11 April 2009

Four reflections for Holy Saturday (4): John Ireland, Ex ore innocentium

Lichfield Cathedral ... the choristers have recorded Ex ore innocentium by John Ireland and William Walsham How

Patrick Comerford

Like Vaughan Williams, the English composer John Ireland (1879-1962) studied under the Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and was a contributor to Songs of Praise, edited by Percy Dearmer and Vaughan Williams.

His best known tune is Love Unknown, for Samuel Crossman’s well-loved hymn, My song is love unknown (Irish Church Hymnal, 231), and is said to have been written by Ireland in a quarter of an hour on a scrap of paper.

We have been listening to his work Ex ore innocentium (Out of the mouth of children), once again sung for us this evening by the choristers of Lichfield Cathedral.

In this work, Ireland uses the marvellously powerful and moving words of Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1987) to produce a work of outstanding beauty that is marked by some complex harmonies combined with a child-like simplicity.

The words are:

It is a thing most wonderful,
Almost too wonderful to be,
That God’s own Son should come from heaven,
And die to save a child like me.

And yet I know that it is true:
He chose a poor and humble lot,
And wept, and toiled, and mourned, and died
For love of those who loved him not.

I sometimes think about the Cross,
And shut my eyes, and try to see
The cruel nails and crown of thorns,
And Jesus crucified for me.

But even could I see him die,
I should but see a little part
Of that great love, which, like a fire,
Is always burning in his heart.

And yet I want to love thee, Lord;
O light the flame within my heart,
And I will love thee more and more,
Until I see thee as thou art.

The author of this hymn (Irish Church Hymnal, 226), Bishop Walsham How, was well-known for his work as a bishop supporting the “slum priests” of the East End of London. Because of his dedication to this work, he was known variously as “the people’s bishop,” as “the poor man’s bishop,” “the children’s bishop,” and even as the “omnibus bishop” – I like that last appellation … he insisted on using public transport all the time.

When he died he was buried at Leenane in Co Mayo.

This hymn was written while the bishop was the Rector of Whittington, now, appropriately, in the Diocese of Lichfield, but then in the Diocese of St Asaph. The text that inspired him was I John 4: 10: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he has loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (AV).

That link between the love of God and Christ’s death on the Cross is an important connection to make on this day, as we wait at the grave, still grieving that death but waiting in hope for the joy of Resurrection.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is the fourth of four reflections at a service of readings, music and prayers for Holy Saturday in Whitechurch Parish, Dublin, on Saturday 11 April 2009.

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