O Thou, the breath, the Light of all

*** Written for Passion Sunday, the music of this hymn – VEXILLA NOVA – intentionally echoes the start of the great hymn of this day ‘The royal banners forward go’  to the plainsong ‘Vexilla Regis’.



Passion Sunday: ‘The royal banners forward go’. The plainsong melody to this great hymn by Venantius Fortunatus[1] provides this hymn’s template. In my ears the plainsong sounds at first mournful, lamenting, then resolute, moving towards a strong conclusion. It colours the way I hear the stories of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones and of Jesus raising Lazarus from death.

The opening line combines both passages in succinct images by which we may address the Most High. It is in fact a quotation, being the opening of a translation of the Lord’s Prayer[2]. The “Driving-Power of Life” derives particularly from Ezekiel’s vision, though couched in more contemporary terms.

Human life, by contrast, is portrayed as a stricken condition on which ‘the crack of doom’ exerts a fatal pull. We share the wretched condition of the whole house of Israel, whose bones are dried up…hope is lost; we are cut off completely (Ezekiel 37.11b). The tone of the hymn is almost complaining, like Martha and Mary, each of whom greeted Jesus, Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. The hymn can be thought of as beginning with confession of our tendency to whine helplessly in the face of a world seemingly out of control.

Verse two refers to ‘your covenant’, meaning God’s covenant made with Noah [3] on behalf of all creatures, including all peoples. It is a covenant for fruitfulness and prosperity, and it binds all creation into God’s community. In due course, the covenant was freshly focussd within the community of Israel, but this was in order to give impetus to the salvation intended to reach to the end of the earth (Isaiah 49.6). In the Christian era this salvation was articulated in terms of Christ Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, and, in Europe at least, was deeply inscribed within popular culture. Nowadays, however, a great deal of evidence shows that ‘the story of Christ’s love and cross is scarcely known…’

In verse three we worshipers acknowledge the Church’s record of oppression and abuse, a record that continues into the present time. Although we may individually know no way in which we contribute to this record, we are offered the opportunity to re-identify ourselves as belonging to the entire human community in its sinfulness. Yet we need to see that our sin is not itself at issue: we need to recognise that the ‘vulnerable…who protest with their every breath’, deserve to hear the confession and receive the restitution that we collectively can and should make.

It amounts to a bleak and desperate landscape. We are bound to ask whether people like us, who are inclined to regard themselves as consumers of religious experience rather than as people obliged to fulfil the demands of religious calling, can even begin to know ‘the truth wherein all bond and grow’. The last phrase of the last verse indicates that we picture ourselves, like Israel in Ezekiel’s vision, and like Lazarus, as entombed; but, in our case, the tomb consists of cultural sin.

So we address ourselves once more to ‘the Breath, the Light of all’, who makes the decisive difference to our destiny: ‘with You we stand; without we fall.’ Conscious of total need, we pray that God in Christ (for the presence of Jesus is implied by the allusion to the raising of Lazarus) will call us from ‘this’, specifically our individual and collective, ‘tomb’. The prayer implies that in hearing and responding to the divine ‘voice’, it is the activity of praising God that registers and ratifies this life-restoring love. The hymn thus intimates the resurrection triumph that lies ahead.

[1] c530 – c610. The hymn was written to mark the arrival at Poitiers of a procession bearing a fragment of the true cross.

[2] Neil Douglas-Klotz: Prayers of the Cosmos – Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Jesus (1992)

[3] Genesis 9.9-16

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