Sunday, January 22, 2006

Arabia's desert ranger

There's a superb Epiphany hymn written in 1821 by James Montgomery (1771-1854) that begins "Hail to the Lord's Anointed". We should have sung it last week (which was the second sunday of Epiphany), and, indeed, we did sing some of it: those verses of it that have survived into the New English Hymnal.
There were eight verses in the original hymn. They'd already been hacked about in most hymn books, even before the NEH came on the scene. For instance, the English Hymnal, which includes more of the original than most recent books, had omitted verse 3 and amalgamated the first half of verse 6 with the first half of verse 7 (to make a composite verse, omitting four lines of verse 6 and four lines of verse 7). It did, however, keep in the whole of the very beautiful verse 5, which begins "Arabia's desert ranger to him shall bow the knee". It's that verse I want to write about here.
You can find the original 1821 verses by Montgomery in full on the Cyberhymnal link given here (but note that the tune there is not the one we usually sing!).
The hymn is a paraphrase, quite a close paraphrase, of psalm 72 'Give the king thy judgements, O God' (which is a psalm we always sing around Epiphany. It's set for the principal service on Epiphany itself in the Common Worship Lectionary). The first two lines of the hymn ("Hail to the Lord's Anointed, Great David's greater son!") pick up on the opening of the psalm, "Give the King thy judgements, O God : and thy righteousness unto the King's son", the King here being King David, and the King's Son being Christ ("The Anointed")—he, of course, being of the house and lineage of David. The paraphrase gets closer as the hymn goes on: "He shall keep the simple folk by their right : defend the children of the poor, and punish the wrong doer" (ps 72:4) has become "He comes in succour speedy to those who suffer wrong; To help the poor and needy, And bid the weak be strong," and verse 6 in the psalm ("He shall come down like the rain into a fleece of wool: even as the drops that water the earth") has become "He shall come down like showers Upon the fruitful earth" (verse 4 of the original lines as written by Montgomery).
The reason why this hymn is set for Epiphany is exactly the same reason as the reason why psalm 72 is set for Epiphany. The Christian Church has always seen in psalm 72 an uncanny prediction of the events associated with Christ's manifestation. Not only do we hear a prediction of the coming of a Son of David who will bring succour to the poor and needy, a saviour who will be a prince of peace, and one whose kingdom will be from the one sea to the other, but more particularly we hear that kings from foreign lands will come to do him worship: The kings of Tharsis and of the Isles shall give presents, says the psalmist; the kings of Arabia and Saba shall bring gifts. All kings shall fall down before him : all nations shall do him service. There and only there —never so explicitly in the Gospels— do we get the origin of the tradition of the gentiles ("all nations") arriving at the stable in Bethlehem in the form of three kings (three kings? Why, of course—one from Tharsis and the Isles (probably the Western Mediterranean identified with the settlement of Tartessus in Spain), one from Arabia (probably to be identified with the Sheba from which the Queen of Sheba came) and one from Saba which appears to be Ethiopia.)
So the psalm is a psalm about Epiphany because we read it as a foretelling of the subsequent (first century AD) discovery of Christ's kingship by visitors from all parts of the world. The hymn, Montgomery's hymn is a paraphrase of that psalm and so it too is an Epiphany hymn because it expresses in English verse the psalmist's prediction of the (first century AD) discovery of Christ's kingship by visitors from all parts of the world, and, of course, also the subsequent discovery of Christ's kingship by generations of gentiles—all of us from all the nations of the world— during the two thousand years between that date and this.
Now, of course, when we sing the psalm (and the hymn) two funny things happen to time. We place ourselves at two points in past history simultaneously. On the one hand we sing with the psalmist of a time far in the future when the poor will be relieved and a saviour will come and be hailed as the Lord's anointed. On the other hand we transport ourselves to the time of Christ's coming to earth, which we re-enact as far as possible in real time from Christmas eve to Candlemas. And as part of that re-enactment we sing of the imminent arrival of the three kings, expressed as in the immediate future—like today or tomorrow if we sing the hymn on the day it should be sung—and also of the future arrival of generations of believers in the subsequent history of the spread of Christianity. So we put ourselves back to a time before Christ's earthly ministry had begun and we look forward from that position to the "light that will lighten the gentiles". That's why it makes sense to sing, in the future tense, "Arabia's desert ranger To him shall bow the knee, The Ethiopian stranger His glory come to see: With offerings of devotion, Ships from the isles shall meet, To pour the wealth of ocean In tribute at his feet."
Perhaps that kind of reliving of the days of our redemption in real time has become slightly lost to the modern world. It's been destroyed by the lunacy of a commercial Christmas—only this year and last has it become apparent to me that you can get mince pies in the supermarkets or the bakers all through November and December, but not at all in January when Christmas has actually arrived; for then you can only get Easter eggs and hot cross buns, not mince pies or Christmas puddings. But that undermines the whole sense that we have to wait: we wait with baited breath till the moment at midnight when Christ is born and *then*, then at last, we let loose the bonds and celebrate, for twelve days—for 40 days till Candlemas—because "hodie Christus natus est" (not because he was born two thousand years ago). So perhaps that sense of living in the present through events that happened in the past, and looking forward from the present to events that are still to come in liturgical time, but are past in historical time, has been partly lost. People are confused?
I say this because it seems to me that the editors of the hymn books must be confused if they choose to cut from an Epiphany hymn the most poetic verse— the one that actually makes this hymn a hymn for Epiphany—"Arabia's desert ranger to him shall bow the knee; the Ethiopian stranger His glory come to see."
A well-educated parishioner at a previous church I used to go to once expressed concern that that verse was somehow not 'politically correct'. I was rather shocked that someone with brains could so misunderstand it. But I fear the reason it has gone from the hymn books is due to precisely such a misunderstanding. People think, presumably, that we are speaking from our own time (1821 perhaps, or 2006) and saying that (sometime in the future) some poor benighted areas of the world (Arabia and Ethiopia and so on) will come to realise that they ought to bring tribute to our preferred deity; they think we speak of them as strangers, as not one of us, and they think that we think that we got there first and that those poor foreigners have yet to wake up to what we saw first. And that all smacks of a mixture of patronising racism and cultural imperialism. Embarrassing, no? Needs the thought police to come and remove it from the collective vocabulary? That, I suppose, is what they think.
But that is a misunderstanding of the first order. Alas, it betrays a failure not only to enter into the time frame of the hymn (we sing, from a point around the end of the first century BC, about the future arrival of worshippers at the cradle of a new born king, as I just explained), but also (it betrays a failure) to realise that the Ethiopian and the Arabian are the *first* on the scene, not the last. The Ethiopian is credited with recognising the truth many many generations before Christianity reached these northern shores. We, by contrast, though we were not there yet, seek some vicarious presence in so far as we can take *their* journey to visit the Christ child as somehow standing in for us, because *we* too are included in the "all nations shall adore him". We ourselves were rather late arriving: centuries later than the people of Ethiopia. So it is not to us that the Ethiopian is a stranger, but to Jesus deep in his Jewish heartland. What is spectacular about Epiphany is that some of us, from beyond the borders, did make it there at the beginning. We white folk, latecomers though we are, look to restore our credibility through this psalm that says that we are all included somehow, all of us, the gentiles. And that is because, after all, the visitors really are not strangers to us, though they were to the little Jesus in Bethlehem.
There's no reason, of course, why anyone should not be able to read this hymn correctly. No one has any difficulty in reading the psalm on which it is based, as far as I am aware. No one takes that to say that the kings of Arabia or Ethiopia have yet to come. And when we sing it at Epiphany, placed as we are in a liturgical re-enactment, it is even less likely that we should not be able to grasp the meaning of the future tenses.
Perhaps we have got too sophisticated (too reluctant to forget chronological time and to enter afresh year by year into liturgical time). Perhaps the problem is that we sing the hymn after Epiphany (and, like the shops, we can't remember by the next day that we are still in that liturgical season). Or perhaps we just aren't encouraged in the sermons and teaching of the church really to enter into the real-time replay of past events.
But whichever the fault is, it's a sad loss. It's not something that should be resolved by cutting the verses out. It should be solved by rediscovering that innocent pleasure of going back to Bethlehem and becoming one of the three kings. The symbolism is at the very heart of what it is to be still a believer in events that took place two thousand years ago. It's not because those events happened then. It's because they happen NOW.
Post a Comment