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Doubting and Singing Thomas

April 27, 2014

So the Octave of Easter draws to a close. Today is also known as “St. Thomas’ Sunday,” so-called because the Gospel (John 20) relates the story of Thomas the Apostle being instructed by the risen Christ to “Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing” (20:27). People don’t always notice that the Gospel nowhere says that Thomas actually did so: “And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God” (20:28). One suspects he did: who disobeys the risen Christ? But the omission is intriguing. Certainly it’s hard to imagine that he refrained from believing until after he had done it: surely the invitation was proof enough?

Anyway, this has been a good beginning to Easter for me; I’ve come to a new appreciation of two English hymns. I won’t attempt a thorough close reading of them here, since it wouldn’t really work out; hymns don’t work quite like lyric poetry. Obvious rhymes in hymns, for example, are desirable rather than clumsy, since they make the hymn easier to sing. But good hymns can pack a surprising amount of nuanced psychology and complex theology into a few lines. They’re worth paying attention to.

“Sing with All the Saints in Glory” [lyrics] [video] like the better-known “Joyful Joyful We Adore You,” is set to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, but the different lyrics completely transform the tune. Rather than peaceful and happy, this hymn is fierce and triumphant. Just look at the opening lines. “Joyful Joyful We Adore You” has two adverbs, which at first almost stand alone, and then a simple declarative statement. “Sing with All the Saints in Glory” opens with an imperative and then presses relentlessly onward. I think it quite effective. Nor can one complain about the line “soon the storms of time shall cease.”

“There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” [lyrics] [video] can be set to many different tunes, but I have in mind “In Babilone,” a traditional Dutch melody (the video I’ve linked to is a pretty terrible recording, but it’s the best one I could find with this tune). This hymn takes the opposite tack from “Sing with All the Saints in Glory”: most of the verses are composed of apparently straightforward declarative sentences, but the conceit of the hymn is that these sentences are “broader / Than the measure of our mind.” This lends a powerful dissonance (echoed in the melody) to the suggestion ” If our love were but more simple, / We should take Him at His word”; though it may sound comforting at first, anyone who has read Aquinas knows how disorienting simplicity can be. (One might think that this touch is unintentional, since most Protestants are uninterested in Divine Simplicity, but the author of this hymn, Frederick Faber, followed John Henry Newman into the Roman Catholic Church.)  It should be granted that some of the verses are a bit saccharine, but there are touches of genius. I particularly like the lines “There is grace enough for thousands / Of new worlds as great as this,” though I’m not entirely sure why the hymn-writer decided to take a stand on whether or not Christ, as a human, could have died for alien species.


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