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Jesus: a portrait in words and music

26 February 2016

Jo Spreadbury hears expressions of Christology in hymns

Andreas F. Borchert/WIKI

Tribute: memorial window to Mrs C. F. Alexander, hymnwriter, in St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry

Tribute: memorial window to Mrs C. F. Alexander, hymnwriter, in St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry

WORSHIP and liturgy can embrace and express the whole of the Church’s doctrine about the person of Jesus Christ. In Anglican churches that follow the seasons of the Church’s year, worship is themed around the two great Christological cycles, reflecting the incarnation (from Advent to Candlemas) and the Paschal mystery (from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost).

In many Church of England services, following the structures of Common Worship (CW), there is a deep embodiment of the gospel pattern of Jesus's engagement with people: gathering them, engaging with them, bringing about transformation, and sending them out.

The span and significance of Jesus’s life is summed up in hymns such as “We have a gospel to proclaim” or “O love, how deep, how broad, how high”, and even “The Lord of the Dance” (the latter two including better reference to the pre-incarnate Christ).

Mrs C. F. Alexander taught her godchildren their Creed by the hymns she wrote for them. These included 12 hymns to amplify the Christological clauses of the Apostles’ Creed. Not all would be thought appropriate for use today, but “Once in royal David’s city” (“who was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary”) and “There is a green hill far away” (“suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried”) are most frequently sung.

Some contemporary hymnody and worship songs fill the gap concerning Jesus’s Gospel ministry that is left by many traditional hymn collections. For example, Herman Stuempfle’s “Jesus, tempted in the desert” treats the threefold temptation of Jesus, as does Timothy Dudley-Smith’s “Christ our Redeemer knew temptation’s hour”. Marjorie Dobson’s “A rich young man came seeking”, and David Haas’s “Blest are they, the poor in spirit” both reflect aspects of Jesus’s teaching.

Meanwhile, the “I am” sayings are interpreted by songs such as “You are the Vine” by Danny Daniels and Randy Rigby, or “Jesus the Lord said ‘I am the Bread’”, originally translated from Urdu by Carl Monahan. The anger and rage that the Gospels attribute to Jesus is not avoided in songs such as John Bell and Graham Maule’s “Jesus Christ is waiting”, or Andrew Pratt’s “Love inspired the anger”.


HYMNS are sometimes suggested within CW liturgical provision to structure intercessions for particular holy days. Verses of “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds” are suggested for the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus on 1 January. Similarly, “Christ, whose glory fills the skies” is deployed for the Transfiguration on 6 August.

In this respect, it may be helpful to note that significant doctrinal elements about Jesus often receive what amounts to double coverage within the liturgy: the Transfiguration also has a significant emphasis in the CofE lectionary on the Sunday before Lent (when we are reminded of the glory of our destiny in Christ, in order to face the rigours of Lent).

Likewise, outside Holy Week we reflect liturgically on the meaning and significance of the Last Supper with the provision for Corpus Christi, or on the salvation won for us by Christ on the cross on Holy Cross Day (14 September).

Jesus fulfils Old Testament typology in many of Wesley’s hymns (notably “Come thou, O Traveller unknown”), and there is creative use of Old Testament elements in the lyrics of Stuart Townend (“He is my light, my strength, my song; this Cornerstone, this solid Ground”).

The ancient Advent “O” Antiphons address Jesus using Old Testament images (“O Root of Jesse”, “O Key of David”, and so on), and a modern version of these by Jim Cotter uses images which capture contemporary longing (“O Unicorn”, “O Stag”, even “O Salmon”).

In the CW Additional Collects, Jesus is distinctively addressed in prayer throughout the Easter Season, offering much food for devotion. For example, “Risen Christ, for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred: open the doors of our hearts, that we may seek the good of others, and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace.”


The Revd Dr Jo Spreadbury is the Precentor of Portsmouth Cathedral; she also chairs Praxis.

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