaps not surprisingly therefore, they are by the same composer (John Bell).   I’m also familiar with both of them: the second is a favourite with our church music group, and I think I came across “Behold, behold” when I attended a singing workshop led by John Bell himself a few years ago. They are short enough to reproduce the text in full here.

Take, O take me as I am, summon out what I shall be;
Set your seal upon my heart and live in me.

With these songs we come to the end of the theme of ‘Christian initiation’.  The second song develops this theme as we ask Jesus to take us as we are, but to move us on, by ‘summoning out’ what he wanted us to be all along.  “Set your seal upon my heart” is a reference to the Song of Songs, that great romantic poem attributed to Solomon, but often seen by Christians as an allegory of Christ’s love for his disciples and ours for him.  To turn to Christ is not simply assenting to a set of beliefs or a commitment to try and keep certain rules, but to make a commitment based on love just as strong as that which leads to marriage.

Behold, behold, I make all things new,
Beginning with you, and starting from today.
Behold, behold, I make all things new,
My promise is true, for I am Christ the Way.

The “starting from today” is the same sort of idea as “take me as I am”. Christians talk of conversion as a “kairos moment” from a Greek word meaning the time when opportunities arise, the “right time” to make a change or start something new.  It doesn’t matter what state your life is in right now, if the time feels right then start from where you are, here, now, today, and let Christ make you new. As John points out in the service where he uses this song, the text is based on 2 Corinthians 5:17 – “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation”, the implication being that the old creation, the old self, the old life no longer matters.

These two songs then, taken together, help us to make that commitment of letting Jesus take us as we are and make something new of us.

In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful

The hymns from Sing Praise for the last week or so have taken the serious themes of repentance and commitment.  A more joyful note now follows with today’s song, a Taizé chant, “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful”. I have known the chorus or ‘ostinato’ part of this song for many years (it was written in 1998) but the words to the ‘verses’ (or rather the soloist’s or cantor’s acclamations) are new to me.  John, who has been playing these songs online as part of morning prayer, thinks they may be offered as examples of the sort of words that could be extemporised to suit the theme or mood of a particular act of worship, since they don’t fit easily to the metre of the chant that the congregation or choir sings at the same time.  It’s not possible for a single person to sing both at once, but John has recorded both parts here:

The cantor acclaims her or his reasons for trusting God: “You are my salvation”, “The Lord is my rock and fortress”, “The Lord God is worthy of praise”, “You have done wondrous things”.  These are in one sense quite vague, though all are Biblical.  It is up to each worshipper to know make these personal in their heart – how has God saved me? How has he protected me? What has he done in my life to make him worthy of my praise? What wondrous things has he done? 

Singing the praise of God can actually be hard work, to get beyond repeating the words on the page or screen and really meaning them.  Another reason, perhaps, for thinking that these are merely suggestions and the cantor could actually be intended to make them personal to themselves or their congregation.  For example, “I praise you Lord, for you saved me from depression.  I will be thankful always for the dream that gave me new hope”. Or corporately “God has brought us new members, let us praise him.  For our sisters and brothers in Christ let us give thanks”.  The skill is in fitting these words around the ostinato, and again the various lines of music in the book just give an idea of what is possible, but it requires a gifted singer to do justice to this cantor role.

Athirst my soul for you

Today’s song from Sing Praise is a cantor-and-chorus type, called “Athirst, my soul, for you, the God who is my life” (that’s the first line of the first chant). The chorus starts “As the deer longs for running streams”, but there are many hymns with that or similar titles, because Psalm 42/43 on which it’s based is very popular as a basis for sung versions.

Painting "Deer drinking" by Winslow Homer
“Deer drinking” by Winslow Homer

The appeal of this psalm is in the opening lines, with the attractive image of the hunted deer finding a refreshing stream in a hidden dip in the hills, out of sight of its hunters, where it can drink and rest awhile.  The simile is that God will likewise offer us rest and refreshment in prayer and meditation when we are stressed or frightened.  That’s true, but not easy to achieve: I find that the greater the pressures of life, the harder it is to find time for prayer and the longer it takes to relax into it. 

That’s why I try to find opportunities offered for quiet time away from the usual routines of life – a ‘quiet day’, teaching weekend or short retreat offered by one of the many Christian communities, abbeys or retreat centres.  In the present pandemic, I have one booked at the end of next week on Zoom, and that will mean sessions on the screen in my usual study, and finding a quiet space in the house for the personal meditation times in between, where I won’t get distracted.  I am looking forward to it, but the experience will be different.

Back to the song, and the verses remind us why we get so stressed and in need of God’s protection and refreshing. Surprisingly, “All your mighty waters sweeping over me” suggests that the feeling of being overwhelmed might actually be the result of God’s intention, but it’s an accurate rendition of Ps.42:7.  Perhaps it means the sense of being burdened by the requirements of God’s law and commandments or the guilt of not keeping them, which as we saw the other day has been relieved by Jesus taking us back to the law’s true intentions.   

“The foe delights in taunting me”, on the other hand, puts the blame for my troubles firmly on other people. The taunt given as an example is “where is your God”, a phrase that is still used by those who don’t understand the nature of religious faith – “what sort of God is it who allows this to happen?” (whatever “this” is).  The antidote to this is to turn back to God and affirming that we do trust in him, whatever is happening around us.

One verse in the psalm (42:4) is not referred to in the song but is very relevant at this time of church closures – in the Prayer Book psalter used at many an Evensong, “Now when I think thereupon, I pour out my heart by myself : for I went with the multitude, and brought them forth into the house of God; In the voice of praise and thanksgiving : among such as keep holy-day.”  As much as anything, it is the music and ceremonial of church services that I miss – we can keep in touch by phone call or maybe even Zoom meetings, but it’s not possible with those to chant a psalm or sing a hymn together, or physically to process into or around the church building as we might do on special occasions.

The last verse, though, does look forward to a time when all the sadness and frustration will be put behind us. “Then shall I go unto the altar of my God, praising you, O my joy and gladness, I shall praise your name”.  Let’s keep that in mind throughout the lockdown.

Word of God, renew your people

The hymn I chose for today from Sing Praise was “Word of God, renew your people” by the American composer Bernadette Farrell. The term ‘Word of God’ is used in three ways in Christian thought – in the most general sense referring to communication between God and creation, the Creator ‘speaking’ his intentions into being.  It is also understood as referring to words in the more literal sense of the Bible, whether you understand the inspiration of the Bible in a literal sense of God speaking exact words to be written down or more vaguely as inspiring people who then put the revelation in their own words.  And finally it can refer to Jesus Christ himself, as in the well known beginning of John’s Gospel “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.

The Word here is described as the Word of hope, of healing, of peace and of justice.  This points more towards the last of those understandings – Jesus, who as God in man brought hope and healing to individual lives and who by his risen power we believe will one day bring peace and justice to the world (verse 4 – “God alone, the power we trust in”).

Interestingly, although the first line of each verse is different, the remaining three lines are unvarying, so they are sung four or five times depending on whether the final verse (for a baptism service) is included.   “Make us now your living sign. Recreate us for your purpose in this place and in this time”. There is, as Ecclesiastes wrote, a time for everything, and maybe the time is right now for each of us to be a ‘living sign’ for others that the Word of God is still alive and active today.

We turn to Christ anew

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise was “We turn to Christ anew”. Although in the section on Christian Initiation, it doesn’t specifically refer to baptism and would be equally suitable for confirmation, renewal of vows or a Covenant service.

The three verses, set to a tune more familiar as “The God of Abram praise”, are all about obedience and trust.  It’s significant that the hymn is written in the first person plural – “we”, not “I”. The longer I have lived as a Christian, the more I have realised that the ‘Christian life’ is less about following rules (whether God-given or man-made) and more about recognising God’s sovereignty in the world and being part of the whole Christian church, indeed the wider company of all who believe in God and seek to do his will, not only our own lives, but in the lives of all people and indeed the whole creation.  With this attitude, prayer and worship become not a list of requests, but trying to be attuned to the will of God in everything.  The first verse, then, is about turning to Christ, walking his way, obeying and serving him, as well as turning from sin (which is merely a first step towards doing his will, whether at conversion or subsequently). 

The second verse declares “We trust in Christ to save”, with a reminder of his death on the Cross as paying a ransom (one of several understandings of its significance, and perhaps not a commonly heard one these days). It also looks forward to the “final day” when those who trust in him will be saved to eternal life.  It is, of course, much harder to decide whether I myself trust in Christ sufficiently to merit this, let alone to see into anyone else’s mind and make a judgement about their level of trust, than it is to ask a yes-or-no question about whether someone has been baptised or had a particular experience, which is why preachers and evangelists now tend to be less dogmatic about who will be “in” or “out” of God’s favour come that final day.

The last verse starts continuing the theme of looking towards the end of time, or at least of our earthly lives, acclaiming Jesus as “our changeless friend”.   It ends with a challenge to renew our faith and love to follow him.  The very last line – “and find him true” – is important, because it is Christ’s promise to be true (i.e. faithful) to us that is if anything more important than our promises to be true to him, which we know can often falter.

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”.

Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you

Today’s choice of hymn, following the themes of calling and baptism (or “Christian initiation” as the Sing Praise hymn book has it), is a song that our own church music group has used several times. The chorus is “do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name, you are mine”. That idea – that God calls us individually, in different ways (by our name) and that because of that there’s nothing to be feared in life – occurs throughout the Bible, in fact I’ve heard it said that the phrase “do not be afraid” is one of the most common in the Bible.

The first four short verses each suggest ways in which life might make us afraid, then the way in which God will protect us. All of these are relevant to the current Covid pandemic and lockdown.

Firstly we may feel we are “out of our depth” with what’s happening (perhaps especially appropriate today, as the North of England faces yet another warning of devastating floods), but he won’t let us drown. Or we may feel that we are surrounded by fire (the virus is just as dangerous, though invisible), but he won’t let us get burnt; or lonely (a problem many are facing in this pandemic) but God is always with us so we are never truly alone; or exiled away from home (perhaps in the sense that the culture around us is changing rapidly and makes us uncomfortable) but never far from God’s love.

The final verse reminds us again that we are God’s children and that he loves us. That’s what it all comes down to: whatever the pandemic brings, whether anxiety, fear of physical harm, loneliness or just life moving too fast for us to keep up with, the one constant is God’s love, so we need not fear.