Father, we thank thee who hast planted

Thinking this week about the Pascha nostrum put me in mind of Hymn 302, ‘Father, we thank thee who hast planted’, one of the best known hymns of Bland Tucker, whose distinguished career as a presbyter and poet in the Episcopal Church spanned much of the twentieth century and both the Hymnal 1940 and Hymnal 1982, on the committees of which he served.

The Greek text upon which the hymn is closely based comes from the Didachê tôn dôdeka apostolôn... (‘Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’), a very early book of instructions and regulations about the Church’s life and worship (it may be the earliest non-canonical writing – and the prayers with which we are concerned are thought to be particularly old, possibly predating some of the canonical New Testament – though it probably was edited and developed over some period of time, being widely circulated and absorbed into various later church orders):

But concerning the Thanksgiving (Eucharist), after this fashion give ye thanks (eucharist).
First, concerning the cup.
We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine, David thy Son,
which thou hast made known unto us through Jesus Christ thy Son;
to thee be the glory for ever.
And concerning the broken bread.
We thank thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge
which thou hast made known unto us through Jesus thy Son;
to thee be the glory for ever.
As this broken bread was once scattered on the mountains,
and after it had been brought together became one,
so may thy Church be gathered together
from the ends of the earth unto thy kingdom;
for thine is the glory, and the power, through Jesus Christ, for ever.
And let none eat or drink of your Eucharist
but such as have been baptized into the name of the Lord,
for of a truth the Lord hath said concerning this,
Give not that which is holy unto dogs.

But after it has been completed, so pray ye.
We thank thee, holy Father, for thy holy name,
which thou hast caused to dwell in our hearts,
and for the knowledge and faith and immortality
which thou hast made known unto us through Jesus thy Son;
to thee be the glory for ever.
Thou, Almighty Master,
didst create all things for the sake of thy name,
and hast given both meat and drink, for men to enjoy,
that we might give thanks unto thee,
but to us thou hast given spiritual meat and drink,
and life everlasting, through thy Son.
Above all, we thank thee that thou art able to save;
to thee be the glory for ever.
Remember, Lord, thy Church,
to redeem it from every evil, and to perfect it in thy love,
and gather it together from the four winds,
even that which has been sanctified for thy kingdom
which thou hast prepared for it;
for thine is the kingdom and the glory for ever.
Let grace come, and let this world pass away.
Hosanna to the Son of David.
If any one is holy let him come;
if any one is not, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.

     tr. Charles H. Hoole

Tucker’s hymn hews very closely to the Greek, though rearranged as follows: 10.2, 10.3, 10.5, 9.4. Tucker has cleverly extended and strengthened the agricultural metaphor, however, in two ways: first, by changing the verb ‘caused to dwell’ in 10.2 (‘dwell’ here being the same word as in the Prologue to St John’s Gospel, literally ‘to pitch a tent’) to ‘planted’ (and of course one can metaphorically ‘plant a stake’ or ‘put down roots’); second, by wrapping up ‘to us thou hast given spiritual meat and drink, and life everlasting, through thy Son’ in the neat ‘giving in Christ the Bread eternal’ (obviously derived from Jn 6).

Indeed the faithful believe that God’s Name has been planted in the human heart [Ac 17]: man is made in God’s likeness [Gn 2], and the Word of God is cast like seed, even the tiniest of all seeds [the Parable of the Sower and others]. In Christ, the shoot growing from the stump or root-stock of Jesse, the first fruits of the new life that has been growing in the unfathomable depths of God’s purposes [Mk 4.26–29; Rm 16.25; 1Co 2.7] have come forth: in this way as in others, Christ is indeed our Passover (which feast began as a celebration of the barley harvest, the first of the three summer harvest festivals of ancient Israel).

If this is true, then the image in Didachê 9.4 of scattered grain gathered to make bread is not just a nice literary turn of phrase but an apt description of God’s deep desire: that His Presence within each of us come to full fruition, be harvested, and be brought in to be joined in the one Body (as the Bread is the One Body). And thus it is Christians’ calling, as those who share in Christ’s ‘first-fruits-ness’ [Rm 8.23; 2Th 2.13; Jm 1.18], to tend this tender life, both in themselves and in others. By God’s grace the faithful help to proclaim the very existence of the Word, to survey the overgrown field of the heart. As stewards of the true Husband, we water the Word in Holy Baptism and feed it in the Holy Eucharist. As branches of the Vine, we drink in the Light of Christ and, in a sort of divine photo­synthesis, breathe out the Holy Spirit that others may live. As laborers in the field, we uproot the weeds of vice so that the Word may grow freely, and we resist the powers that would pluck it up. As apostles and missionaries (both of which words mean ‘those who are sent out’), we scatter, and we gather. And just as the harvest season that begins at Pesach culminates at Sukkot, the Kingdom will appear in full in due time.