Sunday, January 15, 2006

Lone and dreary, faint and weary

Today was a bad day for bowdlerised hymns.

Let's begin with 'lone and dreary, faint and weary, through the desert thou didst go'.

This is perhaps the greatest scandal in the New English Hymnal, and one that it seems to be curiously proud of: the editors have excised these wonderful words from one of our best loved hymns, 'Lead us heavenly father lead us', by James Edmeston (1791-1867).

In their preface the editors actually boast of the deed:
"Some may be critical of revisions and alterations which we have made in original texts. We make no apology for this except where we may have done it badly; it is a process which has long been current... Well-known and popular hymns have rarely been amended, though we felt it desirable to abandon the description of our Lord as 'lone and dreary'."
(NEH page vi)

Oh, they did, did they? And why did they feel that was desirable?

Was it because of some theological objection to the idea that the Lord could have been alone? Or that he could have felt dreary? Or that he could have felt faint? Or that he could have felt weary?

But the hymn is precisely making the point that Our Lord not only could, but did, feel 'our keenest woe'. He was not immune from those sad times, and indeed when he went out into the desert it was precisely to experience the very depths of temptation. "All our weakness thou didst know..." : that bit we are still allowed to sing. But if Our Lord knew 'all our weakness' then he was allowed to feel what we feel (lone when alone, dreary when things are not going right and so on and so forth).

There's a variety of docetic heresy that attempts to protect the genuine (divine) Christ from undergoing any of the more human sufferings. In its extreme form the docetic heretics tried to maintain that Christ did not really suffer and die on the cross: it was only an effigy or human counterpart that did that, and "appeared" to the bystanders to be Jesus, but God the real God had retreated and got out before that happened. The reason for thinking that was that it seemed improper or unseemly for what is genuinely divine and all-powerful to be reduced to such weakness and indignity. Such a god would have emptied himself of all that the godhead is by definition, and hence he would no longer be god. Some other parts of the traditional story of Jesus (the agony in the garden, the temptations in the wilderness) also came to be explained away by such docetic thinkers, because they seemed to be unsuitable for the divine saviour.
Apparently the editors of the New English Hymnal share that view.

But that is odd. For the central part of the hymn is wholly incompatible with their docetic understanding of Christ's saving grace. The hymn is a trinitarian prayer: the first verse is addressed to God the Father ('lead us heavenly Father, lead us'); the second verse is addressed to God the Son ('saviour, breathe forgiveness o'er us...'); the third verse to the Holy Spirit ('Spirit of our God descending...'). But the middle verse is a succinct account of the orthodox understanding of the significance of the incarnation: it is a prayer for forgiveness, based on the idea that Christ is in a position to grant us forgiveness for our failings, precisely because he went through what we go through, because he did tread this earth before us. And not only did he tread this earth, but he trod it as one of us, and felt the very depths of human despair. He can forgive because he knows what it was like. That is what gives him the authority which he could never have if he had not been through it: he can speak for us, he can take our nature upon him in all its weakness, and that's how he can redeem it. If he doesn't take it upon him he cannot redeem it: that's the point of the orthodox understanding of the incarnation as a real 'becoming human', not a superficial appearing as if a human being.

So it's a puzzle why the editors keep verse 2 in at all, since it is entirely about the fact that Christ knew all our weakness. If they don't like that, then they should scrap the hymn altogether. And it's not obvious why one should be fussy about 'lone and dreary' if one believes in truth that he knew all our weakness, that he was 'lone and dreary' in just the way we are—indeed even more so than we usually are, presumably. That's precisely the point, and that's why those striking words are exactly what we need.

Well, that's what was right about the proper words. Now for what's wrong with the words that they have seen fit to put in their place. Prepare yourself...
"Self denying, death defying, Thou to Calvary didst go."

Remember that this verse is a plea for forgiveness from a saviour who has felt all our weakness. The reason why he can forgive is that he has been through it: he knows what it is like to feel as we do. The last two lines need to continue the theme of Christ's identification with our weakness in temptation.

What do we get instead? "Self-denying"?

But that's just exactly what will not do.

It is not because he was self-denying that he can understand our inability to resist.

No it was because he was tempted, because he did feel the pull of desire, not because he resisted.

Okay, so he did succeed in resisting, but not without experiencing the real thing: that's the point of the hymn. So, no marks for that phrase. It is just way off the point.

"Death defying"?

But that's precisely where he isn't in it with us. It is not in defying death that Christ identifies with us in our human weakness. It is succumbing to death, in genuinely dying on the cross (not that Edmeston was, as it happens talking about Calvary, but let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that we are bringing Calvary into it...) it is in his vulnerability to death that he experiences our very weakness. That's not achieved by his overcoming death, but rather by his being genuinely put to death on the cross: he went through even that. He knows what it is, even to the point of understanding our vulnerability to death. That is true, and would be relevant.

But, alas, it is not what the substitute lines provide.

No. Unfortunately they send us off to the very opposite, to an aspect of Christ's divine nature, his defeat of death, an aspect which is utterly irrelevant to the sentiment required to complete this verse of the hymn.

"Thou to Calvary didst go."
Well, Edmeston was not talking about Calvary. He was talking about Christ's earthly life, his humdrum daily existence as an ordinary man, and particularly his terrifying experience in the wilderness as a young man before he embarked on his ministry and his journey to death. Of course it would be okay to talk about Calvary, but it wouldn't be very helpful, because (after all) most of us are not, right now, being faced with crucifixion. When we gain comfort from the thought that Christ understands our difficulties, and that we can seek forgiveness because he feels what it is like for us to be weak in the face of misery and loneliness, the relevant thing is the temptations: the weakness that is part of the human condition, what it is to 'tread this earth' as a human being. It is not in the unusual punishments, but in the weakness of the flesh, that we see Christ as having a fully human nature.

The New English Hymnal recommends this hymn for Epiphany 2. Funny that. I suppose it is because it talks about Our Lord going out into the desert at the beginning of his life as a young man, discovering his destiny. We've got to that stage in tracing Our Lord's manifestation. What the editors seem to have failed to notice is that in their new version the hymn isn't about that any more.

How sad. How sad. And only a single obelus, for all that damage to a fine hymn.
How sad.
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