Glorious things of thee are spoken

This past Sunday’s selection of ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’ as a Communion hymn brought expressions of surprise among some members of my parish choir, who (thinking especially of its setting to Haydn’s famous music) termed it ‘march-like’, even ‘martial’, and implied that it was a puzzling and perhaps even unsuitable choice. But this hymn is not only suited for Communion, but is particularly so at this time of year.

‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’ was written by John Newton, slave-ship captain turned Anglican clergyman, abolitionist, and hymnist (he was also the author of ‘Amazing grace’ and ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds’).

In its original publication, the hymn is entitled ‘The City of God’, and this passage is inscribed above it:

Look on Zion, the city of our appointed festivals!
     Your eyes will see Jerusalem,
     a quiet habitation, an immovable tent,
whose stakes will never be pulled up,
     and none of whose ropes will be broken.
But there the Lord in majesty will be for us
     a place of broad rivers and streams,
where no galley with oars can go,
     nor stately ship can pass.
     Is 33.20–21

The hymn itself is, like the best hymns, absolutely steeped in Scripture (the annotations show only the most direct sources of the images, many of which echo throughout the Scriptures):

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
     Zion, city of our God! [Ps 87.3]
He, whose Word cannot be broken,
     formed thee for His own abode. [Ps 132.14]
On the Rock of Ages* founded, [Is 26.4–5]
     what can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded, [Is 60.18]
     thou may’st smile at all thy foes.

See! the streams of living waters, [Ek 47.1]
     springing from eternal love,
well supply thy sons and daughters [Ps 46.4]
     and all fear of want remove:
who can faint while such a river [Rv 22.1]
     ever flows their thirst t’assuage? –
grace, which like the Lord, the giver,
     never fails from age to age.

Round each habitation hovering,
     see the cloud and fire appear
for a glory and a covering,
     showing that the Lord is near.
Thus deriving from our banner
     light by night and shade by day, [Ex 13]
safe they feed upon the manna
     which He gives them when they pray. [Ex 16]

Blest inhabitants of Zion,
     washed in the Redeemer’s blood! [Rv 7.14]
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
     makes them kings and priests to God. [Ex 19.6; 1P 2.9; Rv 1.5–6; Rv 5.10]
’Tis His love His people raises
     over self to reign as kings,
and as priests, His solemn praises
     each for a thank offering brings. [Lv 7]

The hymn is thus, as its title suggests, a depiction of heaven, which we experience here and now most fully through the Church and her Sacraments (at least when the Church is being true to her calling). Zion is the mountain on which the city of Jerusalem is built; the vision of the heavenly realm as a ‘New Jerusalem’ is very prominent in the Hebrew prophets and in the Revelation to St John. In Holy Baptism we experience the ‘living waters’ of God’s grace: an image found all over the Scriptures which grew up in a desert land, from the rivers flowing from Eden [Gn 2.6, 10–14] and from the Throne of God [Rv 22.1–2; Ek 47.1–12], to the water that flowed from the rock in the wilderness when Moses struck it with his staff [Ex 17.6; Ps 78.20; Is 48.21; 1Co 10.3–4], to Our Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well [Jn 4] and His invitation to the thirsty [Jn 7; cf. Is 55.1].

The manna (the substance sent by the Lord to feed the Israelites in the desert of the Exodus) is the Body of Christ made present in the bread of the Eucharist. And the Eucharist (which means ‘thanksgiving’) is indeed our thank offering, which we, the ‘royal priesthood’, bring before God. Even the pillars of cloud and fire signifying the presence, leadership, and protection of the Lord during the Exodus are present in the Church’s liturgy: for what else is the Paschal Candle and the smoke rising from it, or from the burning of incense? The celebration of the Sacraments in the Church’s liturgy makes present these heavenly realities, makes manifest the Glory of God, and – even if we only glimpse this for a fleeting second – the Church, and we as members of it, become who we truly are (one is reminded of St Augustine’s famous instruction to neophytes concerning the reception of the Body and Blood: Estote quod videtis, et accipite quod estis, ‘Be what you see, and receive what you are’ [Sermon 272]).

In the preceding entry on the Transfiguration (6 August), I discussed the fact that we are in the part of the Church’s year corresponding to the Jewish feast of Sukkoth (‘Booths’ or ‘Tabernacles’: the ‘habitations’ of the hymn); that the Transfiguration and Sukkoth both connect to Holy Cross Day (14 September); and that all of the above begin to point the way to the (final) Advent of Our Lord. Indeed, as I will write, Psalms 87 and 46, both quoted in this hymn, are the Psalms appointed for First Evensong of Holy Cross Day, and the visions of living waters and the City of God are very much part of the reconciliation wrought by Christ on the cross. A glance at the news will confirm that it is none too soon to look and long for signs of God’s gracious Kingdom, as the Transfiguration and Holy Cross Day, and later Thanksgiving Day, begin to point the way to the Feast and Person of Christ the King and His Advent.

The musical setting in question was written by Haydn (who was, after all, a court composer) to serve as a national anthem for the Austrian empire, with the opening phrase possibly taken from a Croatian folk-song; the composer was fond of it and used it as the theme for a set of variations in one of his string quartets and then arranged that piece for piano. Its subsequent employment as the musical setting of the anthem of National Socialist Germany made it, quite understandably, fall out of favor in the Anglophone sphere during and after the Second World War, and a new tune, ‘Abbot’s Leigh’, was written for this text (the Hymnal 1982 prints this tune with this text at 523, as well as with two other texts, and it is commonly used with still others). Perhaps in the twenty-first century, though, we can hear Haydn’s sturdy and stirring music afresh and it can once again serve Newton’s fine hymn, which reminds us that our true fealty is due to no earthly emperor of either Newton’s and Haydn’s day or our own, but rather to the King of Kings, who shows us the kind of ‘kings and priests’ we are to be: priests who sacrifice themselves, not victims or scapegoats; kings who serve the least and lowest.

*  ‘Rock of ages’ is the literal rendering of the typically vivid and concrete Hebrew epithet for the Lord in Is 26.5, translated ‘everlasting strength’ in the kjv. The Lord is the Rock; Christ is the Rock; but in Sunday’s Gospel we also learned that St Peter – or his recognition and confession of Jesus as the Messiah – is also the Rock upon which the Church is built. And we too are living stones joined to the Cornerstone (see, once again, Ps 118 [quoted many times in the New Testament], as well as Is 28.6 and Ep 2.19–22 [read on the Eve of Holy Cross Day]).