Despised, rejected servant

*** A praise-song-prayer to the crucified and risen Christ. To the eyes of faith he is both suffering servant  and Levitical High Priest who oversees the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement      (see Leviticus 16).

The music is intentionally dirge-like, echoing the ‘Funeral March for a Hero’ in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 26. It is named for the Orthodox GREAT and Good Friday, and for Allen GARDINER (1794-1851),  a missionary who died of starvation in Tierra del Fuego.


The Fourth Servant Song in Second Isaiah sits over the commemoration of Good Friday as inescapably as Graham Sutherland’s ‘Christ in majesty’ dominates the view eastward in Coventry Cathedral. A stark objectivity about the text forbids any romanticizing of the Servant’s role; he is to be sacrificed as a sin-offering:

 5…upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

     6…the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all…

    10 When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring…through him the will of the LORD will prosper.

    11 The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous.

The theme of sacrifice is also at the heart of Hebrews 10.16-25. In what is for us a complicated understanding, both readings allude to Leviticus 16, where the rites for the Day of Atonement are prescribed. Two goats are to be chosen, one of which is to be killed as a sin-offering for the Lord, and the other to be presented to the Lord to make atonement over it, so that it may be sent away to the wilderness to Azazel (probably the name of a demon who haunted desolate regions and represented death as the state of no-longer-being.) When the goat that has borne all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgression, and all their sins has come to a barren region, it is not to be sacrificed to Azazel, but set free in the wilderness.  

Today this material has passed out of fashion. ‘Once, only once, and once for all, his precious life he gave’, William Bright’s well-loved hymn on this theme, was included neither in the 1999 Jubilate Hymns collection “Sing Glory” nor in Ancient and Modern New Standard’s successor “Common Praise” (2000). The texts from Leviticus, Second Isaiah, and Hebrews are nonetheless the foundations under-girding this hymn.

The hymn is an address, a prayer, to the crucified and risen Christ. To the eyes of faith he is both the suffering servant and the Levitical high priest who oversees the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement; the hymn acknowledges both roles combined within Jesus.

The first stanza addresses the concerns of those Christians who consider that God requires or demands satisfaction for human sin. Going beyond what Scripture explicitly states, we assert that ‘love’s demands’ are that all creatures should flourish without let or hindrance from any source whatever.

‘Conduit’ in verse three is a metaphor that aims to get as close as possible to the transaction that Christians believe to have taken place on the cross. Some may consider its rhyme ‘bound to it’ impermissible, but the context, and the slow pace of the music, make an exception possible in this instance.

The music is composed in a solemn style, with maximum simplicity of expression. The intention is that it should act like a carriage bearing the catafalque of the lyrics; there is an echo of the “Funeral March for the death of a Hero” from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 26.

The name GREAT GARDINER combines the Orthodox name for this day, Great Friday, with commemoration of Allen Gardiner (1794-1851). Shortly before this missionary died of starvation on the desolate shores of Tierra del Fuego, he wrote in his diary:

“The Lord, in his providence, has seen fit to bring us very low… he has removed many of his blessings – but for our good… I sense there is a deep purpose in my present trial and I pray that I many discern it…Help me to see myself in the light of your holy word, and to search and try my heart by it….And let not this mission fail, even if we are not permitted to labour in it.”