Yesterday’s selection of ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’ as a Communion hymn brought expressions of surprise among some members of the the 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. Though I do not intend exactly to mount a defense, I would like to take the opportunity to show how this hymn is not only suited for Communion, but is particularly so at this time of year – and, incidentally, to offer a different view of Haydn’s tune.
‘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.
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 Bible):
Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God! [Psalm 87.3]
He, whose Word cannot be broken,
formed thee for His own abode. [Psalm 132.14]
On the Rock of Ages* founded, [Isaiah 26.4–5]
what can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded, [Isaiah 60.18]
thou may’st smile at all thy foes.
See! the streams of living waters, [Ezekiel 47.1]
springing from eternal love,
well supply thy sons and daughters [Psalm 46.4]
and all fear of want remove:
who can faint while such a river [Revelation 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, [Exodus 13]
safe they feed upon the manna
which He gives them when they pray. [Exodus 16]
Blest inhabitants of Zion,
washed in the Redeemer’s blood! [Revelation 7.14]
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
makes them kings and priests to God. [Exodus 19.6; I Peter 2.9; Revelation 1.5–6; 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. [Leviticus 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. 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’ – an image found all over the Scriptures which grew up in a desert land, from the rivers flowing from Eden (Genesis 2.6, 10–14) and from the Throne of God (Revelation 22.1–2; Ezekiel 47.1–12), to the water that flowed from the rock in the wilderness when Moses struck it with his staff (Exodus 17.6; Psalm 78.20; Isaiah 48.21; I Corinthians 10.3–4), to Our Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) and His invitation to the thirsty (John 7; cf. Isaiah 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, and – even if we only glimpse this for a fleeting second – the Church, and we as members of it, become who we truly are.
* * *
But let us see how the hymn is more specifically suited to precisely this moment in the Church’s year.
Yesterday’s and this coming Sunday’s Gospels, the Confession of St Peter and Our Lord’s subsequent prediction of His suffering (Matthew 16.13–28), come just before the account of the Transfiguration (that account, in Matthew 17, is omitted from the otherwise mostly in-course series of Sunday readings from this Gospel because the Transfiguration is celebrated with its own feast on 6 August as well as on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany). As we shall see in a moment, the Transfiguration is clearly intended by the Synoptic Evangelists (Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke) to be understood to take place at the Jewish feast of Sukkoth (‘Booths’ or ‘Tabernacles’, Exodus 23.16, 34.22; Leviticus 23.39–44). This connection with Sukkoth, in turn, has implications for our understanding of not only the Transfiguration and Holy Cross Day (14 September – also closely connected with Sukkoth – at whose Offices and Mass many of the Biblical passages mentioned below are read or referred to), but also this whole season of the year and the hymn in question.
Sukkoth, like Pesach/Passover and Shavuot/Pentecost, was originally an agricultural festival: in the late summer, which was considered the end of the year, the harvest would be gathered in, to expedite which process farmers would live in the fields for a week in shelters made of branches and leaves. As part of the festival, thanks were given for past fruitfulness and prayers made for fruitfulness in the season to come, with water libations signifying prayer for rain and a procession made round the altar with bundles of greenery. The establishment of the feast of Sukkoth for the nation of Israel in the Book of Exodus is also connected with the giving of the Law, in which the Glory of the the LORD covered the mountain for seven days and was later reflected in the face of Moses (Exodus 34).
Sukkoth was later appointed as a pilgrimage festival in which all Israelites were to travel to Jerusalem and live for a week in shelters on the slopes of Zion to remind them of their ancestors’ travels in the wilderness, where the Israelites lived in tents and ultimately were sheltered by the cloud of God’s Glory (Exodus 13). By the time of Our Lord, the festival also featured a grand illumination of the Temple Mount with the ceremonial lighting of lamps on giant lampstands. Because it was a time when the whole nation was supposed to be gathered, Sukkoth was also the occasion for other important business to be conducted – for example, the reading of the Law every seventh year (Deuteronomy 31.10–11); the dedication of the First Temple, in which the Glory of the LORD came to dwell (I Kings 8.2, 8.65, 12.32; II Chronicles 5.3, 7.8); and likewise the establishment of the Second Temple after the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon (Ezra 3, Nehemiah 8).
Sukkoth falls half a year after Passover and is thus its mirror (the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, strongly links Christ’s self-sacrifice, which the Gospels place at Passover, with the sacrifice of atonement offered on Yom Kippur, which falls just before Sukkoth). Sukkoth also attracted eschatological overtones during the era of Hebrew prophecy, seen most clearly in Zechariah 10 and 14. Here the prophet recounts a vision in which the remnants of all the nations will go up to Jerusalem to keep Sukkoth, all things will be as holy as the Temple vessels, and ‘living waters’ (cf. the water libation of Sukkoth) will flow out from Jerusalem. This vision continued in the Christian era; the Revelation to St John draws richly upon the symbolism of the Sukkoth celebration: the dwellings appear in 7.15, 12.12, 13.6, 21.3; the entire scene in 7.9–17 – the crowd around the altar with palm-branches, dressed in white, drawing ‘water of life’ from springs, sheltered by God – recalls the procession and ablutions of the Sukkoth procession. The tents came to symbolize the dwelling-place of the righteous in the presence of God (cf. the ‘tents of the righteous’ in Psalm 118, which describes precisely the Sukkoth festivities noted above, is used at Palm Sunday and Easter, and was also sung yesterday).
And so we read in Matthew 17 and the parallel passages in Mark and Luke that, six (or eight) days after the Confession of St Peter (a reference to the week-long festival), Our Lord and the three disciples go to a high place; Moses appears; the Glory of God is manifested; St Peter wishes to build ‘booths’ and stay on the mountain: as clear an evocation of Sukkoth as there could be. The Gospel of St John, on the other hand, has no account of (or, presumably, need for) the Transfiguration, for already in the Prologue of that Gospel we read that from the beginning Christ’s life was the very reflection of the Glory of God: a claim confirmed in Our Lord’s own words delivered during none other than the feast of Sukkoth: ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8.12).
The Prologue also returns us to the tents/dwellings/tabernacles: for the true shelter is that of Our Lord’s body, which is the dwelling-place of God’s Glory: ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling (‘pitched his tent’) among us’ (John 1.14). This is the same Glory which was the true shelter for the Israelites in the wilderness, which dwelt in the Temple, which came to dwell in the Lord’s Body, was shown to a few at the Transfiguration, is glimpsed in the Body of Christ as it exists today (i.e., the Church), and will be fully realized when the tents of our own bodies (Genesis 3.21; II Corinthians 5.1–4; II Peter 1.13–14) are fully transformed into the likeness of Christ and are also made fit for the glory of God – all of which realities are manifest in the Body of Christ made present in every celebration of the Eucharist.
* * *
This hymn and the scriptural and spiritual truths it encapsulates offer a substantial counterweight to the series of Old Testament Lessons provided in this year’s ‘Semi-Continuous’ track of lectionary appointments, or at least to a literalist reading of them in which God is said to favor a particular people or nation at the expense of another: a reading which has been used to excuse conquest, occupation, exploitation, and wholesale slaughter over and over from Biblical times to our own. Even flight from very real persecution – and the affinity God has for the poor and persecuted, which Scripture does seem to affirm – can never be an excuse to persecute and subjugate others; a more nuanced understanding of the ‘enemies’ in the Old Testament narrative of conquest and the imprecatory Psalms as applying to spiritual realities against which we struggle (and to be sure, spiritual realities are not separate from temporal ones) must include not only personal deeds and demons but also corporate and systemic sin which binds victor and victim, and from which we all need deliverance.
And so the very Psalm (87) whose first verse begins this hymn goes on to affirm that, in God’s own time, everyone – the surrounding and usually embattled nations included – is to be counted and enrolled as a citizen of the glorious and beloved city of Zion. The other Psalm referred to in which ‘living waters’ appear (46) proclaims, along with the prophet Zechariah, that it is the LORD who makes war to cease (both of these Psalms are also appointed for the Eve of Holy Cross Day). Ezekiel, who had a vision of a river flowing from the Temple, flanked by trees with leaves good for healing, makes it clear (despite his priestly concern for the holiness, including the ethno-religious purity, of the Temple) that, when the land is restored and reapportioned, the aliens among the children of Israel will have a share in the inheritance (47.21–23). And in the vision of Zechariah and St John (and Isaiah and others), all nations will stream to the City of God. 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 these late-summer Sundays, the Transfiguration and Holy Cross Day, and, later, All Saints’ 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 Franz Josef Haydn to serve as a national anthem (not necessarily a march) 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 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 Isaiah 26.5, translated ‘everlasting strength’ in the KJV. The LORD is the Rock; Christ is the Rock; but in yesterday’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 (I Peter 2.5) joined to the Cornerstone (see, once again, Psalm 118 [quoted many times in the New Testament], as well as Isaiah 28.6 and Ephesians 2.19–22 [read on the Eve of Holy Cross Day]).
†On the Good Shepherd Choir’s tour of the UK two years ago at exactly this time of year, this hymn was appointed to be sung as the introit hymn at Sunday Parish Communion at Beverley Minster (the Gospel was from the Sixth Chapter of the Gospel of John: the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse, in which Our Lord refers to the manna in the wilderness, and which precedes His teaching in the Temple at Sukkoth). It was not specified, however, which of these two tunes was to be used. The Eucharist was celebrated that morning by the Archdeacon of the diocese (York), himself an organist; in a hasty pre-service huddle, he and I agreed that, any negative connotations notwithstanding, we ought to sing Haydn, and so we did – and glorious it was in that splendid church.