*** This hymn is really a song for solo, or for unison voices. Easily learned, its mood is sombre, keenly felt.The-boy-who-once-ignored-you
This hymn, derived from teaching in Sermon on the Mount, responds to Jesus’ requiring us to love our enemies.
It is written as though Jesus is talking to us – to me, to you. His tone is sympathetic; he knows the sorts of things that make us anxious. In the first two verses he understands that, when we are afraid, we readily look for people to blame for causing our fears. They may or may not be personally known to us, but – perhaps without even noticing that we do it – we turn them into people who are not as important as we are.
In the second half of each verse the voice of Jesus is meant to reassure. These people who seem to us like enemies, they’re no different from us. They want to be loved as much as we do. They have been forgiven, just as we have been forgiven. Not only that: the second half of the third verse makes plain that enemies can only pretend to terrify, for terror’s power has been disabled; the way Jesus went to his death saw to that.
The last line of each verse finishes with the word fire, and each time it has a different meaning.
In the first, people who may not need you (who look as if they’ve not even noticed that you exist) hope you’ll kindle fire. The phrase kindle fire is taken from an ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit: “Come … kindle the hearts of your faithful people with the fire of your love…”; the same prayer is echoed in the well-loved hymn “Come down, O Love divine”. In this verse, people hoping that we will kindle fire is a way of saying that, whether or not we feel it, each of us has a most important contribution to make to the peace of the world.
The second verse says that nothing can prevent you from passing through the fire. This refers to the hope expressed earlier in the verse that you’re the someone who’ll go an extra mile. The origin of that phrase is in Matthew 5.41, where people who were forced to carry baggage for occupying Roman soldiers (although the soldiers were legally prohibited from and could be punished for forcing people to carry their baggage) are urged to unnerve their oppressors by insisting on doing more than they were forced to do. Jesus is saying to oppressed people that, no matter how heavy the burdens laid on them, there are always non-violent ways to outwit oppressors. It entails conflict – that’s why this hymn says that nothing can prevent you from passing through the fire; but the point is that, armed with love for those whom we may once have feared, we will pass through to the other side.
The last line of the third verse refers to a section in ‘Little Gidding’, the last of T.S.Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. The two stanzas are:
The dove descending breaks the air Who then devised the torment? Love.
With flame of incandescent terror Love is the unfamiliar Name
Of which the tongues declare Behind the hands that wove
The one discharge from sin and error. The intolerable shirt of flame
The only hope, or else despair Which human power cannot remove.
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre – We only live, only suspire
To be redeemed from fire by fire. Consumed by either fire or fire.
There’s no avoiding the fires of enmity. But they can be overcome by the fires of love.
Of the two musical settings, MAYBUSH (a district of Southampton) is for solo or for unison voices, and HUMPHREYS (a friend, and hymn-writing mentor, who wrote a poignant setting for ‘O Love that wilt not let me go’, the first chords of which are quoted in this setting) is for harmony voices.