Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Holy Week in Hymns 4: "We sing the praise of him who died"

This Holy Week we are exploring the meaning of the cross with the help of some of our best-known, best-loved hymns. This morning I want to take a hymn that has long been a favourite, We sing the praise of him who died.

Thomas Kelly published this hymn in the early nineteenth century. He was an Irishman who was profoundly influenced by the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century. Like John Wesley fifty years before him, his life underwent a dramatic change that he might well have spoken of in the way Wesley did in his Journal. Wesley recalls how, at a Moravian meeting at Aldersgate Street in London in 1738, there was a reading from Martin Luther’s commentary on the Letter to the Romans. “While he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
This hymn breathes that spirit of evangelical confidence in the gospel of the Christ whose cross is the ultimate demonstration of God’s “love so amazing, so divine”, as another hymn writer Isaac Watts famously put it in an even more famous hymn we shall look at on Good Friday. That author speaks movingly about how “sorrow and love flow mingling down”. But in today's hymn , there is not a trace of sadness or grief, only sweetness and love, mercy and hope, worship, glory and joy eternal. It might almost be an Easter hymn but for the fact that its theme is not the empty tomb but the cross.

We sing the praise of him who died, of him who died upon the cross. The opening lines lay bare the paradox of the passion. We tell this story endlessly, we set it to music, we paint pictures of it, we sanctify it with a halo of spiritual disciplines and devotions, all for the sake of a man who died a criminal’s death in a place of execution. If we had been there when they crucified him, we would have been wracked by the pity and the pain that this man was undergoing as the crowd spat and mocked and the sun’s light failed. But here in a lonely sufferer's cruel disgrace, faith sees another story to tell. That story praises of the victim whose passion and death means the very opposite of everything it seems. Just when you would expect a lament, you get a song of praise. And the hint of the treasure beyond price, for which you would sell your soul. The sinner’s hope, let men deride, for this we count the world but loss.

The poet carries this sense of wonderful surprise into the next verse. Inscribed upon the cross we see – what? “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”? Well yes, of course, but we must remember that “King of the Jews” was intended as an irony. To Pilate he is the self-proclaimed king of a rabble of nobodies. But Kelly sees a different and altogether more profound meaning. Inscribed upon the cross we see, in shining letters, “God is love”. And this is the light with which this hymn glows. It’s as simple as that. This death is not like every other death, any other death. On the cross where the Man of Sorrows dies, the King of Glory reigns. And those shining letters tell us what kind of reign he exercises. His is not a kingdom of coercion or brute force, but the power of the love. And this kingdom will never come to an end because as St John says, Jesus loves to the end.

The poet asks us to imagine what we feel as we read that luminous superscription over the cross, God is love. He speaks about it as bearing our sins upon the Tree, echoing John the Baptist at the beginning of St John’s Gospel when he pointed to “the Lamb of God” who would “take away the sin of the world”. And this, he says, is to bring us mercy from above. “Mercy”, or in Old Testament language “loving kindness”, is one of the most beautiful words in the language. It speaks of how God’s heart is turned towards us in tender generosity. Because of the cross, we know that we can trust to God’s everlasting kindness. He will not fail nor forsake us.

I am always moved when I sing the next two verses. Perhaps it’s because they speak so directly out of the poet’s experience. You feel you can make his words your own because like him, you too have wandered in places of fear, travelled through dark times, wondered if you would ever have hope again. Thomas Kelly is only spelling out what the cross has meant to him, but I have found their intimate way of speaking both touching and comforting. They have brought comfort in them. The Cross! It takes our guilt away; - there is the classic evangelical sense of having had a great burden taken off him and rolled away, so beautifully described in that classic work of puritan Christianity, Pilgrim’s Progress. And when we can stand upright again, and travel on, what then? Well, life is a series of ordeals as Christian and Faithful find out on their journey to the celestial city. It holds the fainting spirit up; it cheers with hope the gloomy day, and sweetens every bitter cup.

“Who would true valour see, let him come hither” wrote Bunyan for whom to be a pilgrim was what made being alive worthwhile. Kelly seems to echo that idea of the journey that calls us to be valiant. It makes the coward spirit brave, and nerves the feeble arm for fight. He is speaking about the cross, remember, that transforms us into people who are capable of what we never dreamed we could do or become. I love those words because I am learning, late in life, that it takes courage to be a Christian, or perhaps I mean, to be the kind of Christian who faces life’s challenges and ordeals for the sake of bearing witness to those shining letters on the cross, God is love.

There is a tradition of Christian spirituality that draws heavily on the idea that we must try to imitate Christ in everything so that our living and dying can bear witness to those shining letters.  How can that be possible? asks Kelly. How do we embody and live out in our lives the central truth of religion that "God is love"? His answer is: let the cross be your guide and inspiration. Live by it for all that you are worth. And even at our last and greatest ordeal, it will be there with us to bring strength and protection: It takes its terror from the grave, and gilds the bed of death with light. If only we could look ahead and shape our deaths! Yet I would love to think that when the time comes for me to face my own, I would remember those great lines, be able to whisper them to myself, and be strengthened for whatever awaits.

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The poet sums it all up in a great phrase. He speaks about the measure and the pledge of love. He means that the cross is both the measure of a love we already know, and the pledge of a love that is yet to come. Love’s work is what it is. Time and eternity cannot make it any larger or deeper. But our realisation of it, surely, will grow and grow. In the days that are left to us, we have the cross as the balm of life, the cure of woe, the sinner’s refuge here below. But it looks beyond our mortality, beyond the grave and gate of death. The Book of Revelation says of the risen Christ that he is “the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world”, which is to say that the cross is an eternal symbol of love. Is this why, when the risen Jesus greets his disciples, he shows them the marks of his crucifixion?

The inscription above the cross proclaims that the love of God is for all time and for all eternity. It's not only in this life that we sing the praise of him who died. It's also the angels’ theme in heaven above. And ours, always and everywhere.
 
Wakefield Cathedral, Wednesday in Holy Week 2017
 
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We sing the praise of him who died,
of him who died upon the cross;
the sinner's hope let men deride;
for this we count the world but loss.

Inscribed upon the cross we see
in shining letters, God is love:
he bears our sins upon the tree:
he brings us mercy from above.

The cross: it takes our guilt away,
it holds the fainting spirit up;
it cheers with hope the gloomy day,
and sweetens every bitter cup.

It makes the coward spirit brave,
and nerves the feeble arm for fight;
it takes its terror from the grave,
and gilds the bed of death with light.

The balm of life, the cure of woe,
the measure and the pledge of love,
the sinner's refuge here below,
the angel's theme in heaven above.
 
Thomas Kelly, 1769-1855

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