Veiled in flesh

VI. Sunday of Easter

The 1902 Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in G are today one of the best known works of Stanford, a (perhaps the) leading English composer at the turn of the twentieth century; the sheer delightfulness of the music, coupled with fine craft, has kept these pieces firmly in the repertory. Given the source of these two canticles – they are sung, respectively, by the Blessed Virgin upon the occasion of her Visitation to St Elizabeth, and by St Simeon at the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, in the first and second chapters of St Luke’s Gospel – it is not unusual for composers to include solo parts for treble and men’s voices in settings of these texts.

This setting of the Magnificat, however, is set apart by its being cast as a ‘spinning song’ – a type of character piece popular in the nineteenth century in which a constant, undulating musical figure represents the rise and fall of the treadle and spinning of the wheel. Stanford’s use of this genre for the Magnificat, though charming, is no random gesture, for Our Lady has often been portrayed in art as working at spinning or sewing.

Indeed, in the Protoevangelion of James, an extracanonical early Christian text, the Blessed Virgin is said to have been weaving a veil for the Holy of Holies of the Temple at the time of the angel’s Annunciation to her:

1 Meanwhile, the priests were meeting together, saying, ‘Let us make a curtain for the temple of the Lord.’

2 And the high priest said, ‘Call the pure virgins from the tribe of David to me.’ 3 And the servants went out and sought and found seven virgins. 4 And the high priest remembered that the child Mary was from the tribe of David and was pure before God. 5 So the servants went out and got her.

6 And they brought the women into the temple of the Lord. 7 And the high priest said, ‘Cast lots to see who will spin the gold and the pure and the linen and the silk and the violet and the scarlet and the true purple threads.’

8 And Mary was appointed by lot to the true purple and scarlet threads. And taking them, she went to her house. 9 This was at the same time Zachariah fell silent and Samuel replaced him until Zachariah could speak again. 10 Mary was spinning the scarlet thread which she had taken.

1 And she took the cup and went out to fill it with water. 2 Suddenly, a voice said to her, ‘Rejoice, blessed one. The Lord is with you. You are blessed among women.’

Fanciful as that text may seem, it contains a great mystery: for that is precisely what the Theotókos did in her, and thus our, flesh (‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see’, says Wesley’s great Christmas hymn; ‘thou within the veil hast entered, robed in flesh, our great High Priest’, says Dix’s ‘Redemption by the Precious Blood’ [Hymn 460]): her womb became the Holy of Holies, the very dwelling of the divine – and that is what Christians do as well, for St Paul says, ‘Know ye not that ye are the temple [naós, the sanctuary or Holy of Holies] of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?’ [1Co 3.16]. For this reason we speak of both the Blessed Virgin and the Church as our Mother, for both are of one Body with Christ.

It is this very flesh bestowed upon Our Lord by His Mother that was willingly wounded for us, as the anthem also being sung at Evensong in my place of work (John Ireland’s ‘Greater love hath no man’, quoting, in part, today’s Gospel) and the concluding hymn for that service (Samuel Crossman’s ‘My song is love unknown’ [458], usually sung in Passiontide, but chosen here for its continuity of theme and composer) remind us. And it is this flesh, transfigured and resurrected – our heavenly wedding garment – that we don in Holy Baptism: ‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ’ [Ga 3.27].

The Vespers hymn for Eastertide, ‘Ad cenam agni providi’, explains the import for us of Christ’s self-offering:

The Lamb’s high banquet called to share,
arrayed in garments white and fair,
the Red Sea past, we now would sing
to Jesus our triumphant King.

Protected in the Paschal night
from the destroying angel’s might,
in triumph went the ransomed free
from Pharaoh’s cruel tyranny.

Now Christ our Passover is slain,
the Lamb of God without a stain;
his flesh, the true unleavened bread,
is freely offered in our stead.

O all-sufficient Sacrifice,
beneath thee hell defeated lies;
thy captive people are set free,
and endless life restored in thee.

All praise be thine, O risen Lord,
from death to endless life restored;
all praise to God the Father be
and Holy Ghost eternally.

The hymn places us at the Great Vigil of Easter, at which the accounts of the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea from the book of Exodus are read and interpreted as figures of Christ’s sacrifice and our deliverance from sin and death, and these events, both singular and eternal, are experienced liturgically, in the present moment, in the Sacraments of Baptism (thus the reference to the white baptismal robes and the sea) and the Eucharist (the ‘banquet’ of the hymn’s first line). The neophytes await the Eucharistic banquet in the present moment; all the baptized await the eternal marriage supper of the Lamb described in the Revelation to St John [19.9]. The Israelites were saved in the Passover night and crossed the water into freedom; the neophytes and we are they (the original Latin is clearer on this point), experiencing the same liberation from the forces of evil. Christ is the Passover Lamb, the pure sacrificial victim, ‘slain before the foundation of the world’ [Rv 13.8], an eternal offering to God on our behalf; but as a perfect and willing victim, He is also victor over the powers of death, and, conformed to Him in sacrament and manner of life, we share in His triumph.

Finally, as the Church affirms in its Creeds, Eucharistic Prayers, Litanies, and hymns, and celebrates this Thursday, it is this wounded and thereby glorified flesh that is taken to the very throne of God in Christ’s Ascension –

q What do we mean when we say that he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father?
a We mean that Jesus took our human nature into heaven where he now reigns with the Father and intercedes for us.
     Catechism [bcp 850]

Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.
     IV. Article of Religion [bcp 868]

– and, as we will sing next Sunday, it is a pledge of the glory that awaits us:

Thou hast raised our human nature
     on the clouds to God’s right hand:
there we sit in heavenly places,
     there with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
     Man with God is on the throne;
mighty Lord, in thine ascension,
     we by faith behold our own.