Holy Week Highlights

IF you ever need to make a case for Holy Week, hymns are the answer. And vice versa. In good time for this year (in case you thought we had the wrong month) here are some diary jottings from 2002. It so happened we found ourselves in several different places of worship.

Palm Sunday. We make sure we join a congregation who will sing ‘All glory, laud and honour’ and ‘Ride on, ride on’. You can’t be too careful nowadays. The first is in a modest procession; last year we strung out along the streets, watched in bafflement by one or two shrouded Muslim women. This time we measure the few yards from the nearby church hall. One pre-Easter miracle: everyone comes on time to appear in the public liturgy. And in all, five superb hymns; Hosanna!

Our Free Church evening is not so grand. They don’t know it is Palm Sunday, but do manage ‘Not what these hands have done’. Horatius Bonar can be rather ordinary; not here, to the haunting Welsh tune BOD ALWYN.

Monday. Eight of us at Compline. How many different texts of ‘Before the ending of the day’ are there? Disappointment that we say it rather than sing. No candles; the matches are locked in the safe.

Tuesday. Evening, prayer meeting. ‘Who can cheer the heart like Jesus?’ Mercifully, two stanzas are omitted, but not the wonderful redemption.

Wednesday. 6.30 finds us checked in to the full chapel of a high security prison, slightly late because of behind-the-scenes ‘incidents’. Intermingling of staff and visitors (mainly white) with inmates (mainly black). We sing the only hymn I know to include the word ‘murderers’: ‘My song is love unknown’. How many have noticed, I wonder? This is the only classic; among the rest is the eloquent ‘Will you let me be your servant’, aka ‘Brother, sister let me serve you’. Some tears, some applause, some chatter, good singing, much thought, care, and prayer. Without showing off, the organist sounds as if he is enjoying it. Afterwards, a first for me; I accept a hot cross bun from a Muslim cleric. In the service he had briefly quoted from the Koran; behind him, a poster says ‘Jesus Christ: there is salvation in no-one else.’

Maundy Thursday. Avoiding feet, but using our own, we attend our parish church. Limited by the New English Hymnal; two hymns by John Bright. We could do worse and we could sing most of them. But on this most eloquent day, nothing from the past century and a quarter, nothing about upper rooms, feet, towels, water, or loving one another. The sermon makes some amends.

Good Friday. Away for the weekend, and my first hymn-less and sermon-less Good Friday for about 40 years. But the reading aloud of John chapters 1 to 19 is a hymn and sermon in itself. Most of the team of readers are unknown to me, but they include one muddled academic sceptic, one firmly committed believer, and 31 others somewhere along the spectrum in between.

Easter Eve. Spent quietly at our son’s home. A time to read; it is amazing how many books include hymns, whether in derision, celebration, or by way of a bit of religious background to the plot. Even novelists cannot do without them, including three ‘secular’ books picked from the shelf of our host.

Easter Day. I had meant to stretch this to Sunday, but there is so much more to say. Next time.

Christopher Idle sings in the Diocese of Southwark.