What are your favorite worship traditions of Holy Week and Easter? For me, I love singing “Christ the Lord is Ris’n Today” on Easter morning, along with “Were You There?” anytime of year. Last Sunday — Palm Sunday — my family took part in an old tradition that was new to us: processing around the church sanctuary waving palm branches to celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Though our small Lutheran church in suburban Kentucky has little in common with Jerusalem, it became Jerusalem symbolically for a few minutes on Sunday morning.
At Regent College, way back in 2003, I completed a masters in Christianity and the arts. I chose Regent, in part, because it allowed students to complete a “creative” thesis, a portfolio of artwork instead of a traditional, er, “uncreative” academic paper. As you may have gathered from my post a couple of weeks ago, poetry has been important to my for a while, and I enrolled at Regent intending to complete a collection of poetry.
While there, I became interested in the theology and practice of community, and I began to explore the idea of poetry written for other people. I began to notice that, for example, many of Auden’s poems were dedicated to or written for specific people, and he took his role as Professor of Poetry at Oxford seriously as a “community poet,” to be enlisted to write poems for the personal milestones of his colleagues. So I began to think of ways that my poetry could serve other people, rather than merely express my own thoughts and feelings.
At the same time, I became more and more aware of the deep history of Christianity. Without really being aware of it as a movement, I was digging into Robert Webber’s idea of “Ancient-Future Worship.” I regularly visited the copy of Webber’s Complete Library of Christian Worship in the Regent Library, and I’m now fortunate enough to have
stolen been loaned permanently a copy for my own library. (Thanks, Hugh!)
Meanwhile, there was a third stream of my Regent experience that wound up influencing my thesis: my weekly worship at St. Johns Shaughnessy Anglican Church. There, my wife and I were immersed weekly in a vibrant hymn tradition. Some hymns were familiar, many were new to us, but all were taken seriously as both theological and musical works.
With these streams coming together, it seems inevitable (in hindsight) that a collection of hymns would be the centerpiece of my thesis. For my theme, I chose the Seven Last Words, the seven statements that Jesus made from the cross, which have been used for Good Friday liturgies for centuries. For the hymn tunes, I used mostly existing ones from the St. Johns hymnal. Part of the hymn tradition is that tunes and lyrics can be interchangeable. A good hymnal will list the author of the lyrics, the source of the tune, and a set of mysterious numbers on each page – 86.86, for example. It’s common to see tunes paired with lyrics from different centuries, even different millennia. “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” for example, has been famously called a 19th century hymn made by setting 8th century lyrics to a 15th century tune.
Out of the seven hymns I wrote, “The Fifth Word” — “I thirst” — represents this “intertemporality” best. It’s set to the tune “Love Unknown” by John Ireland, which was written specifically for the poem “My Song is Love Unknown” by Samuel Crossman (what a name!). Crossman wrote his poem in 1664, without apparently any tune in mind; 250 years later, Ireland wrote the tune. And, then, 90 years after that, I wrote a new set of lyrics for Ireland’s tune. (The video embedded above features Crossman and Ireland’s hymn, not mine.)
One other thing to note before I share this hymn with you: my hymns are a bit unusual because they put the singer there at the cross on Good Friday. They are not reflecting on the cross or meditating on the theology of the cross. Sung together in order, the “Seven Last Words” lead you through the crucifixion, including sections in which the singers reenact the roles of specific individuals: Mary Magdalene, John, Jesus’ mother, the thief on the cross (not the “good” one, either), the mockers, and even, briefly, Jesus himself.
You can download the whole hymn cycle here.
The Fifth Word
Tune: LOVE UNKNOWN (66.66.4444)
1. He thirsts and soon will die Upon this bitter throne. No drink can satisfy: He thirsts for God alone. His suffering, Our misery: How can he be Our holy king? 2. Forsaken by his friends Before his greatest need, A single soldier lends Some wine – small grace indeed. Is God near by Or far away? How could we pray If he should die? 3. Where can he find relief? He sees just hateful eyes. Acquainted with all grief, The man of sorrows dies. How can this be? What has he done? Does anyone Win victory? 4. This is our Lord and King, In weakness glorified. In weakness therefore sing Because with him we died. Let us take up Our Saviour’s cross, And through our loss Partake his cup.