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“No Tramp of Soldiers’ Marching Feet”

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“No Tramp of Soldiers’ Marching Feet”  Today’s liturgy is unique amongst all our services within the liturgical year. No other service bears the character of Palm Sunday. We begin the service rather triumphantly, reliving Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, in which “. . . the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19: 37-38) The children echo this cry as they sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honour” whilst waving their palm branches, and the congregation likewise is able to join in the hymn of praise. But the character of the liturgy soon changes, just as the crowd, who on one day extolled Jesus as King of the Jews, would later in the week use the same appellation to heap scorn and mockery upon Him. The joy and celebration which characterizes the beginning of our service, and the beginning of Jesus’ week, would soon turn into Golgotha, and our liturgy will soon turn somber. In the first stanza we sing:

No tramp of soldier’s marching feet with banners and with drums,
No sound of music’s martial beat: “The King of glory comes!”
To greet what pomp of kingly pride no bells in triumph ring;
No city gates swing open wide: “Behold, behold your King!”

Timothy Dudley-Smith (b. 1926), a living English hymnwriter, composed this text. He attended Cambridge, Pembroke College, and served various parishes in the UK until he retired as the Bishop of Thetford. He wrote over 80 hymns in several different collections. His second stanza recounts the biblical story of Palm Sunday:

And yet He comes. The children cheer; with palms His path is strown.
With every step the cross draws near: the King of glory’s throne.
Astride a colt He passes by as loud hosannas ring,
Or else the very stones would cry “Behold, behold your King.”

Listen to the way our choir and musicians lead us in this hymn this morning—there is little organ, little of the sound we come to expect. This beautiful tune, an English folk tune collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams, stands by itself, the choir leads, but it belongs to the congregation. If it feels strange not to have the organ lead—it should.

What fading flowers His road adorn; the palms, how soon laid down!
No bloom or leaf but only thorn the King of glory’s crown.
The soldiers mock, the rabble cries, the streets with tumult ring,
As Pilate to the mob replies, “Behold, behold your King.”

Poetically, Dudley-Smith ends each stanza with “Behold, behold your King,” linking all four together, but each bearing a slightly different theological implication. In this third stanza, the phrase is used ironically, as Pilate had wished to release Jesus, but succumbed to the crowd’s insistence on Barabbas. The final stanza bears an eschatological—end times—imprint:

Now He who bore for mortals sake the cross and all its pains
And chose a servant’s form to take, the King of glory reigns.
Hosanna to the Savior’s name till heaven’s rafters ring,
And all the ransomed host proclaim “Behold, behold your King.”

Here Jesus is portrayed as the Mediator between God and man, indeed, the reason for which He became human is manifest in its fullness starting today. The drama in the historical narrative is reflected in our hymns and liturgy today, Thursday evening, Friday night, and next Sunday morning. It is a drama that is best lived and reenacted in our liturgy, at least that was the thought of the ancient church fathers who established the church year gradually many centuries ago.