There is no better example of the interesting and surprising collisions that mark the development of our church hymnody than this week’s hymn.
While a communion hymn from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it found its way into both the Episcopalian and Presbyterian traditions by way of its translater, John Brownlie, a Scottish Presbyterian who specialized in hymnology. He first translated this hymn from the Greek and published it in 1910.
In the introduction to that volume, he writes:
If any of the hymns contained in this volume should touch the heart of anyone who reads them, or, better still, at any future time, sings them, may he, as he remembers the source from which they have come, think reverently and sympathetically of the struggling Church of the East.
As for the music, my favorite interpretation comes from a group the Internet Monk turned me on to: High Street Hymns. Their folksy-southern style makes the collision of worlds all the more fun to think about.
Let Thy blood in mercy poured,
Let Thy gracious body broken,
Be to me, O gracious Lord,
Of Thy boundless love the token.
There’s an interesting and tricky eucharistic theology here. On the one hand, there’s a direct reference to the objective working of Christ on the cross. The blood is, after all, poured in mercy there. But within the communion meal–for Presbyterians and Eastern Orthodox alike–the body and blood become subjective tokens of the love that was expressed.
Thou didst give Thyself for me,
Now I give myself to Thee.
Brownlie’s translation of the refrain is nearly perfect, highlighting the reciprocal giving implied in the taking of communion. On the one hand, we recognize and confess that Christ has given himself to us. But that recognition is only–can only–be where it is accompanied by the obligation to give ourselves to him that it imposes upon us.
Thou didst die that I might live;
Blessèd Lord, Thou cam’st to save me:
All that love of God could give
Jesus by His sorrows gave me.
It’s the final two lines that strike me most here, which invite two possible readings. On the one hand, there is no excess goodness of God behind the cross, no gifts that he has kept in reserve from us. Here, the ‘love of God’ denotes the love he has for us, all of which he gives to us in Jesus’s sorrows. On the other hand, the lines are open to the possibility that all that our love for God might bring to us is found in Jesus’s death on the cross. As is so often the case, there’s no reason to choose between them.
By the thorns that crowned Thy brow,
By the spear wound and the nailing,
By the pain and death, I now
Claim, O Christ, Thy love unfailing.
“Claim.” It’s a strong word, but one that encapsulates the movement of the Spirit in the life of the Christian. We proceed from pleading (verse one), to confessing that all that we need is given in Jesus (verse two), to the possibility that by virtue of his sacrifice for us, it is ours to claim his love.
All of which, I should point out, is encompassed by the refrain that we give ourselves to him.
Wilt Thou own the gift I bring?
All my penitence I give Thee;
Thou art my exalted King,
Of Thy matchless love forgive me.
Inasmuch as we are confronted with the death of Jesus for us in the communion feast, we are called to penitence and the confession of our sin. And this is the only gift we truly have to offer, for it consists in the confessing and repenting from the negation of our being, the creation of an impossible artifice that denies the one in whom we live, move, and have being.