Friday, April 06, 2007

Who is this with garments gory?

Another thing missing from the Palm Sunday experience as I remember it at LSM in Fr James Owen's days is the magnificent hymn "Who is this with garments gory, triumphing on Bozrah's way?". It's surprising it's taken me so long to get round to writing about this one, since it's a special favourite of mine. I've just scoured various old floppy disks and aged computers to see if I could discover where I'd written about it before, since I know I've written on it at least once for a parish magazine. But nothing has shown up, so may be that I wrote it before the days of household computers.

Hymn number 108 in the old English Hymnal, set in the section for Passiontide, this hymn goes to the amazing welsh hymn tune Ebenezer, which makes it especially awesome. More about the tune anon.

Alas the hymn has quite gone from the New English Hymnal. Was it that they thought hardly anyone liked it or sang it? Or was it that they thought that we ought not to be allowed to sing it? Was it redundancy or constructive dismissal that was offered to Bishop A. Cleveland Coxe (1818-96)?

Here are his fine words, written in 1844 (more about what they mean in a minute):

Who is this with garments gory,
Triumphing from Bozrah’s way;
This that weareth robes of glory,
Bright with more than vict'ry’s ray?
Who is this unwearied comer
From his journey’s sultry length,
Trav'lling through Idumè’s summer
In the greatness of his strength?

Wherefore red in thine apparel
Like the conquerors of the earth,
And arrayed like those who carol
O’er the reeking vineyard’s mirth?
Who art thou, the valleys seeking
Where our peaceful harvests wave?
“I, in righteous anger speaking,
I, the mighty One to save.”

“I, that of the raging heathen
Trod the winepress all alone,
Now in victor garlands wreathen
Coming to redeem Mine own:
I am He with sprinkled raiment,
Glorious for My vengeance hour,
Ransoming, with priceless payment,
And delivering with power.”

Hail! All hail! Thou Lord of Glory!
Thee, our Father, Thee we own;
Abram heard not of our story,
Israel ne’er our Name hath known.
But, Redeemer, Thou hast sought us,
Thou hast heard Thy children’s wail,
Thou with Thy dear blood hast bought us:
Hail! Thou mighty Victor, hail!

I don't know what it would be like to read these lines without hearing the tune Ebenezer in your head. If you don't know it you'll need to go here.

Now, what on earth is it all about? Well the reference is to Isaiah 63.1-4 (which is a dialogue so I'm going to set it out as a dialogue here):
——Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? This that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength?
——I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save.
——Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat?
——I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment. For the day of vengeance is in my heart, and the year of my redeemed is come.

Isaiah's vision is of meeting a solitary traveller in robes stained with blood, who compares the trampling of the heathen (in Edom) with treading the grapes in a winepress and becoming sprinkled with the red of the wine. The same chapter of Isaiah goes on to speak of the need for redemption and the idea of God's mercy as well as his righteous anger. Our hymn particularly picks up again on a later passage of the chapter, namely at verses 16:
Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting.
This passage is picked up in the last verse of the hymn, with
Hail! All hail! Thou Lord of Glory!
Thee, our Father, Thee we own;
Abram heard not of our story,
Israel ne’er our Name hath known.
Now it is true that the imagery of the traveller dressed in scarlet robes soaked in blood, and of the one who treads the winepress all alone is evocative of all sorts of Christian themes. By using these motifs on Palm Sunday we evoke the image of Christ riding into Jerusalem in triumph. By using them at passiontide we evoke the imagery of Christ clothed in a purple robe and spattered with his own blood during the trial and crucifixion, the use of wine to stand in for blood recalls the famous words at the last supper when Christ presents his own blood in the form of wine, and the idea that he trod the winepress all alone is evocative of the salvation that he wrought in solitary agony on the cross. But in my view Cleveland Coxe's hymn picks up another aspect of the Isaiah imagery: I think the hymn is really written with a view to the last judgement, and not to the passiontide imagery that is so vivid in the Isaiah reading itself. Isn't this really an Advent hymn, and isn't it supposed to be about the second coming of Christ in glory?

Take a look at verse one:
Who is this with garments gory,
Triumphing from Bozrah’s way;
This that weareth robes of glory,
Bright with more than vict'ry’s ray?
Who is this unwearied comer
From his journey’s sultry length,
Trav'lling through Idumè’s summer
In the greatness of his strength?
Imagine we are encountering Christ returning at the second coming. How do we tell that this is really the Christ we are to expect? His robes of glory are bright with more than victory's ray: the stranger at the second coming has something divine about him. This is more than just a human traveller. It is an unwearied comer, one who is not worn down by the long and sultry journey. He has a superhuman strength.
But why is he on Bozrah's way, and why has he travelled through Idumè's summer? Bozrah is a city of Edom, and Idume, alias Idumaea, is another word for Edom. Edom is the place where the Gentiles live, and it is upon them that the wrath of the stranger has been falling. He has been trampling them under his feet, and it is with their blood that he is spattered. This is an image of a judgemental God dealing out just punishment to those who are not his own chosen people.
But then as the hymn proceeds (picking up all the time motifs from Isaiah's chapter) the image of a vengeful God is transformed into the image of a merciful God whose robe is soaked in his own blood as he pays the priceless ransom for those who did not deserve to be saved. First he says he is returning to redeem his own people after treading the winepress of the heathen; from this we would think that his sprinkled raiment is sprinkled with the blood of the heathen, but the "priceless payment" begins to make us think again:

“I, that of the raging heathen
Trod the winepress all alone,
Now in victor garlands wreathen
Coming to redeem Mine own:
I am He with sprinkled raiment,
Glorious for My vengeance hour,
Ransoming, with priceless payment,
And delivering with power.”


Now, using Isaiah's words, we respond to the fact that we find ourselves unexpectedly included in Christ's priceless redemption: so Abraham had never heard of our story (what story is that: the Christian story?) and Israel never knew our name. We are not of the tribe of Israel, but suddenly we see that God is our father all the same, and that we have been redeemed by this strange man in the blood-soaked garment. Now we wonder, what was that act of treading the winepress all alone? Was it vengeful destruction? No: it turns out that Christ had gone out to the heathen to redeem them with his own blood not theirs. Thou with thy dear blood hast bought us... That is the victory we hail, not a victory over the heathen, not judgement upon them, but redemption for them by the shedding of the victor's own blood. Christ returns from his lonely journey, but the blood with which he is stained is actually his own, and the people he has redeemed are not the ones we expected, but include even those of us who did not belong to the chosen tribes of Israel and who have done nothing to deserve it.

Now why has this extraordinarily well-written and evocative hymn gone from the hymn book? One possibility is that it had fallen into disuse, perhaps through misunderstanding. Another is that we are not allowed to have hymns that repay study and cannot be fully understood without quite a lot of biblical knowledge and theological sophistication. A third is that the editors of the hymn book themselves couldn't understand what this was about and thought that it was gruesome and/or offensive to the heathen. They have (as we have previously noticed) an aversion to the notion of the 'heathen' so I guess they read (or misread) verse 3 of this hymn as expressing some kind of prejudice.

I was going to say something about the hymn "Who is this so weak and helpless?" here as well, but the entry seems rather long. so I'll make that another one.
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