Another back page

I think I mentioned that words from a friend had sent me browsing through some old prayers amd hymns. Some of them are embarrassingly bad, and I wondered how I had ever thought otherwise, except that one always has a graciousness towards one’s own creations which one may not show towards the work of others.

One or two seemed decently done, and another few invited the kind of revision that they ought to have been given years back. Here’s one of the latter:

YOU ARE MY DEAR SON (Tune: Firmament CH4:148)

“Stay clear, stay clear” the voices said
When Christ came down by Jordan bank
“Stay clear of this baptismal rite
Devised for those whose lives are rank.”
But when he took the sinners’ place
And shared their joy in granted grace
He heard your voice, as soft wings spread,
“You are my dear son, my delight.”

“Stay clear, stay clear,” the voices say
When we are faced with human sin,
“Stay clear of those who do no right
For they will surely drag you in.”
But when we stand with them in blame
And seek your freedom from our shame,
We hear your voice as clear as day,
“You are my children, my delight.”

“Stay clear, stay clear,” the voices say
When we are faced with human need,
“Stay clear of those who suffer night
For in their darkness you may bleed.”
But when we make their need our own
And fight for justice to be shown,
We hear your voice approve our way,
“You are my children, my delight.”

“Stay clear, stay clear,” the voices said
When Christ came through the city gate
“Stay clear of those who have the might
To fashion failure into fate.”
But when he’d hung upon the cross
And let his life go into loss
He heard your voice that wakes the dead,
“You are my dear son, my delight.”

This enshrines an interpretation of Jesus’ baptism as recounted in Mark’s gospel which starts by creating apocalyptic expectation and then tells us simply that Jesus arrived to be baptised alongside an average bunch of sinners looking for a new start.  God’s paternal voice here links this story to the transfiguration, and of course to the crucifixion where the centurion declares Jesus to be a son of God. The gospel becomes at one level therefore, an extended definition of what it means to be a child of God. Or perhaps I should say, redefinition, as the definition of the Messiah as triumphant national ruler was part of Jewish tradition.

In this hymn I wanted to emphasise God’s delight in Jesus. The translation, ‘in you I am well pleased’ doesn’t sound like a very powerful statement of approval, more like a decent rating on a school report. Mark’s language derives from Isaiah 42, “Behold my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights.” Now that’s more like divine approval! God is not marking our card, but when we dare to act like his children, he is delighted.

I also wanted to emphasise that acting like a child of God is rarely the obvious or popular thing to do, because it involves declaring others to be children of God also, which is bound to get up somebody’s nose. Whatever the authorities thought about those who responded to John’s ministry, they certainly didn’t give them the status of God’s children –  but Jesus did, by sharing their new beginning.

But how could the Son of God need a new beginning? The very idea is heretical! That’s why Mark put it at the begining of his gospel: with Jesus, we can all start again, in humility, as children of God.

The tune has been long associated with Addison’s hymn of creation, “ The glorious firmament on high” which relates to Pslam 19, “the heavens declare the glory of God” and is wonderful in its way. Unfortunately that way also includes phrases like “dark terrestrial ball” which seem strange or incomprehensible to modern ears. So perhaps I may be forgiven for nicking the tune for a composition which will certainly be forgotten long before Mr. Addison’s.

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