This year I am attending a Lent course being run by the ‘Churches Together’ in our town. It is ’5 Weeks Of Ancient & Modern Lenten Hymns’ and is designed to help us pay more attention to the words in the hymns we sing in church at this time of year and to think about and discuss what they mean to us and how they make us feel.
Each week we focus on three hymns: one ‘traditional’ hymn, one ‘modern’ or Celtic hymn and one other from any era which may ‘bring a more contentious or surprising facet to our attention.’ We are looking at them as pieces of writing rather than pieces of music, though we did have a bit of a sing too, just because we felt like it.
Our ‘homework’ is to have another look at the week’s hymns and jot down our thoughts and feelings on them, then at the next meeting we will pool our thoughts and see if we come to any group conclusion or if we all have wildly different ideas. It’s always interesting to hear other people’s opinions and sometimes others see things you miss or just hadn’t thought of.
I thought I would work my homework into a blog post each week (mostly just to make sure I do it!) – I will try and find the words to the hymns online and link them up too.
The three hymns this week were:
1. Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle. Venantius Fortunatus (TR. Percy Dearmer)
2. Though hope desert my heart. John L. Bell (Can’t find any words or videos for this one, sadly.)
3. There is a green hill far away. Cecil Frances Alexander
Here’s my responses to them:
1. Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle.
- This is apparently one of the oldest texts in our hymn book (the original author’s dates are c. 535-600) which surprised me because it didn’t feel at all dated. Instead the language and message feels relevant and contemporary despite being written so long ago.
- The words of this hymn felt somewhat reassuring and uplifting. They tell the story of Easter in a way that doesn’t focus on the suffering but still alludes to it. This was something I found quite powerful because sometimes we seem to get so bogged down by the suffering side we forget what it was all eventually for.
- ‘Destined, dedicated, and willing’ – This example of triadic structure sums up Jesus’ life beautifully and simply. I love this line because of the amount it manages to say with so few words.
- The whole of verse four, with its beautiful imagery of the cross as a tree, is pure poetry and, again, speaks volumes in very few words.
- Verse two upset the poet in me a little bit because it tried to rhyme ‘come’, ‘home’ and ‘gloom’ – but that’s just me being picky…
- ‘Like a lamb He humbly yielded/On the cross His dying breath.’ – Such a soft image for such a powerful moment, I found quite striking. I kept coming back to these lines and re-reading them because they struck a chord somewhere.
2. Though hope desert my heart.
- This was my favourite of the three hymns we looked at because reading it filled me with a real sense of reassurance and hope.
- The language used throughout the hymn is simple and accessible to everyone. Even children would be able to read and understand the words.
- Despite being ‘simple’ language and having an almost child-like feel to it, the hymn shares an important message without dumbing it down at all.
- It covers every emotional situation people go through and reassures with the repeated line ‘You have been here before‘ which reminds us that Jesus came to Earth and lived our life, felt our human fears and frailties and understands when sometimes we wobble and feel afraid. It reminds us that he was afraid, hurt, sad, tormented, abandoned and troubled too and that he came through it all as we can if we put our faith in him.
- ‘I will not dread the dark,/the fate beyond control,/nor fear what reigns in frightening things:/ You will be there before.‘ This final verse is my favourite because of the brilliance of choice of words. Everyone is afraid of different things and the reassurance that no matter what it is that you are afraid of Christ will be there before you and with you is incredibly comforting.
3. There is a green hill far away
- This was the only one of this week’s hymns that I was familiar with and yet I don’t think I’ve ever really looked at the words before. Having done so I can safely say it was my least favourite of the three.
- The words and language used in this hymn are typical of the Victorian era in which it was written. Obedience is very much at the heart of it through use of words such as ‘make’ and ‘must’. I instantly disliked this as it felt like Christianity was being pushed down your throat – if someone were to come into a church for the first time and all hymns were like this one then they would never come back again as all it does is tell you what to do and that you aren’t ‘good enough’ as you are.
- ‘O dearly, dearly has He loved,/ And we must love Him too‘ – This line made me *so* cross. You can’t tell someone that they ‘must’ love something/someone. Love is something you give, something you offer, something you feel involuntarily and wholly. You don’t love something just because someone says that you ‘must’. Jesus didn’t love us because he had to and we can’t tell other people they ‘must’ love Him in return, that is something they have to learn/choose to do themselves. (*ranty ranty ranty*)
- That line also goes on to say we ‘must’ trust in Jesus. Trust and love are similar concepts – I won’t go on again.
- ‘He died to make us good’ – This line is just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. He didn’t die to ‘make us good’ at all. The line before says ‘He died that we might be forgiven’ which is a bit more like it. The whole making us good thing is another Victorian obedience type element. And, as I may have mentioned before, is wrong. (*ranty ranty ranty* again)
- After all that making and musting the verse ‘We may not know, we cannot tell,/What pains he had to bear,/But we believe it was for us/He hung and suffered there.’ seemed a little bit wishy-washy to me. A bit ‘we’re not really sure but we have made the executive decision that it is and you MUST go along with it.’
- ‘There was no other good enough,/To pay the price of sin;’ - this sounds like they put an ad in the local paper to find someone…
- ‘He only could unlock the gate/Of heaven, and let us in.’ - It was locked?
- There’s lots of negative language regarding us as people – ‘We may not know, we cannot tell’, ‘And try his works to do’, ‘That we might go at last to heaven’. – May, cannot, might, try. It’s not much of a feel good hymn for us unworthy little humans, we’re clearly a bit useless.
- The first verse is all right though. Nothing wrong with that. Apart from the horrible rhyming meter that is. La di dah di dah di dah, La di dah di dah. – Yuck.
- What did this hymn make me feel? Grumpy mostly.