We are reminded, on this day of all days, that our friends in the Eastern Churches determine their celebrations of Christmas and Easter according to a different calendar to ours. We wish them all a very happy Easter. It has been an especial privilege to see some of the extraordinary liturgies of the past week broadcast online, and therefore to remind oneself of the very different, and very beautiful, music employed in their liturgical offerings. It would be easy to think that the sharing of resources between the Churches of East and West has, since the Great Schism, been somewhat limited - but our hymns tell a different story! A Great and Mighty Wonder, Let all Mortal Flesh keep Silence, The Day of Resurrection and Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain, are all - among others - well-known hymns that have their origins in the Orthodox tradition. We have John Mason Neale, that great High Churchman and translator of many hymns from their original Greek and Latin, to thank for their widespread use.
Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain must be one of the jewels in the crown of a season enriched by countless beautiful hymns. Written in the 8th century by St John of Damascus, a Byzantine monk and priest, the text is drawn from the Canon for St Thomas’s Sunday (Low Sunday - which is, for us, today), and picks up on the Old Testament story of the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. The themes of deliverance from bondage and joy after sadness are, after all, easy to assimilate into the Paschal mystery. The hymn thus moves on to a direct focus of the implication of Christ’s own bursting from the chains that had bound him. Here, as a result of his defeat of death, is deliverance for all humanity. In a beautiful translation we are told: ‘All the winter of our sins, / long and dark, is flying / from his light, to whom we give / laud and praise undying.’ But, most importantly on this Low Sunday, we are reminded that our celebration of this ‘royal feast of feasts’ is not a single day, but a whole season. We have a tremendous fifty days (in reality, of course, we have an eternity) to ‘welcome in unwearied strains / Jesus’s resurrection’.
The hymn obviously feels and sounds rather different to the original, and John Mason Mason Neale will have undertaken some crafty work to fit it into a poetic system that works for us simple Church of England folk, but I hope this hymn teaches us that our links with Christians throughout the world have deeper roots than we are often able to articulate, and that hymns can be the place where we sing into being our unity which, as we all know, has both its origin and its conclusion in the risen body of Jesus Christ. You can listen to it here, accompanied by the beautiful tune Ave Virgo Virginum Click here to listen.
Our anthem for today is Stanford’s vigorous setting of Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem, which you can listen by clicking here