Martin Draper writes on the Passiontide classic by William H. Vanstone
MORNING glory, starlit sky,
Soaring music, scholar’s truth,
Flight of swallows, autumn leaves,
Memory’s treasure, grace of youth:
2 Open are the gifts of God,
Gifts of love to mind and sense;
Hidden is love’s agony,
Love’s endeavour, love’s expense.
3 Love that gives, gives ever more,
Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.
4 Drained is love in making full,
Bound in setting others free,
Poor in making many rich,
Weak in giving power to be.
5 Therefore he who shows us God
Helpless hangs upon the tree;
And the nails and crown of thorns
Tell of what God’s love must be.
6 Here is God; no monarch he,
Throned in easy state to reign;
Here is God, whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.
Words: William H. Vanstone (1923-1999)
© reproduced by permission.
Some Passiontide hymns, such as the two ancient Latin Office Hymns, are about the Cross itself. Many more, especially devotional texts, address Christ on the Cross; this poem, with which the author W. H. Vanstone concludes his book Love’s endeavour, Love’s expense, meditates on God in the Cross.
Because it is a hymn about God, the writer does not begin with the passion of Christ. He begins with what, in the author’s eyes, are signs of the grace of God visible to all. Both of Vanstone’s parishes were post-Second World War housing estates, so he was no sentimental romantic. There’s nature – including the swallows which signal the arrival of Spring and the autumn leaves – but there’s also human creativity: seeing God’s grace in the sort of music which sends a shiver down your spine, but also in the hard slog of the search for truth; he sees it in the treasury of memories of those who are nearer the end than the beginning of their earthly life; and in the simple fact of being young.
In the second verse, he explains that all these things are ‘open’ for all to see if you use your mind and your senses. He calls them, not only ‘gifts of God’, but ‘gifts of love’, and it is fairly easy for the man or woman of faith to see ‘love’ in his particular selection. But he goes on to say that love is given in hidden ways too. Agony, with its unwelcome and unattractive pain, is no less a gift of God’s love. In fact, he continues: this is love’s endeavour – love’s work – and love’s expense, in the sense that God expends, or spends himself totally in it.
The third verse gives us is a magnificent series of statements about love, one after the other, so that the cumulative effect, like that of chapter 13 of St Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, is overwhelming: ‘Love that gives, gives ever more’; ‘spares not, keeps not, all outpours, ventures all, its all expends.’ And the following verse gives us four paradoxes to show how, precisely, when love is sacrificial, even to the point of death, it is creative and life-giving.
Vanstone has so far been speaking of God’s love through concepts. Abstracts are, the stuff of poetry, but he deliberately does not leave things at that level. In the final two verses, he grounds those same concepts in the loving work of God in redemption: redemption which comes to fruition in the Passion and Death of his Son.
‘Therefore,’ he says at the beginning of verse 5, in order to mark his progression. In other words, it is because love drains itself in giving, binds itself in freeing others and so on, that the one who shows us all this – the one who shows us God – hangs helpless (and that’s another paradox, because the helpless one is our ‘very present help’) on the tree. In passing, it’s interesting to note how poets often use the word ‘tree’ rather than ‘cross’; perhaps because a tree is a living thing and the Cross is for us a source of life?
Like It is a thing most wonderful, Vanstone sees the more humiliating punishment as telling us ‘what God’s love must be.’
The last verse is explicit: ‘Here is God.’ God’s love can only be perceived in the ‘open’ gifts of nature and creative process; it is hidden in the agony of sacrificial love; it is plain to see in the crucified one. Echoing, perhaps, Christ’s own conversation with Pilate about kingship, the author says that God is no monarch reigning ‘in easy state’. And he concludes by repeating his statement: Here is God. ‘Here is God, whose arms of love’ – both the ‘underneath are the everlasting arms’ (Deut 33. 27) of the old covenant and the arms of Christ outstretched on the cross of the new – ‘aching, spent, the world sustain.’
This takes us back to where the writer began. The created world, with its wonderful ‘open’ gifts of love, comes at a cost. The place where we most see the ‘arms’ of God who creates and sustains it, the place where we can say with certainty, ‘here is God,’ is in the figure of the one who hangs on the Cross, who aches not only with physical tiredness, but with passionate love for the world’s salvation. That is ‘love’s endeavour’ or work, and that is ‘love’s expense.’