There is a gift we cannot grasp

*** This meditative hymn recognizes God’s invitation freely to eat of every tree of the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, whose fruit is given by grace alone.


There is a gift we cannot grasp.midi

We are graciously invited freely to eat of every tree of the garden except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We understand that the fruit of that tree may not be taken, but is given by grace. God’s prohibition is not be flouted; it is to be recognised as opportunity to receive – as the Prayer Book Collect has it – ‘far more abundantly than we can either ask or desire’.

The hymn is cast in the form of a myth that links the crucifixion of love to the story of Eden by interpreting that story. Speaking about the ‘Christian myth’, C.S.Lewis wrote

‘The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heavens of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens…at a particular time and place, followed by…historical consequences…’ (God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. 1970)

Verse 5 of this hymn enfolds us, singers, worshipers, bystanders into the telling of the myth. We are represented as persons who, having been brought by our impatience to the brink of eternal loss, are saved to be raised up from death.

The last stanza brings us within the story we have received to the future beyond that story, which it is for us to forge existentially. We think, at the beginning of Lent, of Jesus being led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. With the same thought we yoke our futures to his, confident in all that is assured because of him, recognizing that, in waiting, and facing the worst, untold blessings are promised.

This hymn is conceived in the style of a folk song. Adopting a gentle tone, it aims to teach by matter-of-fact explanation (verses 1 and 2), by moralizing (verses 3 and 4), by theologising (verses 1 and 5), and by encouragement (verse 6). The hymn presents itself as a slow-moving door-less people-mover, which people may step into or out of at will. Those who stay become responsible for the direction and the manner in which the train goes forward through history.

The music, composed on the day that the Church of England commemorates Christina Rossetti, suggested itself at the same time as the words of the opening couplet arrived. The first line may be recognized as a version of the Somerset Folk Song ‘Waly Waly’, only re-cast in the minor key. The last line of the music is intentionally unfinished, in order to suggest a necessary openness to the future.

The hymn can be sung as an unaccompanied melody, perhaps as a solo; a soloist might want to use a folk singer’s freedom to express the song as communication. But the harmonised version has a flowing quality that is worth practising to achieve. Whichever way the hymn is sung, attention needs to be given to breathing, because this lyric contains a good deal of enjambement (the running of one line on to the next). Maintaining the (gentle) forward movement of the music is important.