O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder

Wooden cross on the Via Beata, Redhill, Warwickshire

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is a very well known one, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder”. Stuart Hine’s translation of a hymn that was originally either in Swedish or Russian (I’ve seen both quoted as the original) has become a firm favourite, at least partly  because of the memorable tune (although the two slightly different notes on the repetition of ‘art’ in the chorus catch many out).

I do wonder, though, whether its popularity is also because the first two verses appeal to a spirituality of nature that doesn’t demand Christian commitment.  Stars, woods and glades, brooks and birds can be enjoyed by anyone, and only a vague belief in a creator is required to respond to them with “how great thou art!”

The last two verses, on the other hand, if the singer thinks about the words, are much more specifically Christian.  “When I think that God, his son not sparing, sent him to die … on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin” is at the core of our belief, and all the more reason to be thankful to our God.  He is not a distant creator far beyond the stars, but among us and involved with us in sharing our suffering.

The last verse looks to the renewed creation promised by Jesus, which shall be our home.  Interpretations of Christ’s return do of course vary between Christians, but we can agree that the greatest gift of God for which we can sing our thankful praise is that of eternal life, whether in the present existence or the one to come (whatever that may be like).  How great thou art, indeed!

Come and see the King of Love

Watching Jesus die. Original source unknown

The Good Friday song choice from Sing Praise is Graham Kendrick’s “Come and see the King of Love”.  After writing this blog post I discovered that the Scargill Movement had also chosen it as the first song for their Good Friday service, which you can now view here: https://youtu.be/NC_1kQnSTh8

The King, of course, is Jesus, and the love is that shown on the cross.  The invitation to “come and see” is at the heart of Good Friday worship, traditionally a time to imagine oneself stood by the crosses at Calvary and watching Jesus die.  Thus the song starts with this invitation: “Come and see the king of love, see the purple robe and crown of thorns he wears” (these being the mocking symbols put on him by Roman soldiers).  “Lone and friendless now he climbs towards the hill” – not literally alone, as there was a crowd around him, but inwardly so, knowing that no-one could truly share or even understand his unique suffering.

The second verse invites us then to “Come and weep, come and mourn” – for what? “for the sin that pierced him there, so much deeper than the wounds of thorn and spear”.  The Christian understanding of Jesus’ suffering is that although unspeakably awful in terms of physical pain,  it was the spiritual torment of bearing the guilt of all humanity’s evil acts through time that was far worse – “all our pride, greed, fallenness and shame; the Lord has laid the punishment on him”.

The last verse addresses Jesus directly, seeking his pardon and looking towards Easter day: “Man of heaven, born to earth to restore us to your heaven, here we bow in awe beneath your searching eyes; from your tears comes our joy, from your death our life shall spring, by your resurrection power we shall rise”. 

The chorus, though, it perhaps the best part of this hymn and what has made it popular.  It sums up Jesus’ act of redemption and our rightful attitude to it in these few memorable lines: “We worship at your feet, where wrath and mercy meet, and a guilty world is washed by love’s pure stream. For us he was made sin, O help me take it in, deep wounds of love cry out “Father, forgive!”. I worship, I worship, the Lamb who was slain”.

Jesus Christ, I think upon your sacrifice

Today’s offering from Sing Praise is one that I am already familiar with: “Jesus Christ, I think upon your sacrifice” by Matt Redman.  It’s clearly a ‘song’ rather than a ‘hymn’ both in its structure and in being phrased in the first person as a personal act of devotion rather than a statement of faith.

In the first verse I (as singer) contrast Jesus going willingly to his death with the gift of life that he gave to me by doing so.  The response, expressed in the chorus, is to be humbled (because there’s nothing I can do adequately to repay him for such a gift), broken (because I recognise the sin in my own life that caused him such pain), thankful (because that life is a free gift), and in return “pour out my life”, not in the same way but in the sense of offering my time and talents in his service.  Humbled, broken, thankful and committed: the four steps of repentance beautifully expressed in this short chorus. That, I think, is why the song appeals to me.

The second verse looks beyond the cross to the resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ as “King of the heavens”, but quickly returns to the present reality: “But for now I marvel at this saving grace, and I’m full of praise once again”.  There is also a short bridge before a repeat of the chorus, “thank you for the cross, my friend”.  Calling Jesus, King of the heavens, “my friend” seems incredibly arrogant, yet that is what he calls us, and friendship once established is mutual. Its another of the deep mysteries of faith that the one who is beyond time and space is at the same time so close and intimate, that we can call him ‘friend’.

See, Christ was wounded for our sake

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “See, Christ was wounded for our sake” by the late Brian Foley.  It is the same sort of theme as yesterday’s, that Jesus’ sufferings were for our sake, and is also set to an old tune (this one, in fact, from the 15th century – the height of medieval Catholicism). The words are a modern paraphrase of an even older text – verses from Isaiah chapter 53, often interpreted as a God-given prophecy of the future Christ’s sufferings.

I was particularly struck by the third verse, which contrasts our own sheep-like behaviour (in the version familiar from Evensong, “we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep”) with Christ who went “as a sheep to the slaughter”, innocent and uncomplaining (whether sheep are actually so passive as supposed when about to be killed, is another question – I doubt it).

I also like the expression of the second verse: “Look on his face, come close to him; see, you will find no beauty there”.  It suggests the question “what do we mean by ‘beauty’?”  If we take it only to mean something aesthetically pleasing, sensually attractive, or conducive to peaceful thoughts, then clearly the sight of a man being tortured to death is nothing of the kind.  But it reminds me of another hymn that we’’ come to later in the year: “Beauty for brokenness, hope for despair”, which tells of the hope, the beauty even, that can be found where Christ’s love is actively shown by his followers in the lives of others.  And there is a kind of beauty in the death of Jesus, a moral beauty, summed up in his own words in John 15:12: “Greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”.  We may not see a smiling face or a peaceful scene when we ponder the cross, but we watch the beautiful love of God in action.

How deep the Father’s love for us

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “How deep the Father’s love for us”.  This is a contemporary hymn from 1995 with both words and music by Stuart Townend, but both words and music seem to hark back to an earlier age. In fact, to my ears the melody bears a close resemblance to yesterday’s 19th century hymn, “Here is love, vast as the ocean”.  I would not be surprised if Townend had that one in mind when he wrote this.  

Some of the images are shared by the two hymns: the vastness of God’s love in the title (‘vast’ is not a common word nowadays), the futility of worldly power when measured against God’s love, and Christ as our ransom.  But the emphasis is different. Here it is less the extent of God’s grace and love that are praised (though they are) but the great pains Christ went through in order to deliver them. 

The words here also look behind or above the cross (spatial words are of course meaningless in respect of God, but necessary for us as that’s the way we think) to the suffering of God the Father.  He is no remote creator here, but a very present spirit with feelings for his now all-too-human Son.  “The Father turns his face away, as wounds which mar the chosen one bring many souls to glory”.

My own part in Christ’s suffering has to be acknowledged here, too. “Ashamed I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers” and “It was my sin that held him there, until it was accomplished”.   But at the end the singer of this hymn, as with yesterday’s, can declare “This I know with all my heart: his wounds have paid my ransom”.

Beneath the cross of Jesus

The holy rood at St. Andrew’s, Nuthurst, West Sussex
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © nick macneill 

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is Keith & Kristyn Getty’s “Beneath the cross of Jesus”.  As we approach Holy Week we focus more on the inevitable death of Jesus, and there are many hymns on this theme, which is why we’re starting well ahead of time.

I liked this one, because it gets a good balance between the individual or devotional approach to the Cross and a corporate one.  Not only the words but also the music is quite different from “O to see the dawn” that I sang on 9 March, which was another Keith Getty composition but in partnership with Stuart Townend.  Perhaps it’s that difference in partnership that brings a much softer approach both to the music (the tune is a pleasant, almost folk-style one, although set a bit low for my tenor voice) and also the words, where the message of Jesus suffering punishment for us is replaced with a meditation on how Jesus has brought grace to me, the church and the world.

The first verse is personal – “Beneath the cross of Jesus I find a place to stand, and wonder at the mercy that calls me as I am. For hands that should discard me hold wounds which tell me ‘Come’. Beneath the cross of Jesus my unworthy soul is won.”  The second tells how by his death Jesus brought into being a new family of those saved by grace: “Beneath the cross of Jesus see the children called by God”.  This is symbolised by the words (in the Bible, not in this hymn) that Jesus spoke from the cross telling his mother Mary and closest disciple John to treat each other as mother and son after his own death.

The third verse follows with what that family should do in response: “We follow in his footsteps where promised hope is found”.  The last lines refer to the Church as the Bride (an image found in the book of Revelation) and finish with “Beneath the cross of Jesus we will gladly live our lives”.

This is your coronation

“The Saviour with the Crown of Thorns” Vasili Nesterenko

The last in this block of specifically Good Friday hymns is another modern one, “This is your coronation” by Sylvia Dunstan.  The suggested tune, however, is Bach’s Passion Chorale (actually an older tune than Bach, but his use of it in his passion oratorios ensured its lasting fame and association with Good Friday). 

The theme of the Crucifixion is the same as yesterday’s, and some of the same ideas are there: the cross of wood, Jesus’ physical suffering, the blood on his face, his death as a sacrifice, the pardon for our sins that he achieved.  But the tone is so different: the tune is sorrowful rather than triumphant, Jesus is presented less as bearing the Father’s wrath towards humanity, and more the willing actor in this cosmic drama. 

The three verses each look at one of the traditional images of Jesus Christ: King (verse 1, “this is your coronation”), Judge (verse 2, “Eternal judge on trial”) and High  Priest (verse 3).  The cross is portrayed as the king’s “throne of timber” (a lovely image), the judge who is condemned by humanity still acts with love to pardon us, and the priest offers himself as the final sacrifice.    These three images mirror to some extent those of the gifts of the Magi at Epiphany: gold for a king, incense for a priest and myrrh for a sacrifice.

Altogether this seems a more satisfactory hymn to sing on Good Friday than Townend’s offering yesterday.

O to see the dawn of the darkest day

Another Good Friday hymn from Sing Praise today, and from completely the “other end of the candle” as we say in the Church of England: after two Catholic hymns on the theme, we have one from the well-known Evangelical hymnwriter Stuart Townend, “O to see the dawn of the darkest day”.  The words contain explicit reminders of the violence of the Crucifixion: torn and beaten, nailed to a cross of wood, the pain on [Jesus’] face, his blood-stained brow, the earthquake as he died.   I haven’t seen the movie “the passion of the Christ”, but it supposedly showed the likely true extent of the violence committed against him, which is minimised in most re-tellings of the story.   

But the way Jesus was treated physically was not unique.  Then and now, thousands of people ore tortured and killed for their religious or political beliefs, race or sexuality. There was something else going on at Calvary. The lyrics also remind us therefore of the purpose of Jesus’ death: “bearing the awesome weight of sin”, “through your suffering I am free, death is crushed to death, life is mine to live”; and in the chorus, “Christ became sin for us, took the blame, bore the wrath, we stand forgiven at the cross”.  The inclusion of reference to the Father’s wrath in several of Townend’s hymns is controversial: some Christians see this as essential to understanding what was happening on that awful day, that without Jesus bearing the judgement of God for our individual sins in a physical way we could never enter into a guilt-free relationship with God. Others see that as a perverted understanding of redemption, with an alternative interpretation that it was Jesus’ love for humanity that held him to the cross, not only demonstrating that peaceful resistance to evil is possible but somehow overcoming in those hours the dark powers outside ourselves that prevent us from a full and free relationship with God in this life and the next.  My own inclination is towards the second of these, but there has to be some element of recognition of our own wilful sins being dealt with as well as the ‘sin of the world’.  God’s love or his wrath – or a bit of both? Just part of the complex and ever-fascinating Easter story.

O Cross of Christ, immortal tree


Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is another Good Friday one, addressed ostensibly to the cross itself.  Yesterday’s comments about it being better to worship Christ himself apply here too; not surprisingly it is from the Catholic community at Stanbrook (see also 14 January and 26 February). 

Taking the words at face value though, the cross is seen in verse 1 as a shelter for the world, from what is not stated, but perhaps from the pain of death.  In verse 2 the dead wood of the cross itself is contrasted with the ‘tree of life’ that it represents, that is the tree at the heart of the Garden of Eden which Adam and Eve never reached, but which in the book of Revelation appears again at the heart of the heavenly city as a symbol of eternal life in Christ.

In verse 3 there’s another contrast, between the ‘ages running their course’ and the cross that ‘stands unmoved [as] foundation of the universe’. This suggests the doctrine that Christ’s saving death was part of God’s plan even before the world was made, and thus outside time.  There is no space here to go into questions of how cosmology and theology interact: other writers such as Polkinghorne have gone much further in that direction than I could.  Enough to say that the more scientists try to understand the nature of time and space, the stranger they seem, and writing off God as creator, redeemer (perfector) and sustainer of the universe may not be as obvious as it may seem. 

So taking these three verses together, we have the cross (i.e. Christ’s saving death) as a shelter from death, a symbol of eternal life and a constant in a changing and inexplicable world. No wonder that this Christian symbol is still popular in art and personal devotion.

The final verse exhorts us to ‘give glory to the risen Christ’, therefore a verse for Easter rather than on Good Friday.

As Royal banners are unfurled

Calvary at Myddleton Grange, Ilkley

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is another Good Friday one, and a twentieth century translation of a much older sixth century Christian text, ‘Vexilla Regis’ (‘the King’s banner’).  In the hymn book it’s set to a version of the traditional monastic chant, but John has played it to a better known English hymn tune ‘Gonfalon Royal’ that also allows for the Amen at the end.   

I looked up the original on Wikipedia where several English translations are offered.  The Latin original is said to have been written to celebrate the arrival of a large relic of the True Cross which had been sent to Queen Radegunda.  The ‘banner’ may therefore be intended as meaning the cross itself as a sign and symbol of our salvation, although another interpretation would be Pilate’s sign above the Cross, “Iesus Nazarei Rex Judaeorum” (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews).

The hymn celebrates the same paradox of ‘sadness and gladness’ that I explored yesterday but goes into more detail of how the scandal of the cross is for Christians a sign of hope. The optional verse 6 sums it up concisely: “The saviour, victim, sacrifice, is through his dying glorified; his life is overcome by death and leaps up, sweeping death aside”.

The ‘veneration of the cross’ is of course a Catholic practice which is not part of the Christian tradition I come from. As the Catholic News Agency website explains, “Adoration or veneration of an image or representation of Christ’s cross does not mean that we actually adore the material image, but rather what it represents. In kneeling before the crucifix and kissing it we are paying the highest honour to our Lord’s cross as the instrument of our salvation. Because the Cross is inseparable from His sacrifice, in reverencing His Cross we, in effect, adore Christ.” But why not ‘cut out the middleman’ and worship Christ himself rather than the inanimate wood on which he hung?