Two Hymns For Lent

Sackville College, East Grinstead - where J.M. Neale lived and did most of his writing.

Sackville College, East Grinstead – where John Mason Neale lived and did most of his writing.

The Church year is centered around Jesus and the redemptive story of his life, death, and resurrection. The Scriptures read in the Liturgy, the various prayers, and also the songs and hymns that are sung all correspond to the seasons of the year, and the seasons themselves correspond to events or periods in the life of Jesus. The season of Lent takes the Church with Jesus both into the desert where he fasted for forty days and also on his last journey to Jerusalem (and ultimately to the cross and his glorious resurrection). Several themes and lessons of the Lenten season are emphasized in the Liturgy, but two of the most prominent are repentance and spiritual struggle.

These are the overarching themes in two songs that come to us from St. Andrew of Crete (8th century) through the translation and poetical rendering of Fr. John Mason Neale (19th century). J. M. Neale was an Anglican priest in Victorian England whose robust Catholic faith and exceptional scholarship marked him out in his own time as a defender of historic Orthodoxy in the English tradition. He has made a lasting impact on later generations through his composition or translation of several well known hymns, such as Good Christian Men, Rejoice; Good King Wenceslas; O Come, O Come Emmanuel; Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth; and All Glory, Laud, and Honor to name just a few.

In his book Hymns of the Eastern Church, Neale made available to modern English speakers many ancient texts from the Greek East, including several hymns attributed to St. Andrew of Crete, an archbishop and prolific hymnographer who died in the 8th century. One of these hymns is actually only a portion of a much larger composition by St. Andrew known as the Great Canon of Repentance, which is still prayed in its entirety on the Thursday of the 5th week of Lent in the Eastern tradition of the Orthodox Church. It begins, “Where shall my tears begin?”, meaning tears of sorrow for one’s own sin. This hymn encourages us to fully consider both the gravity and consequences of our disobedience to God, and the fact that we alone bear the guilt and responsibility for our own rebellion. It doesn’t jump ahead to resurrection, nor does it simply tout a perpetual “forgiven” status for us as Christians. Instead, it intentionally occupies its timely Lenten context by wisely calling us to contemplate how sin still wars against God’s presence within us day by day.

Where shall my tears begin?
What first-fruits shall I bear
Of earnest sorrow for my sin?
Or how my woes declare?
O God! the Merciful and Gracious One
Forgive the foul transgressions I have done.

With Adam I have vied,
And passed him in my fall;
And I am naked now, by pride
By lust, made bare of all-
Of Thou, O God, and all the heav’nly band,
And all the glory of the Promised Land.

If Adam’s righteous doom,
Because he dared transgress
Thy one decree, lost Eden’s bloom
And Eden’s loveliness:
What recompence, O LORD, must I expect,
Who ever thy life-giving laws neglect?

By my own act, like Cain,
A murderer I was made;
By my own act my soul was slain,
When thou wast disobeyed;
And lusts each day are quickened, warring still
Against thy grace with many deeds of ill.

O Spotless Lamb divine
Who takest sins away,
Remove, remove the weights that mine
Upon my conscience lay:
And of thy tender mercy please grant me
To find remission of iniquity

Another hymn Neale attributes to St. Andrew focusses on the spiritual struggle of the Christian during Lent. The words address us (“Christian”) by first calling our attention to “them” – the “powers of darkness” exploiting the passions, or sinful tendencies, in all of us. Being even aware that there are spiritual forces working against us is necessary to fighting back. Sadly, even though St. Paul himself reminds us that our struggle is against the spiritual forces of evil (Eph 6:12) and St. Peter reminds us that our enemy, the devil, prowls like a lion looking for someone to devour (1 Pet 5:8), we all too often forget these powers even exist, much less that they keep us constant company. The hymn goes on to remind us that the weapon that will defeat our enemy is the Holy Cross, and the way that we wield that weapon is to “watch and pray and fast,” that is, to put to death the passions within us through self-denial and turning our will and obedience wholly to God. St. Peter, too, admonishes us to “be sober-minded and watchful,” for after we have suffered a little while, the God of all grace “will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish us” (1 Pet 5:8,10), a promise highlighted in the last stanza of the hymn.

Christian, dost thou see them
On the holy ground,
How the powers of darkness
Compass thee around?
Christian, up and smite them,
Counting gain but loss,
In the strength that cometh
By the Holy Cross!

Christian, dost thou feel them,
How they work within:
Striving, tempting, luring,
Goading into sin?
Christian, never tremble!
Never be down-cast!
Gird thee for the battle;
Watch and pray and fast.

Christian, dost thou hear them,
How they speak thee fair –
“Always fast and vigil?
Always watch and prayer?”
Christian, answer boldly:
“While I breathe, I pray!”
Peace shall follow battle,
Night shall end in day.

“Well I know thy trouble,
O my servant true.
Thou art very weary –
I was weary, too.
But that toil shall make thee
Some day all mine own:
And the end of sorrow
Shall be near my Throne.”

Repentance is necessary for spiritual struggle, and any fruitful spiritual struggle will necessarily involve repentance. These two themes are emphasized so strongly during Lent because they are so important. They are the method by which we continually die to ourselves so that we may live in Christ. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

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