We do not hope to ease our minds

Image credit: Christ on Gethsemane, from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

If, like John, you wondered why I haven’t blogged for the last eleven days, it’s because I was on holiday. I continued singing the daily hymn from Sing Praise, but just haven’t been at a computer to write about them. I may find time to go back to them later.

Today’s choice is “We do not hope to ease our minds” by Marnie Barrell.  It’s in the general ‘God and the World’ section of the book, but as two of the verses refer to Holy Week, it would actually have been better sung then. The theme of the three verses is that the needs of the world are so insistent and demanding of a compassionate response, that we (members of the Church) cannot comfort ourselves with an easy-living faith.

The ‘simple answers, shifted blame’ of verse 1 will not cut it with Christ who, as he put in the parable of sheep and goats, is present in everyone in physical or emotional need. We ask in this verse to be ‘disturb[ed] till every need is satisfied’, which of course is never in this life.

Verse 2 refers to Christ’s unjust trial and torture at the hands of the Romans, standing as a symbol for all the injustice and violence in the world, the pain of which he bore on the cross. As with verse 1, we ask to be ‘given no peace till his peace reigns in triumph here’, and again that will not happen until Jesus returns. We are asking here for a permanent sense of being troubled by the way the world is, and what we might be able to do about it.

The last verse begins ‘We will not pray to be preserved from any depths of agony’, although in fact that’s just what Jesus did in Gethsemane, before accepting his Father’s will.  I therefore don’t think there’s anything wrong with praying to be spared agony. A true faith lived out will include moments of discomfort and inconvenience at the very least, but there’s a very wide spectrum between ‘comfortable Christianity’ and martyrdom.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, God knows each of us individually and will not let us be tested beyond what we can endure.

The hymn is set to a metrical version of ‘St Patrick’s breastplate’, maybe with deliberate reference to the ascetic saint’s own renouncing of comfortable worldliness in the service of Christ.

Stay with me

The song I have picked for Maundy Thursday from Sing Praise is a chant from the Taizé community, “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray”.  Those are the only words of the refrain sung by the congregation, and they are to be sung reflectively and repeatedly.  This simple chant can be used on its own to lead into intercession or a time of silent prayer.

Alternatively, it can be the base line or ‘ostinato’ while a cantor sings other words above it.  The texts given here are probably intended as examples rather than a fixed set, but what they have in common are that they are all words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels as being spoken on this last full day of his earthly life. The first is nearly the same as the refrain, but looking at the others:

Lines 2 and 3 form a pair: “Watch and pray not to give way to temptation / The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak”.  Even Jesus struggled with temptation, especially in this last trial when he knew an agonising death faced him.  He warns the disciples that they too would be tempted to abandon him for fear of persecution – and indeed many did.

Line 4, “My heart is nearly broken with sorrow, remain here with me, stay awake and pray” is another reminder that Jesus really was human, in the emotions he experienced.  He actually needed the friendship, support and prayer of his disciples, just as church leaders today need the friendship, support and prayer of their congregations.

Lines 5 and 6 form another pair: “Father, if it is possible let this cup pass me by / Father, if this cannot pass me by without me drinking it, your will be done”.  Jesus in his humanity really didn’t want to through with the crucifixion, and asked God, his own father, to find a way round it.  But it was not to be, and he finally abandoned himself to his fate, forsaking any divine powers and letting humanity do its worst.

Line 7, “Stay awake, be ready, the Lord is coming!” reminds us that the command to stay awake and alert is not only for this night but for the whole of our lives, as there will come a time either through death or the return of Christ when we will be judged by our response and attitude to him.

 “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray”.  This takes us into the night when Jesus was condemned.

Jesus, in dark Gethsemane

“Gethsemane” by Harold Copping

Today’s hymn for Holy Week in Sing Praise is “Jesus, in dark Gethsemane” by Alan Gaunt, set to a surprisingly upbeat English folk tune, given its dark theme.  The words of the hymn, though, contrast Jesus’ sufferings with what the Prayer Book calls “the benefits of his Passion”.

The contrast in verse 1 is between the disciples who could not stay awake while Jesus wept and prayed, and us who ask him to keep us awake.  I can empathise with those disciples, as when life is hectic, the brief stillness of a prayer meeting can easily lead to unintended falling asleep. Verse 2 reminds us that Jesus’ prayer “remove this cup from me … yet not what I want but what you want” was answered not with deliverance but with the strength to face death.

Verse 3 is marked as optional, perhaps because its topic of Christ descending into hell is not part of mainstream Christian teaching nowadays. Verse 4 refers to the belief that Christ’s suffering, although it was effective “once for all” in redeeming us from sin, still continues (his risen existence being beyond concepts of time): “faith … knows the anguish love still undergoes to heal our wretchedness”.

Verse 5 refers to the times we must shoulder our own cross, asking for his help to “cling to your nailed hands and, trusting, sing the triumph of your cause”, in other words, to continue praising Christ for what he has done, as a way of receiving his strength in our own troubles. The last verse asks for the Spirit to keep us praising him through both life and death.

To summarise: Jesus, then, suffered agony once upon the cross (and in the events leading up to it) but both his suffering, and his power to relieve ours, remain valid today, as do the forgiveness and reconciliation that it achieved, for Jesus has gone to hell and back, and now reigns as the everlasting Christ.

This is the night, dear friends

Judas betrays Jesus.
Copyright Florida Center for Instructional Technology. https://etc.usf.edu/clipart/

Today’s hymn for Holy Week from Sing Praise is “This is the night, dear friends” by Richard Sturch to a tune by CHH Parry.  The original text was apparently in Latin by the 12th century French theologian Peter Abélard (perhaps better known for his romance with Eloïse), so if the theme seems strange, it’s because we don’t share the medieval mindset.

The overall theme of this hymn is Christ’s betrayal, which of course was most clearly seen in the actions of Judas. He is not named here, but clearly referenced, and described in verse 2 as the “wolf within the sheepfold”, picking up on one of Jesus’ own images of himself as the good shepherd in contracts to the wolves of evil.  His act of betrayal in leaving the table of fellowship is described as “injustice joining its hand to treason’s, and buying the ransom price of humankind”. (Or should that really be “selling the ransom price of humankind”, since Judas gained money by handing Jesus over?)

That contrast or irony – that in accepting money in return for betraying Jesus he was actually enabling God to pay the ransom price for all our sins – is one of several in the words of the hymn. In verse 2 again, “the wolf … betrays himself to his victim’s will” (Jesus knew all along that he would be betrayed by one of his disciples, it was part of God’s plan) and “sin brings about the cure for sin’s own ill” which is a similar image to that of buying our ransom. 

In verse 4, there are other ironies: Jesus is arrested by slaves – “he who destroys our slavery to sin”, another irony, perhaps symbolised when he heals the slave’s ear that has been cut off by one of his own disciples (although a bit of research suggests that the unfortunate servant was the high priest’s right-hand man rather than a mere slave).  Also, “accused of crime, to criminals (he was) given” and he, the righteous Judge, is judged.

All these examples point to the fact that even in his last hours as a man, and subject to forces beyond his human control, Jesus continually demonstrated that he was overturning usual human expectations in order to bring about God’s kingdom.

When you prayed beneath the trees

Jesus in Gethsemane. Source unknown.

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “When you prayed beneath the trees” by Christopher Idle.  This 20th century hymn comes with its own tune, but John played it to an older hymn tune by Orlando Gibbons that better fits the sombre mood. 

The feel of the words is much like the better known American spiritual “Where you there when they crucified by Lord?”. They expand on the idea that Jesus suffered, not only in his own body, but for our sake and in our place. The repeated refrain of “it was for me, O Lord” emphasises this.  The four verses refer to the agony in the garden of Gethsemane; his trial; the ascent of the hill under the cross (‘via dolorosa’); and finally the crucifixion itself. 

This last, though, sees Jesus not as victim but as victor, another common understanding of what happened of Good Friday: “When you spoke with kingly power it was for me, O Lord, in that dread and destined hour you made me free, O Lord; earth and heaven heard you shout, death and hell were put to rout, for the grave could not hold out; you are for me, O Lord”.

The Bible in a Year – 3 November.

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

3 November. Matthew chapters 25-26

Jesus continues his Holy Week teaching on the end times with a set of three parables – the ten virgins (or bridesmaids), the three servants entrusted with money (‘parable of the talents’) and the sheep and goats.  These all give some indication of the sort of lives that we should lead, knowing that Jesus will someday return in judgement: keeping alert, using wisely whatever possessions and talents (for this is where the English word comes from) we have, and treating everyone in need (but especially fellow believers) as if they were Christ himself.

Chapter 26 is Matthew’s account of Holy (or Maundy) Thursday, in which Jesus is betrayed by his disciple Judas, shares the Passover with his disciples for the last time with the words that are said over the bread and wine at every celebration of the Mass, prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, is arrested and denied by Peter.  In this one chapter we see his three years of ministry apparently coming to an end.  For those of us who know the rest story already it may not seem so bad, for we know what his death would achieve.  He had tried to prepare the disciples for this moment, telling the repeatedly that “the Son of Man must be killed and rise again on the third day”.  Yet it is understandable that when the time comes, all they can see are soldiers with swords and clubs, arresting an unarmed man who would not strike back, and were too afraid to follow.    They all run away (v.56).

All, that is, except Peter, who to his credit sits by the fire in the courtyard in the darkness, staying within sight or at least hearing of what is going on.  Jesus may be about to die, but he wants at least to observe it for himself (v.58), just as he was present at the Transfiguration. Maybe he thought that Moses and Elijah would appear again at the last minute to save Jesus.  But they did not – Jesus had already realised that calling on “legions of angels” (v.53) would not help, when what was required was his own free acceptance of ultimate suffering.

What Peter feared in that moment was presumably being arrested, tried and tortured like Jesus.  But those who accused him of being “one of them”, “being with Jesus” were not soldiers or Temple officials, they were mere servants. Would they have felt able to turn him to the priests? Would their testimony have been accepted anyway?  So was Peter, in denying Jesus, acting in self-preservation in order to save his life from real danger, or was he just too nervous to give his testimony?  It would all change at Pentecost.

Peter and Judas both knew they had betrayed Jesus, and both of them soon deeply regretted it.  The difference was that whereas Judas went and hanged himself, Peter stuck around to the end, and was rewarded by being pardoned by Jesus after the Resurrection.  If you can cling on to hope in God even in the worst of times, you will not be disappointed.