Lenten reading

A short while ago I mentioned reading old stuff, so here’s a suggestion: reading the church fathers during Lent.

I grew up in an ahistorical form of Christianity and it was refreshing for me to learn that truly God doesn’t leave Himself without witness. The Holy Spirit was at work long before 1900, albeit using flawed human beings.

The readings start on Ash Wednesday (the 13th) and run from Monday through to Saturday. If you’re short on time, there’s a lite version. Happy reading!

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All glory, laud and honour

Happy Palm Sunday!

Today’s hymn has been sang in countless Palm Sunday services since it was penned (in Latin) in around 820 A.D. by Theodulph, bishop of Orleans. Theodulph had been imprisoned on suspicion of treason in 818, and died in prison in 821.

All glory, laud and honor,
To Thee, Redeemer, King,
To whom the lips of children
Made sweet hosannas ring.

Thou art the king of Israel,
Thou David’s royal Son,
Who in the Lord’s name comest,
The King and Blessèd One.

Refrain

The company of angels
Are praising Thee on High,
And mortal men and all things
Created make reply.

Refrain

The people of the Hebrews
With palms before Thee went;
Our prayer and praise and anthems
Before Thee we present.

Refrain

To Thee, before Thy passion,
They sang their hymns of praise;
To Thee, now high exalted,
Our melody we raise.

Refrain

Thou didst accept their praises;
Accept the prayers we bring,
Who in all good delightest,
Thou good and gracious King.

Refrain

I’m guessing that the prison wasn’t a most congenial place for hymn-writing, yet Theopdulph’s mind and pen only pour forth praise. His starting point is the original Palm Sunday (Matt. 21:1-17, Mark 11:1-10, Luke 19:28-38, John 12:12-13), to which he adds a scene of angelic worship from Revelation.

What I found delightful is that from the third stanza on, he places the worship then alongside our worship now. They presented their praise, and so do we; they sang a melody, and so do we; God accepted their praise, may He do the same with ours. Isn’t that such a lovely picture of the continuity of God’s covenant people? And as we sing this centuries-old hymn, we too join in the multitude of the redeemed who are now singing it in a nobler and sweeter tongue (to borrow words from here).

Man of sorrows

Happy fifth Sunday in Lent!

This hymn was first published in 1875. The following year its author, Philip Bliss, died in a railway accident that also took the life of his wife.

Man of Sorrows! what a name
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim:
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood,
Sealed my pardon with his blood:
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

Guilty, vile, and helpless, we;
Spotless Lamb of God was he;
Full atonement! can it be?
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

Lifted up was he to die,
“It is finished!” was his cry:
Now in heav’n exalted high:
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

When he comes, our glorious King,
All his ransomed home to bring,
Then anew this song we’ll sing:
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

I hit on the idea of summarising each stanza in one word, and as a pale imitation of Bliss’s far superior rhymes, all my words end in -ion.

  1. Mission: To reclaim sinners for God
  2. Substitution: Christ took my condemnation and secured my forgiveness
  3. Perfection: Of Christ’s sacrifice of Himself and its effect of full atonement
  4. Completion: Of the work on the cross
  5. Consummation: Christ will return to take His people to their eternal home.

Hmm… Maybe I should keep well away from writing poetry…

On a serious note, I’m loving how these hymn-writers pull together the past, present and future works of redemption in five stanzas or less. Such rich content to meditate on!

There is a fountain filled with blood

Happy fourth Sunday in Lent!

This hymn, written by William Cowper, was first published in 1772. It is based on Zechariah 13:1, “In that day there shall be a Fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness.”

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
O may I there, though’ vile as he,
Wash all my sins away!

Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power
‘Till all the ransomed Church of God
Be saved to sin no more.

Ever since, by faith, I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be ’till I die.

But when this lisping, stammering tongue
Lies silent in the grave.
Then in a nobler, sweeter song
I’ll sing thy power to save.

Though a brilliant poet and hymnodist, Cowper struggled with deep depression much of his adult life and some of that struggle is visible in this and other of his hymns.

He starts off by putting together the prophecy from Zechariah and its fulfilment in Christ. The purpose of the fountain is to cleanse sinners, like the thief of Luke 23. Yes, he was a nasty piece of work, that thief! But wait, I am as vile as that criminal… I too need to be cleansed. I too can be cleansed in the same fountain!

The third stanza touches on the efficacy of Christ’s work at the cross. As I was reviewing YouTube videos for this post, the last line in the third stanza really got me and bounced around my head for hours. How wonderful that would be, to never sin again! to never live in fear of displeasing God! I imagine that Cowper, with all his dark moments, must have eagerly looked forward to that day.

The fourth and fifth stanzas, written in the first person, get sweetly personal. While awaiting the time that sin will be no more, Cowper and the hymn-singer can revel in God’s saving love (stanza 4). What’s more, the singing of praise will not cease with our death, but instead will become even more glorious (stanza 5). (By the way, does the poetry of these two stanzas turn you to mush as it does me?)

Here’s a biographical sketch of William Cowper along with lessons we can learn from his life, by John Piper.

When I survey the wondrous cross

Happy third Sunday in Lent!

Isaac Watts wrote this hymn in preparation for a communion service in 1707 and it may well be the first hymn in English to be written in the first person.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God:
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down:
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Watts starts, not with a casual look or a cursory glance, but with a survey of the cross. This steady gaze leads him to the realisation that those things that previously held his attention—his richest gain and the things that charmed him most—utterly pale in comparison.

The second stanza calls to mind Galatians 6:14, a connection made more strongly in a verse that fell out of use (see the link to Hymnary.org below).

In the third stanza, Watts sees in the flow of physical blood a flow of love (towards us sinners) and sorrow (at the abandonment by the Father). The stanza ends with an upending of the crown of thorns—rather than a sign of mockery, it becomes an object of wonder.

The last stanza is a study in paradox. The whole realm of nature is vast, but it’s too small of an offering to make to God. His point of course, isn’t a scientific  one but a theological one: the only proper response to such an amazingly wondrous love is wholehearted surrender.

Resources I used:

The old rugged cross

Happy second Sunday in Lent!

Given that my taste in hymnody tends towards the archaic, I was rather surprised to learn that this hymn is less than 100 years old (well, it’s almost there—it was written in 1913).

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suff’ring and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.

In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.

The hymn-writer, George Bennard, takes us on a trip starting from the ignominy of the cross, passing through his love for what happened at Calvary, and takes us all the way to eternity. Since I can’t pin down any specific Bible references, here’s a portion of the story behind the song:

On one occasion, after a difficult season of ministry, George realized he needed to better understand the power of the Cross of Christ. He later said, “I was praying for a fuller understanding of the Cross . . . I read and studied and prayed . . . The Christ of the Cross became more than a symbol . . . It was like seeing John 3:16 leave the printed page, take form, and act out the meaning of redemption. While watching this scene with my mind’s eye, the theme of the song came to me.”

Then Sings My Soul, by Robert J. Morgan, p. 275
Isn’t it true that the hard seasons in our lives have the potential to yield the longest-lasting fruit?

And can it be?

Last Advent, I did a short series here on the blog on the songs of the season. I gained so much from the research I did on those posts that I’m doing a similar series now for Lent. As with last time, I’ll start and close with a hymn by Charles Wesley (purely coincidental then and now!).

And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Saviour’s blood?
Died he for me, who caus’d his pain—
For me who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be,
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Amazing love! how can it be,
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

‘Tis mist’ry all, th’ Immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the first-born seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine;
‘Tis mercy all! let earth adore:
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left his Father’s throne above;
So free, so infinite his grace!
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race;
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For, O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night:
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free—
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, with all in him, is mine;
Alive in Him my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’ eternal throne
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

I love the sense of amazement that this hymn exudes; Wesley is so taken by the grace so freely offered to a sinner like him—kind of like the apostle Paul now that I think of it.
Going stanza by stanza:

  • The first stanza is full of wonder: a personalised, internalised wonder. The pronouns are all I, me and my, but the hymn writer is thoroughly God-focused.
  • The second stanza builds on the last phrase in 1 Peter 1:12. If it was incomprehensible that God would die for me (stanza 1), how much more incomprehensible is it that God would die?
  • The third stanza echoes Philippians 2:7-8. Lest we forget, the last line of this stanza goes back to the sense of being baffled.
  • Before Christ, Wesley was like a chained prisoner in a dark dungeon. All it took to turn that situation on its head was one ray of light from Christ, and he was set free to follow his liberator.
  • In the last stanza, Wesley appropriates Romans 8:1 and Hebrews 4:16 for himself. Yet he doesn’t lose sight of the reason he could do that: it’s all because of Christ.

Dear Lord, may I never lose my wonder at your lavish grace!