Beneath the Cross of Jesus: A hymn festival for Lent
Every year, during the season of Lent, the six RCA congregations in New York's Upper Ron-dout Valley (Claryville Reformed Church, Ellen-ville Reformed Church, Grahamsville Reformed Church, the Federated Church of Kerhonkson, Woodbourne Reformed Church, and the Community Church of Wurts-boro) share in a series of Sunday evening liturgies where we try varied approaches to proclaiming the Word. In 1995, that series included a simple meal followed by the celebration of the Lord's Supper, a dramatic presentation of the Passion narrative in Mark, handbell music, a sermon by the Rev. Dr. E. Elizabeth Johnson, professor of New Testament and Greek at New Brunswick Seminary, and this hymn festival.
The assignment was to prepare a festival on the theme of the cross and to make use of traditional and familiar hymns. I also used some less familiar hymns from various periods, a combined choir, and a guitarist. The principle job of the choir was to lead the congregation in singing, standing, sitting, and so forth. The festival was well attended and well received, though there was some concern about the length (it ran just over eighty minutes). That could easily be solved, I think, without significantly disturbing the flow of the service, by leaving out section four, "The Pattern of Our Faith."
All the hymns were printed (with permission) in a program booklet, since they came from various sources. In addition to the usual hymnals listed in RW services (PsH, PH, SFL, RL, TH), hymns were chosen from New Songs of Rejoicing (NSR), Selah Publishing Co., 1994, and Westminster Praise (WP), Hinshaw Publishing Co., 1976.
Let us worship God.
Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
[Reading from Romans 5:8-11]
May the God of peace sanctify you entirely.
The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
Good evening, and welcome to this evening's hymn festival. The image of the cross has always been one of the most powerful in the Christian faith; a cursory survey of just half a dozen hymnals in contemporary use turned up nearly sixty hymns that addressed the subject. We view the cross as a historical event, as the physical place on which our Lord Jesus suffered and died, and as the symbol of the divine paradox of Christ's humiliation simultaneous with God's ultimate victory. We also speak of the cross figuratively as a pattern for our faith, remembering the command to take up our own cross and follow Christ, and we display this once hated and dreaded symbol as a sign of our own glory as Christians.
All of this evening's hymns address these four theological concepts that the cross represents. The hymns will be our reflection upon Scripture, our prayers, and our faithful response. Several hymns will be quite familiar, while others will be familiar texts to new tunes, so that we might contemplate the hymns in fresh ways, or new words to melodies we know. A few will be completely new to us, and we will explore them together this evening. We will begin by standing and singing an old friend, "Beneath the Cross of Jesus," to the tune ST. CHRISTOPHER.
Hymn: "Beneath the Cross of Jesus" PH 92, RL 310, 311, TH 251
THE CENTER OF HISTORY
"The crucifixion is the undoing of creation." That is how hymn writer Carl Daw explains the attitude of the third hymn in this section, which contrasts this "great reverse" to all of the other shadows that might darken our lives. The Creator is being killed by the creatures; there is darkness in defiance of the first creative act, an earthquake that calls earth's firmness into question, and the tearing of the temple veil breaking the ancient barrier between human and divine.
As we approach the cross, we must first address the horror of this historic reality and our place in it. We begin with an old and haunting spiritual, and then, after the reading, a nineteenth-century Passiontide hymn, followed by Carl Daw's hymn, set to the tune CARDINAL by William Rowan. While this tune is difficult and tugs at the ear a bit, it also gives tonal color to the scene so ably sketched by the text.
We are there at the cross and the tomb. Jesus our Lord is crucified!
Hymn: "Were You There" PsH PsH 377, PH 102, TH 260
st. 1: soloist and choir
st. 2-3: all
Scripture: Matthew 27:32-56
Hymn: "Come to the Place of Grief and Shame" RL 302
Hymn: "How Shallow Former Shadows Seem" NSR 33
THE PARADOX OF SALVATION
As the final phrase of that last hymn indicates, the tragedy of the cross can never entirely be separated from the triumph. John's gospel lives with the paradox of salvation in the many instances where it refers to Jesus being "lifted up": a crucified man is, literally, lifted up into the air on his cross, but Jesus, John knew, was also being exalted as the King he truly was, and, to the first-century mind, when Christ was lifted up, he also moved closer to his heavenly home. To lose by human standards was divine victory, for the moment when Christ died on the cross was the moment when Satan had no more claim on humankind.
We will sing three hymns that address this paradox. The second hymn, by Herbert O'Driscoll, with its tune by Alfred Fedak, discusses the salvation of the cross with a fable. The third adds a refrain and a note of personal conversion to one of Isaac Watts's classic hymns. But it is the first hymn, one of the oldest surviving in contemporary use, that is most explicit.
"The Royal Banners Forward Go" was first sung on November 19th, A.D. 568, when relics of the true cross were brought to the monastery in Poitiers, France. It was written by Venantius Honorius Fortunatus for that occasion, and certainly sung in plainchant to a tune very much like VEXILLA REGIS, which we will use this evening. The cantor will sing the verses; please join in on the antiphon when you hear it introduced on the organ.
Hymn: "The Royal Banners Forward Go" RL 286, 287
[cantor sings verses in plainchant; all sing antiphon]
Scripture: John 12:20-33
Hymn: "Three Tall Trees Grew on a Windy Hill" NSR 32
Hymn: "Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed"PsH 385, PH 78, TH 254
THE PATTERN OF OUR FAITH
In the letter of James we read "faith without works is dead." Salvation cannot survive in our spirits if we do not allow it to make a difference in our lives. What's more, if we dare to take up the way of our Lord Jesus, the world will treat us much as it treated him; that is why Christ said that if we are to be disciples, we, too, must take up our crosses, we must live with the pains and difficulties of Christian living in this world.
The three hymns we are about to sing speak to us of the pain that is heaped upon us when we answer the call of discipleship. The first, a Hungarian hymn written during the height of Communist oppression in Eastern Europe, draws a parallel between the cross and the life-giving tree of wisdom in the story of Eden and reminds us that, in death, we find life. The second, written at about the same time in this country and sung to an Appalachian tune, calls us to see the crosses all around us needing to be lifted, and the third is an old friend to many of us, reminding us that in our self-emptying, we will find our true glory.
Hymn: "There in God's Garden" by P. K. Imre (para. E. Routley) RL 307 (Also available as a concertato by K. Lee Scott, © 1987, MorningStar Music Publishers)
Scripture: Philippians 2:4-11
Hymn: "Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service"PsH 603 PH 427
[unison; with guitar]
Hymn: "In the Cross of Christ I Glory" PsH 474, PH 84, RL 297
Offertory: Choir sings "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" WP 23 (to the tune LLEF PsH 137, TH 91); all join in singing st. 5
THE SIGN OF GLORY
"In the cross of Christ I glory." Or, as Isaac Watts expressed in the hymn we just sang—made all the more poignant by that Welsh tune—when we take up our crosses, we are dead to all the globe, and all the globe is dead to us. Even though stanza 3 is removed from many hymnals, it was, for Watts, the very heart of the text. We survey the wondrous cross and find our true glory because we abandon worldly standards in favor of the one true standard which, we know by faith, will ultimately prevail.
We think on the glory of Christ, and our glory as the body of Christ, by singing two hymns and reading two others as poetry. "Christ Is Alive! Let Christians Sing!" was written in April, 1968, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to remind us that we, as Christians, can thumb our noses at death, just as Dr. King did; the fact that the cross is empty and Christ stands before us makes this a symbol of glory. We fully comprehend the meaning of the cross and the goodness in Friday afternoon only in the light of Easter dawn.
Finally, as we began gathering beneath the cross of Jesus, seeking shelter in Christ's love for us there, we go forth singing "Lift High the Cross!" as our battle cry; we remember that evil's attempt to undo creation and usher in chaos was itself undone; far from being sent out of the world, Christ used the cross to draw in the world. The ultimate defiance of God has become the ultimate victory. Let all the world adore Christ's gracious name.
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:17-31
Hymn: "Christ Is Alive! Let Christians Sing!" PsH 413, PH 108
Reading: A single voice reads "What Are These Wounds" NSR 34
Reading: "Weary of All Trumpeting" by Martin Franzman [read by all]
Weary of all trumpeting,
weary of all killing,
weary of all songs that sing
We would raise, O Christ, one song:
we would join in singing
that great music pure and strong,
wherewith heaven is ringing.
Blessed Savior, lowly Lord,
Servant King, your dying
asked us sheathe the foolish sword,
asked us cease denying.
Trumpet with your Spirit's breath
through each height and hollow:
into your self-giving death
call us all to follow.
To the triumph of your cross
summon all the living;
summon us to live by loss,
gaining all by giving;
suffering all, that we may see
triumph in surrender;
leaving all, that we may be
partners in your splendor.
Text:© 1949, 1977 by Chantry Musk Press, Inc. Used by permission.
Hymn: "Lift High the Cross!" PsH 373, PH 371, RL 415, TH 263