Friday in Lent 4
If you are a particular kind of Episco-nerd (and if you’re reading these devotionals, there’s a decent chance you are!), you can get into a good argument by turning to hymn 335. The words come from from the 6th chapter of John, verses 35-65. If you’ve got a minute read the full passage, and then take a peak at the lyrics to the hymn below.
The argument you can get going is usually a straight thumbs-up, thumbs-down kind of judgment on the hymn. Some of us seem to really love it. Others really, really don’t. I know some organists who will only play it if directly commanded by the rector and even then will only do so through gritted teeth. I know others who seem to schedule it to be sung every month (at least!). If I had to bet, I’d say that a slight majority of choir members are thumbs-down while a slight majority of people in the pew are thumbs-up.
Some of this has to do with the music more than the words. At least one musical expert critiques it based on the tricky rhythms and counting the hymn demands.
But I think it’s more than that. I think the music is in fact perfectly suited to the words of the hymn and to its source, the 6th chapter of John. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life… Unless you eat of the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his Blood, you shall not have life within you.” This shocking claim of Jesus is mirrored in the swelling emotion of the music; the troublesome aspects of Jesus’ words are mirrored in the troublesome aspects of the way the words and music go together.
Mainly, I think that the big-ness of the hymn and the big-ness of Jesus’ claim are both more than we can take on a normal day. On a “regular” day when I’m just trying to get through work, be a good neighbor, do no harm, etc., this incredibly graphic claim of Jesus is too much. Only when my life gets shaken do I turn again to the bold, disturbing truths of John.
And the same is true of the hymn. It just won’t do to sing it half-heartedly on the 13thSunday After Whatever, when I’m looking at my phone and wondering what else I’ve got to get done before work tomorrow. But sing it at a funeral, or an ordination, or during Holy Week, and the truth of Jesus’ I AM is revealed.
P.S. Here’s a link to the very best recording I know of this hymn, by the choir of All Saints, Beverly Hills.
I am the bread of life; they who come to me shall not hunger;
they who believe in me shall not thirst. No one can come tom unless the Father draw them.
And I will raise them up, and I will raise them up,
and I will raise them up on the last day.
The Bread that I will give is my Flesh for the life of the world,
and they who eat of this bread, they shall live for ever, they shall live for ever.
Unless you eat of the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his Blood,
you shall not have life within you, you shall not have life within you.
I am the resurrection, I am the life.
They who believe in me, even if they die, they shall live forever.
Yes, Lord we believe that you are the Christ,
the Son of God who has come into the world.