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At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing

“At the Lamb’s High Feast”  This hymn text originated in the medieval age.  All hymns from this time were written in Latin, as it was not until the Reformation in the sixteenth century that hymnody in the vernacular (“common language”) was sung.  This text, “Ad coenam Agni providi” comes to us from an anonymous author (as most early hymn texts were), although this hymn was early spread to England, Italy and Spain.  Technically, this is an Easter text.  However, there is no reason not to sing Easter hymns throughout the church year (except maybe for Lent), and there are good reasons to sing them year-round.

            Most likely this hymn was used at the Easter Vigil services.  In the early and medieval Church, catechumens, or those adult converts who had studied the Christian faith for as long as three years, were baptized only on Holy Saturday’s Easter Vigil (the evening before Easter morning) and on Pentecost.  Donning a white alb symbolizing rebirth in Christ, these new converts would be baptized (usually they were dunked in the water—the early church knew nothing of the candy dish that so often passes for a font in our churches), were confirmed and then received first communion.  In some circles, particularly in England, Pentecost is still known as “Whitsuntide,” or “white Sunday,” in reference to the white albs worn by the converts to be baptized.  Easter Vigil on the other hand is a commemoration of Christ “passing from death to life” which, from a theological perspective, is what happens at baptism.  Notice the death/life eucharistic imagery used in this hymn.  The first stanza praises the “victorious king,” Christ, “Who has washed us in the tide flowing from His pierced side.”  Christ’s blood shed at Calvary cleanses and effects forgiveness through baptism.  We sing in the second stanza that “Christ the victim, Christ the priest” has given “his sacred blood for wine, give his body for the feast.”  In the Old Testament sense, Christ was the “priest,” offering the sacrifice to God on behalf of the people.  Yet, unlike those ancient priests, he was the sacrifice himself.  This concept of God sacrificing Himself (in the context of the Trinity) for the sins of the people for no account of their own is a theological concept unique to Christianity.  In all other religions, humanity must come to God.  In Christianity, God comes to humanity.

            Notice further Old Testament imagery in the third stanza.  “Where the paschal blood is poured, death’s dread angel sheathes the sword;  Israel’s hosts triumphant go through the wave that drowns the foe.”  In a metaphorical sense, we modern humans are like Israel.  We, too, are saved from the ravages of Satan the foe (ie., pharoah) by a God who first leads us by cloud and pillar of fire, and who “drowns the foe” not by the waters of the Red Sea but in the waters of baptism.  Baptism may not be an outwardly dramatic event (especially the way candie-dish-using Lutherans practice it), but inwardly it is no less dramatic than the Red Sea falling in on the advancing chariots.

            The fourth stanza praises Christ, the “Paschal victim, paschal bread;  with sincerity and love eat we manna from above.”  From the term pascha we derive “passion.”  We speak of Christ’s “passion” as being the time preceding His death.  He has fulfilled the Old Covenant so that the manna we eat from above is His own body—a eucharistic theology at once fulfilling the foreshadowing of the Old Testament. 

            As with any good hymn, there is much more to be said.


Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with

“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.