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”.

1 thought on “When you prayed beneath the trees”

  1. Ahh … actually I played this hymn to a tune I had written myself (the one I played to an older tune by Orlando Gibbons was “Dark is the night” – no. 69, set for 11th March. The tune in the book was especially written for the hymn, but I didn’t find it convincing, so I wrote another.

    After I’d written it I rang Christopher Idle to tell him what I’d done and to seek his goodwill. He told me that he’d originally written the hymn for the tune “Kelvingrove”, which is now well-known as it is used for “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name” by John Bell (no. 171 in Sing Praise). However, various people had felt that Kelvingrove was too bright and jolly a tune for a sombre hymn. I agree, and that’s why I wanted to write a more sombre tune (and, especially, have it in the minor rather than in the major). (As I write, Christopher Idle has not expressed an opinion about my tune!)

    I was initially confused by the first line of the last verse, which suggested it might be Jesus speaking from beyond the grave – I can only suppose that Christopher is actually referring to the “Tetelestai – it is finished” shout from the cross, as the rest of the verse is about that shout. The rest of the hymn is pretty resolute at sticking to the order of the events as they unfolded; and I think that the great virtue of this hymn over against “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” is that whereas “Were you there?” is a piece of pure emotionalism (in that it doesn’t describe any of the scenes, it only describes the feelings evoked), Christopher has managed to include description and narration, and rooted our feelings of gratitude firmly in the actual events of the crucifixion. Well done, Christopher!

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