The coronavirus crisis raises many questions for Christians and quite a few of these concern worship. With churches closed we are in a novel situation, neither persecuted nor able to worship together. How can a congregation pray together if they can’t meet? What is the value of our church buildings? Can you consecrate bread and wine via Zoom? Should a priest celebrate the Eucharist on his or her own?
Like many priests I have been thinking of these, but I want to re-start this blog with something else. At Holy Cross, Edinburgh we are keeping in touch by email via a weekly e-news. Our congregation loves to sing and one member suggested we look at a hymn each week. This week’s hymn, an old favourite, seemed particularly relevant to a locked down church. I have sung it hundreds of times but meditating on it revealed how much I had missed and what treasures lurk in traditional hymns. They are so familiar you don’t really notice them.
This hymn was written in 1866 for the section on the Eucharist in a new Anglican hymn book, ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’. While most Victorian hymns were written by clergymen and devout laywomen, its author, William Chatterton Dix, was the manager of a marine insurance company in Glasgow. It is usually sung to the fine Welsh tune, Hyfrydol, composed by a nineteen-year-old textile worker, Rowland H. Prichard. It is thus a product of lay devotion.
Alleluia, sing to Jesus, His the sceptre, his the throne;
Alleluia, his the triumph, His the victory alone:
Hark, the songs of peaceful Sion thunder like a mighty flood;
Jesus out of every nation, hath redeemed us by his blood.
Alleluia, not as orphans Are we left in sorrow now;
Alleluia, he is near us, Faith believes, nor questions how;
Though the cloud from sight received him when the forty days were o’er,
Shall our hearts forget his promise, ‘I am with you evermore’?
Alleluia, Bread of Angels, Thou on earth our food, our stay;
Alleluia, here the sinful Flee to thee from day to day;
Intercessor, Friend of sinners, Earth’s Redeemer, plead for me,
Where the songs of all the sinless Sweep across the crystal sea.
Alleluia, King eternal, Thee the Lord of Lords we own;
Alleluia, born of Mary, Earth thy footstool, heaven thy throne:
Thou within the veil hast entered, Robed in flesh, our great High Priest;
Thou on earth both Priest and Victim In the Eucharistic Feast.
We find this hymn in the ‘Holy Communion’ section of the New English Hymnal (NEH 271), but it is also an Ascension hymn – “though the cloud from sight received him when the forty days were o’er” (Acts 1:9). Ascension is perhaps the nearest Anglicans get to a ‘holy day of obligation’, at school we had a half day off if we went to Communion in the morning. The hymn presupposes an Ascension Eucharist but it can be sung at any time and some hymn books mute the eucharistic theme by leaving out verse 4. Like all great hymns it is truly Catholic. It transcends denomination, being steeped in Biblical imagery and teaching the central truths of the faith. It could almost be taken as the text for a course in Christianity.
In the Ascension, when ‘the cloud from sight received him’, the body of the risen Jesus leaves this world. Immediately afterwards, in Acts 1:10-11, we see the disciples looking at the place where Jesus had been and faced by two Angels. This recalls the Ark of the Covenant in the Jerusalem Temple where there was a space, a void, between the two Cherubim on the mercy seat.
The Ascension reminds us that at the heart of Christianity is a real absence, a void. Into this void flows a mixture of our desire and the occasional visitation of the Spirit. Now, when we are exiled from our Churches and the sacraments many of us feel the ache of this void. Verse two mitigates this void by reminding us of Jesus’ promise “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, when the Ascension is not mentioned but implied (Matthew 28:20).
Jesus has ascended to the Father but we are not left as orphans (John 14:18). We can’t see Jesus with our bodily eyes, but we can see him in faith. Verse three tells us that his abiding presence is found here on earth in the Holy Eucharist. This recalls Thomas Aquinas’s great Eucharistic Hymn ‘Pange lingua‘ with its line “faith, our outward sense befriending, makes our inward vision clear” (NEH 268). Dix’s hymn likewise gives profound theological teaching but it also reminds us that the Eucharist is not primarily here to be thought about, it is for us a strength and consolation because there we meet Jesus the “friend of sinners”. It is our daily bread and Christ’s abiding presence among us – though when Jesus is said to be “our… stay”, ‘stay’ doesn’t mean ‘remaining’ but it means ‘support’, a ‘stay’ is a rope or wire that supports a ship’s mast and ‘stays’ is a kind of corset.
At the Eucharist we say, “lift up your hearts, we lift them to the Lord”. In the Eucharist Christ and the Spirit descend to earth and we are lifted up to heaven. This hymn is saturated with the language about heaven found in the Book of Revelation and the Letter to the Hebrews, for example the “crystal sea” (Revelation 4:6) and the “songs of Zion” (Revelation 7:9-12). It shows us that the Eucharist is a Sacrifice in which Christ is both Priest and Victim, the Sacrifice of the Cross. What we celebrate around the Altar on earth is a participation in the one Sacrifice of Christ and a sharing in the heavenly Liturgy. In verse four the divine and human Jesus, born of Mary, is “our great High Priest” (Hebrews 4:14-16), who has entered the heavenly sanctuary of which our earthly Temple and Churches are a shadow and a copy (Hebrews 9:23-10:24). The human minister or priest has no authority of his or her own but offers the sacrifice of the Eucharist solely by participation in the one priesthood of Christ, and the whole congregation joins in offering this sacrifice because we are a priestly people as we are the Body of Christ.
This hymn gives a powerful vision of what we participate in when we gather round the altar to do what Jesus commanded us to do with bread and wine. It is thus a song of encouragement for us as we wait to return to our Churches. It also reminds us that our earthly sacraments are only temporary, for the time of our earthly exile. The real liturgy is in heaven, but the good news is that in our Churches we can participate in it “with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven”. The pain of exile is part of our earthly condition, we feel it deeply at the moment, but we are not abandoned. Even in our exile we can feel the presence of the Spirit raising our hearts to heaven, and, when we return fully to our common worship, the veil will be drawn aside and we can participate together in the worship of heaven described in the biblical phrases in this hymn.