Thursday, August 26, 2010

Singing Hopefully

What follows is cross-posted from my parish’s website and newsletter, where I maintain a monthly reflection on one of the hymns we will be singing in our worship.

Hope is one of the traditional "cardinal" Christian virtues (along with Faith and Love). It is something to which we are invited to aspire, to cultivate. Hope is a habit of the heart that is perhaps well illustrated by Yogi Berra's famous quote, "It ain't over till it's over." Hope is the fruit of a deep inner conviction, that, in the end, God wins. Creation is redeemed, and all is well for those who are reconciled with God. Our Prayer Book catechism puts it this way: "The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purposes for the world." 

The Scriptures give us several images of the fulfillment of our hope in Christ, especially in the Revelation to St John. It would probably be inadvisable to take them with exact literalness; they are, rather, compelling poetic symbols that point to a reality much grander than anything human language could describe. One of these images is "Jerusalem," which is, of course, literally a city on this earth that has been intimately bound up in the sacred story of God's dealings with humankind, but which is also a sign of something greater, something yet to come.

Peter Abelard was a 12th century theologian and poet who lived in a place and time in which it was arguably much more difficult to cultivate the virtue of Hope than it is for us here and now, much more difficult to see "Jerusalem" descending from the clouds as a bride adorned for her bridegroom. It was a time of widespread violence, epidemic disease, and corruption at all levels of church and state in Europe. It was in such an environment that Peter Abelard penned the lines of this Latin hymn, drawing on the biblical imagery of Jerusalem, and painting a vivid picture of the realization of the Christian hope.

O what their joy and their glory must be, those endless Sabbaths the blessèd ones see; crown for the valiant, to weary ones rest: God shall be all, and in all ever blest.

The notion of Sabbath denotes rest, and rest is part of the symbolic vocabulary of our hope (as when we pray for the departed that they may "rest in peace"). When we come to our eternal Sabbath rest, we know God to "be all, and in all."

Truly “Jerusalem” name we that shore, city of peace that brings joy evermore; wish and fulfillment are not severed there, nor do things prayed for come short of the prayer.

Indeed, "Jerusalem" literally (and, it would seem, somewhat ironically much of the time) means "city of peace." The second half of this stanza is perhaps the most poetically and spiritually profound part of the entire hymn. In the realization of our hope in Christ, there is no longer a gap between wish and fulfillment, between what we pray for and what we receive from God.

There, where no troubles distraction can bring,we the sweet anthems of Zion shall sing; while for thy grace, Lord, their voices of praise thy blessed people eternally raise.

Of all the poetic images of what goes on in the heavenly Jerusalem, "singing" is the most prolific. Perhaps this is what lies behind St Augustine's aphorism to the effect that "those who sing pray twice." The importance of singing in our earthly worship can probably not be overstated; it is evidently in some way a preparation for what will become a consuming occupation when our hope comes to fruition.

Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high, we for that country must yearn and must sigh, seeking Jerusalem, dear native land, through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

Of course, while our hope is assured (because it is founded on God's victory manifested in Jesus rising from the dead), it is something we yet wait for. We live in a time "in between." We are in the ironic position of citizens of a country they have never seen, who live in exile, awaiting their arrival in their "dear native land."

Low before him with our praises we fall, of whom, and in whom, and through whom are all; of whom, the Father; and in whom, the Son; through whom, the Spirit, with them ever One.

Latin hymns from the Middle Ages invariably close with a trinitarian doxology, a final outburst of praise and adoration toward the Triune God.

This text was rendered into English by the great John Mason Neale, a Church of England priest from the 19th century who is singularly responsible for brining innumerable treasures of Greek and Latin hymnody into the experience of English-speaking Christians. It has been married to the tune O Quanta Qualia (the opening words of the Latin text) since its first appearance in the 1868 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern. The tune is somewhat older, however; it appears in several 17th century French sources.

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