The Day of Resurrection

John of Damascus

This hymn was written by John of Damascus, one of the great poets of the Greek Church. He was born at the end of the 600s (in Damascus). His brother, aptly named by his proud parents Cosmas the Melodist, was educated by an Italian monk (also named Cosmas) whom they captured and pressed into slavery in order to educate their children. John of Damascus worked for the Islamic Caliph for several years, then renounced all his earthly possessions and moved to a monastery located between Jerusalem and the Red Sea. During the ensuing years, he wrote theological treatises defending orthodox Christianity. He also wrote numerous hymns.

This hymn is known as the “Golden Canon for Easter,” and was typically sung at the Easter Eve midnight service at which worshippers would carry unlighted candles into the church, only lighting them while this hymn was sung. The translator of this hymn, John Mason Neale, described the singing of this hymn in Athens sometime in the 19th century, “. . . the archbishop and priests and the King and Queen stood on a raised platform with the crowd gathered around them with unlighted tapers. At midnight the arrival of Easter was announced and a great shout went up, ‘Xristos anesti,’ or ‘Christ is risen.’ The tapers were lighted, and during the singing of this hymn drums and trumpets were sounded in the adjoining countryside.” In this context did they sing in stanza one, “The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God. From death to life eternal, from this world to the sky. Our Christ has brought us over with hymns of victory.” Easter reminds us that we have also passed from death into life, echoing Romans 6: 3-4, “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Were were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Just as the Passover events were a foreshadowing of Christ’s Passover, so to was the crossing of the Red Sea—the Lord brought the Hebrews out of slavery and into life in a concrete and dramatic way just as He does to us through Word and Sacrament.

Whereas Lenten hymns explore shades of pain, death, life, salvation and usually provide a scriptural basis for our theological introspection, Easter hymns are too often monochromatic in their joy—“Christ is risen, alleluia.” Joy abounds, and the danger is that we confuse emotion with true joy as we sing these Easter hymns, which themselves are so easy to enjoy. That is not to say that there is no subtlety to Christ’s resurrection; there just does not seem to be too much subtlety in our hymns about the resurrection. Partly that is an unjust criteria to use on this hymn—it had dozens of stanzas originally which the English editors excised to three, in which there is, except for the Passover reference, little but exultant praise.  Yet, Easter is more than empty triumphalism and mindless strains of jubilance. We are joyful because our baptism into His death enables us to pass from death to life. Our lives are not always easy (look at Job in the Old Testament) and sometimes God appears to have withdrawn His blessings. To quote another ancient hymn, “Alleluias cannot always be our song while here below.” Our feelings are ephemeral, but Christ’s objective act of justification on the cross is not dependent upon our feelings about it. Whether we feel just wonderful about our faith, or are depressed about it for some reason, we can take assurance in the fact that the true Easter message is one of passing from death to life and that our feelings about it do not change this fact! Easter does not provide us with easy escapes to our problems, and the fact that we still have problems does not negate the validity of Christ’s objective act on the cross. This, then, is true Easter joy—a joy not dependent on external circumstances, but focussed solely on the original “day of resurrection.”

Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle

The hymn “Sing, my Tongue, the Glorious Battle” is one of the more ancient texts in Christian hymnody; the tune, called Pange Lingua, derives from a plainsong of equally ancient origin.

This text was written by the Spanish monk and lawyer Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (c. 540-c. 600 AD), an Italian (by this time Rome had fallen) convert to Christianity who spent most of his life in Gaul, or modern day France. A legend relates that Fortunatus had suffered from a debilitating eye disease and was nearly blind until he anointed his eyes with oil from a lamp burning before an altar in a church in Ravenna, Italy. His healing produced feelings of grateful thanks, and he soon thereafter devoted himself to life in the service of the Church, eventually serving as bishop of Poitiers until his death.

Fortunatus enjoyed putting his thoughts into verse, and among his many famous hymns is the Christmas hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” A born poet, he soliloquized about many things—from little poems thanking his hosts for a fine dinner, to composing the greatest hymns of Christendom. His poetic texts, those of which were meant for liturgical use having been composed in Latin of course, would eventually form a basis for the chant repertoire of the Roman Church and to which non-Roman Catholics owe a debt of gratitude.

In the first stanza, Fortunatus unambiguously sets Christ’s crucifixion in military terms—we are singing of a “glorious battle; of the mighty conflict sing.” In this conflict, ironically, the “victim” would triumph. These militaristic overtones are not uncommon in theology and hymnody. Luther wrote of mighty fortresses, shields and weapons, while the Victorians would sing of Christian soldiers marching as to war. This imagery may make some people uncomfortable, but it is a hallmark of two thousand years’ worth of theological speculation. Isaac Watts was certainly familiar with this text, as Fortunatus’ phrase, “to his cross thy tribute bring” sounds very much like something Watts would write. Indeed, this phrase is echoed in the nineteenth century when Henry Lyte writes, “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven, to His feet thy tribute bring.” Fortunatus concludes this stanza with an assurance that Jesus “from the cross now reigns as king.” As with many Lenten hymns, Fortunatus uses the cross as a metaphor for Christ’s saving act. He addresses the cross directly (a literary technique called “apostrophe”) singing, “Faithful cross! Above all other, one and only noble tree! None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peer may be: sweetest wood and sweetest iron! Sweetest weight is hung on thee.” This is quite a fascinating stanza—Fortunatus praises an ugly instrument of torture, using tender language normally reserved for love ballads or to praise nature. He is turning the grotesque and horrifying into something beautiful because of its necessity to bring salvation. This is daring poetry. As with most hymns from the early centuries, the final stanza is doxological, praising Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in an attempt to affirm Christ’s dual nature as both God and man. May this pondering on the Holy Cross bless this Good Friday.

Where Charity and Love Prevail

This hymn text is derived from a Latin chant for Maundy Thursday, “Ubi caritas.”  Maundy Thursday’s liturgy focuses on Jesus’ mandatum novum, or “new command” in John 13: 34, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  As Jesus washes His disciples’ feet that evening, He demonstrated that He is a servant, exemplifying our Gospel text for today in which Jesus says, “ ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”  (Mark 9: 35)  The first stanza of this hymn equates God’s presence in the actions of charity and love, possibly referring to I John 4: 12, “If we love one another, God dwells in us, and His love is perfected in us.”

The focus of this hymn is “charity,” but let us clarify exactly what this means.  The original Greek word is “agape,” meaning a type of self-sacrificial love (the Greeks had no fewer than seven words for love.)  For example, when St Paul writes in I Cor 13: 13, “And now these three remain:  faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love,” the word for “love” is agape. When St Jerome translated the Bible into the vernacular Latin, he translated this word as caritas, which through all the major English translations of the Bible was interpreted as “charity;”  in earlier English “charity” was understood more in the Greek sense—a sacrificial love.  Only in recent centuries has the word taken on a meaning of “service” or the connotation of feeding the poor, acts of mercy, etc., all of which certainly exemplify love but which do not completely express the original Greek term any longer.  Thus we find in modern Bibles caritas simply translated as “love,” leaving us to decipher what that means.

The first stanza tells us “Where charity and love prevail there God is ever found,” suggesting that where there is true service, mercy, and love, God is there as well.  But the second phrase clarifies that we are “brought here together by Christ’s love,” not that our love earns us Christ’s favour or even presence.  In a society that bandies about the term “love” with little clear meaning, we must be careful to state that where there is “love” (as we moderns define it) there is not necessarily God, but where God is there is necessarily love.  (From I John 4.)   Yes, one can love according to human feelings without knowing God, but it is only through God, and more specifically Christ, that love is truly found.  (From the beginning this text is Christocentric, defining who this God is, not leaving it for us determine.)

The remainder of the hymn outlines ways in which we demonstrate love.  We “forgive,” “love each other well,” and we ensure that “strife among us be unknown,” letting “all contention cease.”  In reality, we are stained by sin and cannot achieve what the hymn suggests.  As one of the three cardinal virtues in the Roman Church, caritas was seen as something which can only be given by God and not earned through human action. The hymn sets up an idyllic framework of virtue because even the anonymous, medieval text writer knew that he was incapable of keeping them.  Such is the difficulty of exhibiting caritas or agape, but such is what Christ did perfectly.

The fifth stanza recalls Holy Communion and worship as we “recall that in our midst dwells Christ, His only Son;  as members of His Body joined we are in Him made one.”  This suggests Matthew 18: 20 where Christ defines worship as “two or three” being gathered together.  It is not only that we are made members of the Body of Christ through the sacrament of baptism, we demonstrate fellowship with one another through the Eucharist.

When I Survey

This beloved hymn comes from Isaac Watts (1676-1748), the revolutionary hymnist whose daring paraphrases of scripture in his hymns would permanently transform what had been a highly conservative approach to hymnody in English-speaking churches.  Although a Dissenter himself (ie, not a member of the Anglican Church), neither the Dissenting nor the Anglican liturgical tradition employed hymns within their order of service, as the Lutherans by the 18th century had become accustomed.  English-speaking churches were limited to psalm-paraphrases and a few canticles such as the Te Deum, which were the only elements allowed to be sung.  Watts himself realized how poor many of these psalm paraphrases were and composed his Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719) as an attempt to improve the poetry and add some New Testament references, whilst still remaining fundamentally faithful to the spirit of the psalms. Watts would become a proponent of “hymns of human composure,” or simply hymn texts which were not direct paraphrases of scripture, of which his Lenten hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” stands as a testament.

Watts, having been ordained in 1702, became a prominent London preacher, growing his congregation at Marks Lane to the extent that two new buildings were required to hold the burgeoning congregation.  An avid scholar, Watts could read Latin, Greek, French and Hebrew (all learned in elementary school) and devoted his time to writing scholarly texts including a catechism, a treatise on biblical history, and a textbook on logic which was used at Oxford for many years.  His singlemindedness resulted in health problems and he would eventually take residence in the home of Thomas Abney in 1712 after which time he could devote all his energies to studying and writing.  In 1739 Watts suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered.

A few years ago, this writer visited Abney Park, the land on which the Abney manor stood but which had been converted into a cemetery late in the 18th century.  The manor is now gone, replaced with a spooky derelict chapel and a few monuments, including one to Isaac Watts.  Although most cemeteries in London are public (in fact, they make good places to eat lunch), this cemetery is badly overgrown, unkept, and crime-ridden. It is also far from the centre of town and two miles from the nearest Underground station!  One can still sense, though, the rural peace Watts must have found on the Abney property, surrounded by London’s bustling activity as it still is.

Only the most courageous hymnological explorer will venture into the gates of Abney Park in London.

In his hymnody, Watts is fond of this idea of “survey”—as though one is surveying a landscape on which the surveyor is only a small portion.  One’s eyes represent the point at which the visual surveying radiates outward, as in an arc or cone.  The act of surveying always proceeds directionally from the lesser (the individual) to the greater (the landscape, for example.) This perspective allows for the perspective that “my richest gains I count but loss,” as humanity stands as a small speck within the grandeur of the cosmos. Watts, like many others, uses the “cross” as a metaphor for Christ’s salvific act–“Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, save in the cross of Christ, my God, all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood.” We do not literally pray to the cross, of course, but to Christ. This idea of Christ on the cross is central to orthodox Christianity, and Watts continues by composing a crucifix in poetry:  “See, from His head, His hands, His feet sorrow and love flow mingled down.  Did e’er such love and sorrow meet or thorns compose so rich a crown?” A good Dissenter would never consider liturgical art such as a crucifix appropriate for devotional use–yet this chiasmus-like stanza serves as an aural replacement for the physical object. The hymn concludes with our response to Christ’s salvation act: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a tribute far too small;  Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”  To Watts, this “whole realm of nature” represents the magnitude of God.  Not only can we not give to God what is already His—nature—but we are forced to confront our diminutive status within the universe.  This awareness of the cosmic scope of Christianity is what demands “my life, my all.”

One has *really* to want to visit the Watts monument in Abney Park to get there, for while the undergrowth conceals years’ worth of empty beer cans, it still fails to hide the tacky Victorian plaster angels which still reign in abundance.




Go to Dark Gethsemane

This traditional Maundy Thursday hymn text was written by James Montgomery (1771-1854), a Scotchman amongst whose favorite hymns are “Come to Calvary’s Holy Mountain” and “Angels from the Realms of Glory.”  The son of a Moravian minister, he attended seminary in Yorkshire but tired of that and soon became a writer for the Sheffield Register, which he soon took over and which he used to promote his spiritual and political beliefs.  For 31 years he remained a Sheffielder, being imprisoned twice for his political ideas, and yet somehow ending his life with a royal pension.  Although Montgomery was certainly not an Anglican, his hymns quickly found their way into the gargantuan monument of nineteenth-century hymnody, Hymns Ancient and Modern.

There is a monument and a stained glass window devoted to Montgomery in Sheffield Cathedral, in which this writer played a concert a few years ago.  Prior to the concert, he was doing his best to overcome jetlag and a long train ride from London, whilst having to practice on the rather unique organ in the cathedral.  He was not able to visit the monument until after his concert.  In fact, here he is next to Montgomery, obviously not fast enough to escape a picture, much to his chagrin:

The James Montgomery monument in Sheffield.


Benjamin Kolodziej playing a concert at Sheffield Cathedral, 2005.

This hymn takes as its inspiration Isaiah 25: 6-8: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And we will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” Although in the Old Testament, this verse was quoted by Paul in I Cor. 15: 55 as an encapsulation of the Gospel: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting.” Although Jesus was unknown in the Old Testament, the mercy of God was not, and His mercy is fulfilled in Jesus’ death on the “mountain.” The hymn takes us to Maundy Thursday as we contemplate Jesus’ agony in “dark Gethsemane,” where he felt “the tempter’s power,” and we are confronted with the “Redeemer’s conflict,” His human nature imploring the Father to “remove this cup from me,” but His divine nature accepting the Father’s will. The second stanza anticipates Good Friday as we “follow to the judgement hall; view the Lord of life arraigned” before Pilate, accepting “suffering, shame, loss,” and where we “learn of Him to bear the cross.” Finally, we climb “Calvary’s mournful mountain,” where we, like his mother, the disciple John, and the centurion, we adore “at His feet,” noting the “miracle of time, God’s own sacrifice complete. ‘It is finished!’ Hear Him cry; learn of Jesus Christ to die.” Montgomery has taken us to this “miracle of time,” that point against which all history is measured, and the curtain in the temple is torn asunder, symbolizing the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. History, since the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, has pointed to this time–the time of “God’s own sacrifice complete.” May we ponder the profundity of this sacrifice this Holy Week.