Friday, 14 April 2017

Holy Week in Hymns 7 (Good Friday): "There is a green hill far away"

This Holy Week we are looking to some of our best-known, best-loved hymns to help us enter into the meaning of the cross. In this hour on Good Friday, we shall be singing three of the most famous. And where else to begin but with a hymn that once upon a time you could assume every child had learned at their mother’s knee. There is a green hill far away.
Mrs Alexander was the hymn writer for children par excellence. Her book Hymns for Little Children was published in 1848 and as well as this hymn included Once in Royal David’s City. What would Christmas and Good Friday be without them? She had the gift of writing with the kind of simplicity that speaks directly to the heart. Perhaps we adults love them not just for the way they make so personal the events of Jesus’ life and death, but also because they evoke our own upbringing, those remembered childhood Christmases and Easters that have helped show us how to believe and how to love.
We are reading from St Luke’s account of the crucifixion in this next hour. And in the first of these passages we hear how Jesus comes to the green hill far away, without a city wall – outside the city, of course, where criminals would be put to death without defiling the precincts of the temple. “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” We mustn’t be seduced by the hymn’s green hill. The Skull, Calvary, Golgotha is a brutal place of torment, and the hymn requires us not to evade it but to try to imagine. We may not know, we cannot tell what pains he had to bear. And if St Luke can be believed, maybe what hurt Jesus most were the mocking insults of the crowd and those who crucified him. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah, God’s chosen one!”
But this is not to indulge morbidly in a tale of suffering: that would be cruel in a hymn intended for children. Nor is it that we should feel sorry for Jesus in his agony: the hymn is remarkably free of the kind of piety that is based on sympathy.  No, Mrs Alexander wants us to see into the paradox of Good Friday, that in the pains he had to bear, there is a gift held out to us who look on and believe. It looks dreadful, or at best absurd, without point. Yet there is meaning there, though it takes faith to see it. But we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there.
How can it be “for us”, this death outside a city wall? Theologians have spilled ink over theories of the atonement for a thousand years or more. In this week’s addresses we hinted at some of them. But Mrs Alexander wisely steers clear of over-explaining. And not simply because she was writing for the young: for her there is a proper reticence we should keep in the face of mystery, a respect for what can never be put into words. We contemplate the green hill where the Son of God hangs. How could it be that the Lord of glory should not simply die a criminal’s death, but do so willingly, voluntarily, out of deliberate, conscious choice, and for us? That is the true mystery of this holiest day of the year.
The writer goes on to explain, as far as she can, or any of us can. He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good; that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood. How the cross effects that change in us is left unexplained. But that the cross is the source of forgiveness for all who know how far we fall short, how broken we are, how we have marred the beauty of life by the collusions of this world and our own propensity for self-love - this is what Christians have always believed. “He died for our sins according to the scriptures” says the creed; “he suffered and was buried”. In this language, heaven stands not only for our ultimate destiny but for the hope that has been given back to us in Christ. And saved by his precious blood is not to speculate about some divine transaction between Father and Son but to focus on the infinite cost of our reconciliation. The blood that flowed from the side of the Crucified is not any blood, but his precious blood, the divine gift that washes, feeds and nourishes us, that gives us back our lives, the gift of being remade that only God can give. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.
In one sense, Jesus dies like any common criminal in a world where life is cheap. That by itself suggests how we might read the cross in the light of the human suffering today, so many crucifixions, so many Calvaries. Where people suffer and die as nobodies, they follow in the steps of Jesus, for that is how he died too. And yet, no-one is a nobody. Every life is of infinite worth because each child of God is cherished for ever, loved to the end. And this is what the cross affirms: it gives value to every death by neutralising its power to hurt us. So when Jesus is led out to be crucified, when the Creator submits to our mortality and faces his end at the hands of cruel men, we say of him that only he could die like this, only perfect love could undergo this death that redeems our human life.
And let’s make no mistake. In this laying down of his life, what another hymn calls “love’s endeavour, love’s expense”, there is a transformation that is real and lasting. We are not the same as we were before we came to this green hill. His perfect giving of himself turns around, re-orientates our distorted hunger and desires, breaks destructive patterns of behaviour arising from our innate love for ourselves above all else, our endless capacity to hurt, damage and destroy. Whoever is forgiven much, loves much says Jesus in the gospel. So by paying the price of sin, by unlocking the gate of heaven, by holding it wide to let us all go in, a whole new world of wonderful possibilities is opened up for us. There is a new creation. Life can begin again.
What do we do when a great love is held out to us? There is only one possible response. It’s there in the last verse. O dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too. This is what Good Friday is for: to expose us once more to this love that is so dear to us that it passes understanding. And as we allow ourselves to be drawn into it we find that a strange work is happening within us. We are learning to live not out of fear but more at ease with ourselves because perfect love casts out fear. We are becoming those who look beyond ourselves, trusting not in our own resources and powers but in his redeeming blood. To come to the cross and venerate the paschal victim changes everything. It opens up a new and better way to live. We try his works to do, not as a burden but as a joy motivated by thankfulness for Love’s work on that green hill far away.
Wakefield Cathedral, Good Friday 2017
Luke 23.32-38



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There is a green hill far away,
outside a city wall,
where our dear Lord was crucified
who died to save us all.

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.

He died that we might be forgiven,
he died to make us good,
that we might go at last to heaven,
saved by his precious blood.

There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin,
he only could unlock the gate
of heaven and let us in.

O dearly, dearly has he loved!
And we must love him too,
and trust in his redeeming blood,
and try his works to do.


Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895)
 

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