Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Hymns I Wish I Wrote: O Christ, you wept when grief was raw

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. (...) He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.
-- John 11: 17, 34-35 (NRSV)

Graham Maule and John Bell’s “O Christ, you wept” is a succinct four-stanza hymn written for use at funerals and memorial services. Typical of the resources emerging from the Iona Community, it employs direct, clear language which is skillfully crafted and eminently singable (if anything can be called easily singable in the wake of a loved one’s death.)

The text provides words to articulate the crushing grief brought by the loss of a life, allowing sorrow and longing to be expressed first and foremost, but offering the glimmering reminder of Christian hope for the resurrection. It acknowledges the deep pain and incomprehension we experience through bereavement, and provides a welcome means for the expression of these complex and uncomfortable feelings in community.

Once at a worship conference, I attended a discussion session on expressions of lament and corporate worship. I was particularly excited about it because the session description was framed in terms of the Psalms, our rich heritage of praise, questioning, grief, impatience and lament. (I’m Presbyterian, I get excited about the Psalms.) 

As it happened, the attendees managed to have a lively discussion in spite of the session leader. In his opening question framing-cum-sermon, he let us know that he was convinced there is no place at all for the expression of grief in worship, because, among other reasons, we as Christians have no business being angry with God. (I’m not sure what he thought we were all going to talk about for forty-five minutes after that.)

Rightly or not, when I have been frustrated or even angry with God, when I have questioned God’s actions or perceived inactions in the world around me, I know I’m not alone: the Hebrew community that produced the Psalms asked the same questions with boldness and abandon, questions which can help us to probe our faith, express our grief, and enter into deeper relationship with God. O God, why have you rejected us forever? How long will you hide your face from me? My heart is blighted and withered like grass. All day long my enemies taunt me. 

How long, O Lord?

In the context of the neck-up Christian tradition in which I was raised, we are not always equipped to handle one another’s grief on a personal level, and even less prepared to allow for it in worship. We understand our faith through rhetorical argument, orderly liturgy, exegetical exploration, and the Old 100th. Grief, by contrast, is messy, ugly, possibly contagious, and of indeterminate duration. We don’t always know how to make room for such an unruly visitor.

Maule and Bell’s hymn, I think, is an opening to this possibility. Part of its effectiveness comes in that it draws on an Old Testament trope of questioning and lament and frames it within a New Testament context. The first stanza makes connection to the Lazarus narrative of the Gospel of John. Maule and Bell remind us that even Christ, who knew all of the promises of heaven, who knew that through God the grave held no power over him, wept openly for the death of his friend. We are given permission to do the same.

Stanza two deftly combines imagery of the silencing of a voice (the familiar voice of the departed) and speechlessness (on the part of those who grieve). It raises a petition to God to gather into eternity the many indistinct strands of our grief – a gorgeous image. 

The third stanza asks for God’s presence in our grieving and healing process:

We try to hold what is not here
and fear for what we do not know;
oh, take our hands in yours, good Lord,
and free us to let our friend go.

Words: John L. Bell & Graham Maule, copyright © 1989, 1997 WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH, Scotland.
Reproduced by permission.

I find that many hymns for funerals and memorial services, with the best of intentions I’m sure, focus heavily on the promise of heaven, the hope inherent in Christian belief, the assurance of Christ’s victory over the grave. Maule and Bell’s text is particularly powerful, by contrast, in having allowed for the expression of hurt and incomprehension in the first three stanzas, and then turning our gaze toward Christ’s empty tomb in the last (also forming a nice symmetry with the Lazarus allusion in stanza one).

In its original 1989 appearance in When Grief is Raw of the Wild Goose Resource Group, this text is set to a fabulous four-part F major tune by John Bell called PALMER (not to be confused with Horatio R. Palmer’s PALMER [YIELD NOT]). The Book of Praise (1997) of the Presbyterian Church in Canada transposes this tune down to Eb major (#604).

The four-phrase tune begins with two phrases composed of largely downward motion in small leaps, then a third phrase of gathering upward stepwise motion climaxing in a final elongated phrase of long-breathed, downward steps. Perhaps the tune’s most effective enhancement of this text is its treatment of this last phrase: Bell repeats the first two words of the last line (grammatically, an imperative petition each time) a full four times, using pairs of whole notes in stepwise downward motion, not unlike a Baroque “sighing motif.” “Hold us, hold us, hold us,” prays the bereaved one, “hold us, numbed by this life’s end.” In this way the setting evokes the way many of us in our private grief have cried out for comfort in a similar way. It is, in my opinion, enormously evocative and effective.

The Canadian World War I monument at Vimy Ridge, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France, is perhaps
Canada's most recognizable expression of public and communal grief.

This hymn would make a beautiful a cappella four-part anthem for a memorial service, and would be a good selection for a choir to have prepared in its repertoire in case of need. In the context of a service in memory of a life, it could be sung congregationally, perhaps with the first two verses sung by a soloist (or a soloist on stanza one, then an ensemble on stanza two), with the whole assembly joining on the final two stanzas once the tune has been heard through twice. A similar treatment could be used in Sunday worship following the death of a member of the congregation, in recognition of the community’s loss. A recording of this setting is available on Come Know My Joy: Hymns from The Book of Praise, of the Singers and Players of Beaches Presbyterian Church (Toronto, Canada).

The text can also be paired with ROCKINGHAM, which incidentally it is in the Church Hymnary, Fourth Edition (2005, #734), of which John Bell was Committee Chair. However, in this author’s humble opinion this pairing doesn’t pack the expressive punch of the original. The text also appears in Common Praise (1998, #296) of the Anglican Church in Canada, there paired with ANGELUS.

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