Sunday, 9 April 2017

Holy Week in Hymns 1: "Ride on, ride on in majesty"

This year in Holy Week at Wakefield Cathedral, we are going to explore some of the hymns of Passiontide. You may wonder why I’ve taken this as my theme. Well, I’ve drawn inspiration from a famous saying of St Augustine, “when we sing, we pray twice”. He’s usually taken as meaning that the music of our prayer adds a second “layer” or dimension to the words we mouth. Through music we breathe God’s praises in a way that reaches different parts of ourselves, touches our emotions, our longings, our fears, our hopes, our loves. More than that, the words of hymns are themselves not prose but poetry, allowing them, like music, to penetrate beyond the limits of our normal ways of speaking. 
There’s another aspect to this. How we sing or worship or pray has a great deal to do with the kind of faith we have and how we believe it. The words of our liturgy, our prayers and our hymns form us as Christian disciples. Lex orandi, lex credendi says the old tag: it’s how we pray that lays bare the content of our faith. And perhaps our singing of hymns, our “praying twice”, plays a far more important part in shaping our faith than all the sermons, creeds and catechisms in the world.
So I want this Holy Week to allow the words and music of the church’s great legacy of hymnody to accompany us as we enter into the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus so that we can discover a little more of what this season can mean for our lives. I hope we shall all be “praying twice” in this Great Week of our salvation as we entrust ourselves to these great hymn writers as our spiritual guides. 

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So we begin where Holy Week itself begins, on Palm Sunday and its great processional hymn “Ride on, ride on in majesty”. You can tell that its author was sure-footed, not only as a theologian but a poet. Henry Hart Milman was Professor of Poetry at Oxford and was ordained 200 years ago this year. In 1849 he became Dean of St Paul’s, another poetry-writing-dean to succeed an even greater poet who had held that office 200 years earlier, John Donne. 

The hymn captures the essence of Palm Sunday brilliantly. It's a perplexing paradox of Holy Week that a crowd can cry “Hosanna!” today and “Crucify!" just five days later.  Tomorrow’s hymn, “My song is love unknown” does it too, but in a more personal, intimate way. Today, the key word is majesty, repeated in the first line of every stanza like a drum-beat that is both noble and ominous. Ride on, ride on in majesty! The exclamation mark tells you something important, that this refrain honours a king who has not only come to his city to receive the acclamation of his subjects, but also prefigures the tragedy and triumph that is unfolding throughout this Holy Week. 
 In the first verse, majesty means sovereignty, kingship, hosannas, royal palms and a carpet of robes like the procession of a Roman triumph when a great battle has been won. But this isn’t Easter a week in advance, for “the last and fiercest strife is nigh” says verse 4. And all this ceremony is to recognise what the destiny of this Man on the mule will turn out to be: in lowly pomp ride on to die. To die! It comes twice, pulling into itself a succession of poignant words that rhyme with die: cry (in acclamation, but also in anticipated pain), sky (for the drama of Holy Week is not just some squalid little local incident but is universal, cosmic in its scope), nigh (because the end, the tragedy and triumph of approaching sacrifice, is upon us), and then die again in the final verse, where the word ties together a meek head bowed to mortal pain with God’s taking power and reigning. Those emphatic lines proclaim that in all this, Jesus his Son truly is both King and Lord.
Let’s stay with that final couplet for a moment, because it sums up what this hymn is trying to tell us. Bow thy meek head to mortal pain,/Then take, O God, thy power, and reign. What kind of king is he, this messiah who rides in triumph into his city to shouts of hosanna? What fervent hopes and longings claimed the hearts of those who were so glad they had lived to see that day? 
The point about Palm Sunday is that today is the Sunday of the Cross. That is to say, the hosanna procession is not itself the central theme. It’s what it leads up to that is the focus of today's liturgy. And this is the Passion of the Lord. So once we have processed into church, laid up our palms and taken our places, our attention turns towards the cross. We listen to the solemn recital of the Passion narrative and in bread and wine, participate in Jesus' life laid down for the salvation of the world in his broken body and shed blood. From now on until Good Friday, it is the "wondrous cross" that occupies our minds, imaginations and prayers, from what we begin in the procession today to what is completed at Golgotha on the holiest day of the year.
But what is “finished”, says St John, is not a defeat but a victory. Yes, the Son of God must bow his meek head in mortal pain. He must know the suffering, the dereliction, the despair, the God-abandoned darkness that is appointed for him, for as the gospels have relentlessly told us, “the Son of Man must suffer”. And yet, St John sees in these dreadful events nothing less than the victory of God-in-Christ. He ascends his throne of the cross, and is proclaimed there as nothing less than king. And so the hymn dares to command him to take, O God, thy power, and reign

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What is the power with which he reigns? Not the power of mortals who slash and burn their way to victory. Not even the moral power of the human victim who has done no wrong and gone innocently to his death. 

No. It is nothing less than the power of love that holds him there on the cross, his arms stretched out to welcome home and embrace every child of the human race, every soul that longs to be reconciled, every man and woman who knows that only here, where this life is laid down, does human existence hold any purpose or meaning. “Love so amazing, so divine” we shall sing later in the week. On the cross, in the strange disfigured form of love that is crucified, we meet him and greet him, and however bewildered we find ourselves, worship and adore him. And pledge our allegiance and loyalty to this broken but majestic Man of Sorrows whom we acclaim as Lord and King.

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Ride on! ride on in majesty!
Hark! all the tribes hosanna cry;
O Savior meek, pursue thy road
with palms and scattered garments strowed.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
O Christ, thy triumphs now begin
o'er captive death and conquered sin.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!
The angel-squadrons of the sky
look down with sad and wondering eyes
to see the approaching sacrifice.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!
Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh;
the Father on his sapphire throne
expects his own anointed Son.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
bow thy meek head to mortal pain,
then take, O God, thy power, and reign.

Henry Hart Milman, 1791-1868

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