11 March 2015

Singing in Lent with Vaughan Williams: some
notes on this evening’s service and hymns

‘Christ driving the Traders from the Temple,’ by El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos, 1541-1614), The National Gallery, London El Greco (ca 1600)

Patrick Comerford

I am presiding at the Community Eucharist in the Chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute this evening [11 March 2015]. We are using the Collect, Readings and Post-Communion Prayer for the Third Sunday in Lent, and the Visiting Preacher is the Right Revd Kenneth H Clarke, Mission Director of SAMS UK and Ireland.

The readings are: Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 1: 18-25; and John 2: 13-22.

Our cover illustrations on the brochure for this evening’s Eucharist are from El Greco’s painting, ‘Christ driving the Traders from the Temple,’ which is inspired by the Gospel reading.

El Greco painted this subject several times in Italy and in Spain. This version, with its strong colours and elongated forms, was probably painted in Toledo ca 1600, and is now in the National Gallery, London (Room 30).

This painting is dominated by the figure of Christ, with the traders on the left and the Apostles on the right. In the 16th century, the subject of the Purification of the Temple was seen as a symbol of the Church’s need to cleanse itself through condemning heresy and through reform.

The reliefs in the background allude to the themes of punishment and deliverance. On the left, Adam and Eve are being expelled from Paradise, which prefigures the Purification of the Temple, and on the right the Sacrifice of Isaac prefigures Christ’s death.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos (Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος, 1541-1614), or El Greco, was born in Crete and trained there in a Byzantine school of art in Iraklion. He later worked in Venice under Titian and in Rome, where he studied the work of Michelangelo and Raphael.

In 1577, he moved to Toledo, where he lived the rest of his life. The 400th anniversary of his death was marked with special events and commemorations last year.

It is an Anglican tradition not to sing the canticle Gloria throughout Lent and Advent, nor do we pray the doxology at the end of Psalms and canticles, reserving our joy in Lent until the joy of the Resurrection on Easter Day (and similarly in Advent in the expectation of the joy of the Incarnation).

This evening’s hymns reflect the theme of Lent and the themes of our readings. During Lent this year, I have been meditating and reflecting each morning on a hymn or on a piece of music associated with the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams. The tune for each of the hymns I have chosen this evening has been written or harmonised by Vaughan Williams.

The Processional Hymn, ‘Come down, O love divine,’ (Hymn 294, Irish Church Hymnal) was originally written in Italian in the 14th century by Bianco da Siena. It was first translated into English in 1867 by the Revd Dr Richard Frederick Littledale, a Dublin-born Anglican priest. The tune Down Ampney by Vaughan Williams is named after the Cotswold village in Gloucestershire where he was born and where his father, the Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams, was the vicar.

Our response to the Lenten Penitential Kyries is adapted from the Lent Prose, Attende, Domine (Hymn 208). Its origins are in the early Mozarabic liturgy of the Iberian Peninsula, the Paris Processional (1824), and the work of the Benedictine Abbey in Solesmes. The refrain we sing was arranged by Martin White, Organist of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh.

The Gradual, ‘Rise and hear! The Lord is speaking’ (385) was written in 1980 by Canon Howard Grant (1902-1983), a prolific hymn-writer. The tune Sussex was collected by Vaughan Williams, who first set it to ‘Father, hear the prayer we offer’ (see Hymn 645).

The Offertory hymn is ‘We come as guests invited’ (451). In this hymn, Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith draws on the words of institution, the words of the Prayer of Humble Access, and the words of administration. The tune King’s Lynn, first heard by Vaughan Williams in 1904, is often associated with GK Chesterton’s Eucharistic hymn ‘O God of earth and altar.’

The Post-Communion Hymn, ‘Go forth for God; go forth to the world in peace’ (455), a parting hymn of encouragement, is by Canon John Peacey (1896-1971), who was Dean of Selwyn College, Cambridge, Principal of Bishop’s College, Calcutta, and Canon Residentiary of Bristol Cathedral. The tune Magda was written by Vaughan Williams for his niece, Magdalene Fisher, for her marriage to Sir Antony Macnaghten in 1926. The couple later lived near Bushmills, Co Antrim.

Detail from ‘Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple’ … by El Greco, The National Gallery, London

John 12: 20-33, Responding to the
request, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’

New ends and the promise of new beginnings … sunset at Balcarrick Beach in Donabate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Sunday week, the Fifth Sunday in Lent (22 March 2015), are: Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 51: 1-13 or Psalm 119: 9-16; Hebrews 5: 5-10; and John 12: 20-33.

In our Bible study this morning, we are looking at the Gospel reading for that Sunday:

John 12: 20-33

20 Ησαν δὲ Ελληνές τινες ἐκ τῶν ἀναβαινόντων ἵνα προσκυνήσωσιν ἐν τῇ ἑορτῇ: 21 οὗτοι οὖν προσῆλθον Φιλίππῳ τῷ ἀπὸ Βηθσαϊδὰ τῆς Γαλιλαίας, καὶ ἠρώτων αὐτὸν λέγοντες, Κύριε, θέλομεν τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἰδεῖν. 22 ἔρχεται ὁ Φίλιππος καὶ λέγει τῷ Ἀνδρέᾳ: ἔρχεται Ἀνδρέας καὶ Φίλιππος καὶ λέγουσιν τῷ Ἰησοῦ. 23 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἀποκρίνεται αὐτοῖς λέγων, Ἐλήλυθεν ἡ ὥρα ἵνα δοξασθῇ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. 24 ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν μὴ ὁ κόκκος τοῦ σίτου πεσὼν εἰς τὴν γῆν ἀποθάνῃ, αὐτὸς μόνος μένει: ἐὰν δὲ ἀποθάνῃ, πολὺν καρπὸν φέρει. 25 ὁ φιλῶν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἀπολλύει αὐτήν, καὶ ὁ μισῶν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ τούτῳ εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον φυλάξει αὐτήν. 26 ἐὰν ἐμοί τις διακονῇ, ἐμοὶ ἀκολουθείτω, καὶ ὅπου εἰμὶ ἐγὼ ἐκεῖ καὶ ὁ διάκονος ὁ ἐμὸς ἔσται: ἐάν τις ἐμοὶ διακονῇ τιμήσει αὐτὸν ὁ πατήρ.

27 Νῦν ἡ ψυχή μου τετάρακται. καὶ τί εἴπω; Πάτερ, σῶσόν με ἐκ τῆς ὥρας ταύτης; ἀλλὰ διὰ τοῦτο ἦλθον εἰς τὴν ὥραν ταύτην. 28 πάτερ, δόξασόν σου τὸ ὄνομα. ἦλθεν οὖν φωνὴ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, Καὶ ἐδόξασα καὶ πάλιν δοξάσω. 29 ὁ οὖν ὄχλος ὁ ἑστὼς καὶ ἀκούσας ἔλεγεν βροντὴν γεγονέναι: ἄλλοι ἔλεγον, Ἄγγελος αὐτῷ λελάληκεν. 30 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν, Οὐ δι' ἐμὲ ἡ φωνὴ αὕτη γέγονεν ἀλλὰ δι' ὑμᾶς. 31 νῦν κρίσις ἐστὶν τοῦ κόσμου τούτου, νῦν ὁ ἄρχων τοῦ κόσμου τούτου ἐκβληθήσεται ἔξω: 32 κἀγὼ ἐὰν ὑψωθῶ ἐκ τῆς γῆς, πάντας ἑλκύσω πρὸς ἐμαυτόν. 33 τοῦτο δὲ ἔλεγεν σημαίνων ποίῳ θανάτῳ ἤμελλεν ἀποθνῄσκειν.

Translation (NRSV):

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ 30 Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.


Throughout the Sundays in Lent, the RCL Old Testament readings this year (Year B) focus on covenantal relationships with God:

Jeremiah 31: 31-34:

● On the First Sunday in Lent (22 February), Genesis 9: 8-17 told the story of God’s covenant with Noah, his descendants and “every living creature of all flesh.”
● On the Second Sunday in Lent (1 March), the reading (Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16) looks at God’s covenant with Abraham and his “offspring after you throughout the generations … an everlasting covenant.”
● On the Third Sunday in Lent (8 March), the reading (Exodus 20: 1-17), which we hear again at the Community Eucharist in the Chapel, looks at the Ten Commandments, the symbol of that Covenant given in the wilderness in Sinai.
● On the Fourth Sunday in Lent, next Sunday (15 March), we hear the story of the rebellion against that covenant and the serpent of bronze which we interpret as a symbol of the promise of Christ’s coming (Numbers 21: 4-9).
● On the Fifth Sunday in Lent (22 March), the Sunday we are looking at this morning, we hear of the promise to Jeremiah of a new covenant that will be like the covenant between a husband and wife and that will be written in the hearts of the people (Jeremiah 31: 31-34).
● On the Sixth Sunday in Lent (Palm Sunday, 29 March), the theme of rebellion against God is addressed once again, with the promise of new covenant ushered in by the suffering servant (Isaiah 50: 4-9a).

So, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent (25 March), the Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 31: 31-34) follows those readings about Covenant and rebellion against Covenant with the promise of a true Covenant.

Psalm 51: 1-13:

This psalm speaks of rebuilding Jerusalem (verse 18), so we know that it was written during, or shortly after, the Exile. The emphasis is on an individual’s sin, and prayers for personal pardon and restoration. The psalmist seeks cleansing from “iniquity” (verses 2 and 9) and “sin[s].” The notion of life-long sinfulness (verse 5) is also found in Genesis 8: 21: “... for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (although the psalmist may simply be confessing that he has been thoroughly sinful). In verse 6, he knows that God will seek truth in his very being; this is where he will receive understanding (“wisdom”).

Perhaps verse 8b says he is ill – because of his sin. He even asks God to hide his face from his sins (verse 9), to be so gracious and compassionate as to turn a blind eye.

May God restore him, bring him back to godliness, give him a clear conscience, a “clean heart” (verse 10), a “new” and a “right” (God-oriented) “spirit.” Only God can purify. May God give him joy and sustenance, through his “holy spirit” (verse 11).


Psalm 119: 9-16

This is the second stanza (of 22, one for each consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet) of the longest psalm. Each of the eight verses of this stanza begins with beth (ב), the second letter. The whole psalm is in praise of the Law, the expression of God’s covenant with humanity in the Old Testament, and of keeping it. The emphasis is on the love and desire for the word of God in Israel’s law, rather than on legalism.

As in other stanzas, various words are used for law. Here they are “word”, “commandments,” “statutes”, “ordinances”, “decrees”, and “precepts”. Cleansing (verse 9), joy (verses 14 and 16) and meditation (verse 15) are key notions. Knowledge and wisdom are more to be desired than “riches” (verse 14). The psalmist seeks to avoid sin, and to live in God’s ways.

Hebrews 5: 5-10:

The author has spoken of the Jewish high priesthood. Earlier, he has said that a (human) high priest was “put in charge of things pertaining to God” (verse 1), on behalf of the people, to offer sacrifices for their sins. Since he himself from time to time offended God by sinning unintentionally, “he is able to deal gently” (verse 2) with others who commit such sins, and “must offer sacrifice for his own sins” (verse 3) as well. Further, one could only become a high priest when called by God – “one does not presume to take this honour” (verse 4).

Now the author tells us how Christ, whom he sees as a high priest, is like (and unlike) a Jewish high priest. Christ too was called by God (verse 5). Some manuscripts of Luke 3: 22 record that, at his baptism, the “voice” speaks the words quoted here. But Christ, as in Psalm 110: 4, is different: he is a priest “forever” (verse 6).

Melchizedek figures in Genesis 14: 17-20, where he brings bread and wine, and blesses Abram. In Hebrews, he resembles the Son of God and lives for ever. He is a supernatural figure foreshadowing the eternity of the Son of God (see 7: 2-3).

During Christ’s earthly life (“the days of his flesh”, verse 7), he prayed to God, to the one who could deliver him from death. But, although he was already God’s “Son” (verse 8), he “learned obedience.” He obeyed the will of the Father and submitted reverently (verse 7), which involved suffering and death.

But the Father heard his plea, and he rose again from death. He was then “made perfect” (verse 9). His priesthood was completed in his sacrifice for the sins of us all, and he was raised to be with the Father. In this way, he brings salvation to all who follow him. This salvation is forever (unlike the limited duration of that brought by the Jewish high priests in the Temple. He is the high priest for ever.

Clear blue pools beneath the setting sun in Donabate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 12: 20-33:

At the time of the Passover (“the festival”), some Gentiles (“Greeks”) travel to Jerusalem, probably because they believe in God. Their request “to see Jesus” (verse 21) to understand his message, is conveyed to him by “Andrew and Philip” (verse 22), the two disciples with Greek names.

Christ takes this opportunity to announce that his “hour” (verse 23), his time of self-revelation, determined by God, has come. He can now tell what it means for the Son to be glorified. When Christ is glorified, then all people will truly be able to see him. But this is not the time for interviews.

He uses an example from nature to speak of the significance of his death: the paradox that a “grain of wheat” (verse 24) only bears fruit after it seems to have died and has been buried. Christ’s death makes possible salvation for others.

That the meaning of life eludes those who live it up is also a paradox; self-centeredness ends up destroying a person. (“Hate”, verse 25, is a Semitism for love less.)

Serving Jesus involves following his example; this will be honoured by the Father (verse 26).

In verse 27, Christ struggles with his impending death: should he ask the Father to free him from the need to suffer and die?

No, he says: such avoidance would negate his mission; his death is God’s will (verse 28a). The voice from heaven reassures: his lifework and teaching have been signs of God’s glory, of his power and presence; God will act again in raising him.

The crowd misses the point of the message (verse 19), so Christ tells them that God has spoken so that they may believe that he comes from God; he already knows this (“not for mine”, verse 30).

This is when (“now”, verse 31) those who wilfully turn away from him (“this world”) are condemned (it is they who are judged, not him), and when the devil (“the ruler of this world”) ceases to have power over people.

When he is “lifted up from the earth” (verse 32), when he is crucified and exalted in glory, the salvation of all will be possible.

This is the paradoxical “kind of death” (verse 33) he will endure.

New beginnings ... sunrise near the Emmaus Retreat Centre in Swords, Co Dublin, a few weeks ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Some thoughts for consideration:

In these last days of Lent, as we start looking ahead to Holy Week and to walking with Christ on his way to the cross, the Gospel readings talk about what is going to happen and what he is going to accomplish in Jerusalem.

In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, we see the Disciples at a point where they realise that this is a solemn time, but they are unsure about what is going to happen, and they are anxious and afraid.

But these are days of anxiety and fear for many in our world today. We have still not recovered fully from the economic depression, unemployment remains at a high level, the emigrants have still no hope of returning, and we only have to look at the economy of Greece to realise the chilling reality that the bad times could still return.

Nor should we forget that this too is a world troubled by wars, natural disasters and famines too, a world where those seeking democracy are treated as enemies in their own countries, a world where human rights are being eroded once again, and a world where people are martyred for their religious beliefs and slaughtered because of their nationality or ethnicity.

In this time of flux and change, there are plenty of would-be prophets of doom telling us how afraid we ought to be, that if we do not conform and fall into line something even worse may befall us.

But what if Christ is right this morning? If he is right, then we have no need to fear. We need to follow. When Christ is lifted up, he draws all people to him: the Greeks who are telling the Apostles Philip and Andrew that they want to see Christ, but are put on hold; the Pharisees who fear Christ is stirring up the people; the prophets of doom; and the peasants just trying to get by.

The God who Christ proclaimed, the God who created the universe, is still drawing the universe toward the justice for which it aches. That God is calling. The days are surely coming. God wants to inscribe God’s just and liberating word on our hearts, and for all, from the least to the greatest, to know it, to experience it, and to celebrate it.


Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
Grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross,
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of hope,
in this Eucharist we have tasted
the promise of your heavenly banquet
and the richness of eternal life.
May we who bear witness to the death of your Son,
also proclaim the glory of his resurrection,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on Wednesday, 11 March 2015.

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (22): Three Preludes
Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes, 3, ‘Hyfrydol’

‘Alleluia! Bread of heaven … / here proclaimed as priest and victim / in the Eucharistic feast’ … words from the hymn set to Vaughan Williams’s arrangement of ‘Hyfrydol’ … the High Altar and Reredos in Saint Chad’s Church, Stafford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions each day during Lent this year, I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

For three mornings this week [Monday to Wednesday], I am listening to his Three Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes, and I conclude this morning [11 March 2015] as I listen to the third of these preludes, ‘Hyfrydol.’

These three organ solos are based on Welsh tunes, which Vaughan Williams had already arranged for hymns in the English Hymnal, which he edited with Canon Percy Dearmer.

Vaughan Williams’s father, the Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams, came from a family of Welsh origins that had distinguished itself in the law.

The composer first published these organ preludes in 1920 and dedicated them to Alan Gray (1855-1935), who was the organist of Trinity College Cambridge (1892-1930) when Vaughan Williams was an undergraduate there.

Vaughan Williams studied the organ under Gray at Trinity, and with Gray’s patient help he passed his exams to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists (FRCO) in 1898, and received his Doctorate in Music (MusD) at Cambridge the following year. These three organ preludes are Vaughan Williams’s tribute as a grateful student to Alan Gray.

The third of these preludes, ‘Hyfrydol’ (pronounced ‘huv-rud-ol’, meaning “cheerful”) is based on the tune of that name composed around 1830 by the Welsh singer, Richard Huw Pritchard (1811-1887), when he was still only 19.

Pritchard was a grandson of the 18th century Welsh bard Rowland Huw. He lived for many years in Bala, where was a minister and precentor (or director of the choir) at the annual Sasiwns y Bala. Many of his tunes were published in Welsh periodicals, and ‘Hyfrydol’ was first published by Pritchard in 1844 with about 40 of his other tunes in his collection of hymns for children, Cyfail y Cantorion (‘The Singer’s Friend’).

He moved to Holywell, about 20 miles west of Chester, in 1880, when at the age of 69 he was forced by poverty to take a job as a loom tender’s assistant in the mills of the Welsh Flannel Manufacturing Company. He died in Holywell in 1887 at the age of 76.

‘Hyfrydol’ is Pritchard’s most enduring tune and was regularly sung to a number of Welsh hymns. However, it was almost 20 years after his death before ‘Hyfrydol’ was first sung to English words. Vaughan Williams arranged it in 1906 for the hymn ‘Alleluia, sing to Jesus’ by William Chatterton Dix in the English Hymnal (No 302; see New English Hymnal, No 271).

Hyfrydol has been used as a setting for many other hymns, including Charles Wesley’s ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling’ and ‘Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus,’ Francis Harold Rowley’s ‘I Will Sing the Wondrous Story,’ John Wilbur Chapman’s ‘Our Great Saviour,’ and Philip P Bliss’s ‘I Will Sing of My Redeemer’ (1876). In the Irish Church Hymnal it is the setting for John Bakewell’s hymn, ‘Hail, thou once-despised Jesus!’ (No 268).

‘Hyfrydol’ has a metre of (alternating lines of eight and seven syllables). Other examples of this metre include ‘Blaenwern’ by William Rowlands and ‘Abbot’s Leigh’ by Cyril V Taylor.

The best-known arrangement of ‘Hyfrydol’ is that by Vaughan Williams for his revision of the English Hymnal in 1906, and he also composed some variations on this theme. Here once again, as with so many arrangements, Vaughan Williams turns an apparently simple tune into a work of great beauty and with profound emotional impact.

Tomorrow:God that madest earth and heaven’ (‘Ar Hyd Y Nos’).