Sunday, February 17, 2008

A thing most wonderful

This year, unusually, I was at Little St Mary's on Ash Wednesday, and we sang the hymn that begins "It is a thing most wonderful". Unfortunately we sang the badly corrupted version of it that appears in the New English Hymnal, so I was not sure whether to be delighted (because it's one of my favourite hymns that I first learnt at Little St Mary's in the good old days before they burned their copies of the English Hymnal) or to be distressed because it was so far from being the hymn I knew and loved.

The original words are by Bishop W.W. How, from his Children's Hymns of 1872. They were included in the English Hymnal under the "At Catechism" section, but evidently their success at conveying some profound theology by way of childish words has earned them a place in the grown-up repertoire too, and they now figure in the passiontide section of the NEH.


Or rather a sadly debased construction appears there, attributed quite unfairly to W.W. How (without any obelus at all). It looks as if they suppose that if you leave out the verses that had asterisks in the English Hymnal you have not done any damage to the hymn. But of course, it might be that if you leave both the asterisked verses out, the hymn doesn't really say much any more, or indeed doesn't actually make sense.


Here's how the verses should go:

1 It is a thing most wonderful,
Almost too wonderful to be,
That God’s own Son should come from Heav’n,
And die to save a child like me.

2 And yet I know that it is true;
He chose a poor and humble lot,
And wept, and toiled, and mourned, and died,
For love of those who loved Him not.

3 I cannot tell how He could love
A child so weak and full of sin;
His love must be most wonderful,
If He could die my love to win.

4 I sometimes think about the cross,
And shut my eyes, and try to see
The cruel nails and crown of thorns,
And Jesus crucified for me.

5 But even could I see Him die,
I could but see a little part
Of that great love, which, like a fire,
Is always burning in His heart.

6 It is most wonderful to know
His love for me so free and sure;
But ’tis more wonderful to see
My love for Him so faint and poor.

7 And yet I want to love Thee, Lord;
Oh, light the flame within my heart,
And I will love Thee more and more,
Until I see Thee as Thou art.


The important thing to notice here is the progression between verse 4 and verse 5. When verse 5 says "But even could I see him die", it refers back to the imaginary attempt to see him die described in verse 4 ("I sometimes... shut my eyes and try to see"). Without that, the idea that "even if I could see him, it would be only a small part" makes no sense. Alas, verse 4 has gone from the NEH.

You could almost make some sense of it if you had verse 3 instead ("His love must be most wonderful, if he could die my love to win") because then there's some progression to thinking that in reality the love is even more wonderful than just what the death alone reveals. But, alas, verse 3 has gone too.

But still, even if you had verse 3, too much is lost if you don't precede verse 5 with the vision in verse 4 of what it would be like to undergo the cruel nails and crown of thorns. For it is those—importantly, those terrible things— that would be only a small part of the real love, the real love that we can't see even if we successfully imagine the crucifixion in all its excruciating misery.

So, although the rest of the hymn, apart from verses 3 and 4, is there intact at 84 in the NEH, it seems as if the heart of it has been amputated. What is the good of verse 5 if all you've got is the trivial stuff mentioned in verse 2 "And wept and toiled and mourned and died" as the antecedent of "But even could I see him die"? There's nothing there to ground the argument that the love that we inevitably can't see is so immense, given that what we can see, when we try hard and use our imagination to its uttermost, is just a small part of it.

Another sad case.

I mean, what's so wrong with leaving all How's verses in and supplying the asterisks, in case anyone feels queasy about it? I assume there's some ideological queasiness at work here, no?


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