Sunday, November 05, 2006

Mocked, imprisoned, stoned, tormented, sawn asunder, slain with sword

Ah lovely words, how they capture the true agony and all the gory details of the lives and deaths of the saints we celebrate around this time!

How could anyone think that the hymn "Hark the sound of holy voices" is better without these graphic images? It beats me.

But these are, I am afraid, among the many wonderful things that we have lost in the so-called "progess" of changing to the New English Hymnal.

Here's what we used to sing:

They have come from tribulation and have washed their robes in blood,
Washed them in the blood of Jesus; tried they were, and firm they stood;
Mocked, imprisoned, stoned, tormented, sawn asunder, slain with sword,
They have conquered death and Satan by the might of Christ the Lord.

Marching with thy Cross their banner, they have triumphed following
Thee, the captain of salvation, thee, their Saviour and their King;
Gladly, Lord, with thee they suffered; gladly, Lord, with thee they died,
And by death to life immortal they were born and glorified.
Fine words, written by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth (1807-85), author of Songs of Thankfulness and praise, and Gracious Spirit Holy Ghost among others. They're important words too. Partly they are important because they remind us that being a saint is not all fun, and that it requires a certain degree of courage and, indeed, determination. But also important poetically and for the sense because, look, "Gladly Lord with thee they suffered, gladly, Lord, with thee they died" is meant to alert us to the fact that despite the terrible sufferings and terrifying kinds of death they endured (about which we have just sung in the previous verse) nevertheless they were, in a curious way, doing so gladly, and that was because they did it "with thee", following the banner of Christ who had suffered just such a gruesome and terrifying death and thus provided the leadership. But really, we lose the sense of how miraculous this is, how it constitutes a triumph, if we don't actually mention the terrible things they were afflicted with.

For we don't really mention them—not so as to conjure up what they were really like—in the New English Hymnal. That's because we sing this (with four lines missing, two from verse 3 and two from verse 4):

They have come from tribulation and have washed their robes in blood,
Washed them in the blood of Jesus; tried they were, and firm they stood;

Gladly, Lord, with thee they suffered; gladly, Lord, with thee they died,
And by death to life immortal they were born and glorified.


We don't mention the details because they are too gruesome? We want our saints cleaned up? We'd rather not remember how the Church was built upon the blood of the martyrs? And, presumably, we don't like the military imagery of "marching with thy cross their banner". (Let's throw out all the traditional imagery shall we? rid Christianity of all its fervour and imagination....? and then wonder why the pews are empty and everyone is going to the evangelical churches where fervour and commitment is allowed?)

And anyway, even if those lines were not vital to the sense, what is this Hymnal doing eliminating all the most entertaining bits of poetry, that bring a smile of wonder to the face as one sings? I mean could anyone in the world beat that magnificent line "Mocked, imprisoned, stoned, tormented, sawn asunder, slain with sword"? If we never get to sing that any more, won't we have lost one of the greatest bits of tragi-comedy in the hymn book?
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