Sermon: My Song is Love unknown
From Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
Good Friday 2010: Talk No 1: My song is love unknown CP 112 Frank Nelson
Some while ago Esther de Waal wrote a book called “Living with Contradiction”. She was exploring the apparent contradictions of trying to find balance and harmony in modern life – which seems to get busier and busier as the years go by. That title could well be applied to the events of today and the title of today – Good Friday to mark one of the cruelest days in history which, so we believe, set free the unfettered, unbounded, love of God.
Samuel Crossman (1624 – 1683) wrote the words of our first hymn as one of nine poems printed in 1664 – just two years after the Book of Common Prayer came into being. A Cambridge graduate Crossman had strong Puritan leanings and was among those who tried to get changes made to the Book of Common Prayer. Despite being expelled by the Act of Uniformity of 1662 Crossman went on to become the Dean of Bristol, where he is buried in the south aisle of the Cathedral. John Ireland was asked to write the tune most commonly associated with Crossman’s words some 250 years after they were penned.
‘My Song is Love Unknown’ is one I have always associated with the events of Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Day. In broad terms it tells the story of the Passion of Jesus, particularly drawing on Matthew’s account. But as we read the words of the hymn we become more aware of Crossman’s deep knowledge of the Bible, and his extraordinary ability to weave together the cross-strands of human nature and sin, and God’s grace and saving love. Each verse picks up a different theme and invites us to explore it, live with it, be influenced by it.
My song is love unknown, My Saviour’s love to me; Love to the loveless shown, That they might lovely be. O who am I, that for my sake My Lord should take frail flesh and die?
Despite the countless times I have sung this hymn it was only when I took a pencil and began to make notes against the words that I noticed just how many times “love’ appears in the first few lines. If there is a theological theme to be found here it has to be Grace – that unmerited, unsought even, love of God poured out on each one of us. Words from St John’s Gospel come to mind – from Chapters 1 and 3 particularly. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us” . And again, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
Verse 2 invites us to consider the mystery of the Incarnation and perhaps particularly one of the oldest hymns we have which St Paul recorded in writing to the Philippians: “Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” The concept of being the servant of others continues to puzzle, disturb and challenge us – and yet is at the very heart of our understanding of who and what Jesus is.
Writing for the BBC, poet, writer and broadcaster John Betjeman asked of the third verse: “Has anyone captured the turncoat side of humanity more vividly than in this verse?”
Sometimes they strew His way, And His sweet praises sing; Resounding all the day Hosannas to their King: Then “Crucify!” is all their breath, And for His death they thirst and cry.
Among the great mysteries of life is the fickleness of a crowd – and we are almost always part of one crowd or another. The change in mood from Palm Sunday to Good Friday continues to fascinate and horrify – as anyone who has ever been caught up in a mob will know only too well. I don’t listen to much talk-back radio (generally only when forced to while waiting for a WOF for my car, or lying helpless, numbed mouth filled with cotton plugs waiting for the dentist’s drill to start) but wonder if there isn’t something of the crowd mentality there. People, I should really say “WE”, are so easily swayed. It is often hard to keep objective, and emotions are powerful influences on us. A good orator knows just which buttons to push and when to take the crowd with him.
Why? Why do some things happen? Why do otherwise good people molest, torture, kill others? That for me is the question posed by verse 4? It is a question we should be constantly asking? During Lent I have read two books – both dealing with subjects I had not read much in before. The first is a fictional account of a North Vietnamese soldier drafted into the army in his late teens. As a forty year old, living on alcohol and smoking marijuana, he writes frantically late into the night as the mental images of fallen comrades, napalm attacks and the sheer thrill of killing mingle in a night-mare of memories of love and hate and lost youth. Why? – he asks. What was it all about – those sixteen years? The second is a novel by a Ghanaian writer of a Rwandan man who returns to his homeland four years after the Genocide of 1994. Increasingly he becomes aware that his beloved father, a much respected doctor in the local community, was a leader and instigator in the killing of 50,000 people. Why? Why is someone who does so much good also capable of doing so much evil? The Gospel story is slightly different of course, why do people turn against someone who has done so much good? But the question is still there: Why?
Why, what hath my Lord done? What makes this rage and spite? He made the lame to run, He gave the blind their sight, Sweet injuries! Yet they at these Themselves displease, and ’gainst Him rise.
Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, ‘This fellow said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.” ’ The high priest stood up and said, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’ But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, ‘I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death.’ Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him
Week after week, as we gather together around the Altar to celebrate the Eucharist, we hear the story told in the hymn. The words are familiar, comforting – When we sinned and turned away you called us back to yourself and gave your son to share our human nature. By his death on the cross he made the one perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world … on the night before he died your Son, Jesus Christ, took bread .. and said: This is my body. After supper he took the cup .. and said: This is my blood.
Our faith invites us to live with the contradiction of God who, despite our failure time and again, keeps loving, forgiving, reaching out, for “This is my Friend, in whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend.”