March 7, 2014 § 1 Comment
Hymn 145, Hymnal 1982
Words: The Very Reverend Percival Dearmer (1867-1936)
Music: Besançon carol “Quittez, Pasteurs”, harmony by Martin Shaw (1875-1958)
It seems that many think of Lent as a time of denial, or penitence, of giving up foods and actions even the use of “Alleluia”. And indeed our liturgy reflects this time of self-reflection and fasting. Just yesterday we were called “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
It would not surprise you to note that many of our Lenten hymns reiterate this “reflection” and “repentance” theme. Phrases like “wilt thou forgive” and “ [Christ] himself has fasted and has prayed” and “teach us to mourn our sins” and “grant that we in penitence may offer you our praise” and various other hymns entreating us to “keep vigil with our heavenly Lord in his temptation and his fast” are found throughout this section of the hymnal. In fact there may be more cheer getting a paper cut or stubbing your toe than in a lot of hymns.
This indeed is only half of the true meaning of Lent. The other half is one wherein we turn our focus from inward reflection and preparation to one of outward action in the world helping those in need—putting action to our words rather than just reflection. That is not to say the reflection is not important—but it is likely that it is fulfilled in action. One hymn, and one hymn only in our traditional Lenten section pulls us out of the inward reflection and puts us into the world’s need for help and justice, and that is Hymn 141.
The text was written by The Very Reverend Percival Dearmer, an English priest born in 1867 in Kilburn, England. A member of the Alcuin Club (an Anglican organization dedicated to preserving church liturgy) he is best known for his work on the Parson’s Handbook which had the intent of offering Anglo-Catholic liturgical practices and worship that were compatible and complementary to the Book of Common Prayer. He implemented much of the liturgy in a London parish well known to us, St. Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill, where he was serving as Vicar.
In 1906, working with greats like Ralph Vaughn Williams, he published The English Hymnal. In 1926, the two were joined by Martin Shaw (the person who arranged the tune we use for this hymn) to produce Songs of Praise and, in 1928, the Oxford Book of Carols.
After serving 15 years at St. Mary the Virgin, he became a volunteer and activist. He served with the Red Cross in World War I with his first wife (who died in service). He then worked with the YMCA in France and later worked with Mission of Help in India. He married a second time to Nancy Knowles.
He was avid socialist who served as Secretary of the Christian Social Union for eleven years. He incorporated a lot of his socialism in his writing and teaching in what he called a “Litany of Labor” which was incorporated in his handbook for communicants called The Sanctuary. He was appointed canon of Westminster Abbey in 1931 and used his position to run a soup kitchen for the unemployed. In 1936 he died and was buried in the Great Cloister at Westminster Abbey.
Looking at Dearmer’s background, one can see his call to action and social justice reflected in this hymn. The text is based on Isaiah 58:5-12 (text below), and was set to a French Christmas carol called “Quittez, pasteurs”. I would be remiss if I didn’t say, that’s probably why it is also one of the few “cheery” hymns we have for Lent.
The text, and indeed the passage from which it is pulled call us from the fast and ashes into actions of social justice: to break the yokes of oppression, to feed the hungry and house the homeless, to clothe the naked and to reconcile with family. In so many words, Isaiah writes that if we fast and do not do these actions, our fast is dead and pointless. Indeed verses 1-5 talk about people oppressing their workers and quarreling while they fast, missing the point of God’s call to us to make the world a better place. It is plain: do this and then healing will come; vindication will come; you will call to God and God will answer; but only by removing the yoke–the burden from among us—the oppression around us in the world.
For me this hymn is a call to action. It is a call to not be silent—to stand up and make a difference and help fight oppression. And we are all acquainted with the oppression around us. We see it in racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, and all other isms, in politics and the church. It is rampant. As I write this, I am reminded of the laws passed in Nigeria, Uganda, and Russia that oppress LGBT people—oppress and endanger their very lives. As essayist James Addison said, “No oppression is so heavy or lasting as that which is inflicted by the perversion and exorbitance of legal authority.”
As Mother Stacy often says, we do not need to look far to see those at risk and oppressed by the world – our outreach programs, especially the youth in “the Church” are examples of oppression within families, friends, and communities that are presented to us at our doorsteps on Hudson St.
I do think, if Dearmer were to visit St. Luke’s today, he would likely find himself at home, not just with our liturgy, but also with our outreach. Yet he would still push us to continue to break those bonds of oppression, and to bring about a new day where God’s glory adorns us with love as the prize. “Arise! Arise and make a paradise!”
Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am”. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
– Chap Day