When they came to the place called “The Skull,” they crucified Jesus there, and the two criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing.” They divided his clothes among themselves by throwing dice. The people stood there watching while the Jewish leaders made fun of him: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah whom God has chosen!” The soldiers also made fun of him: they came up to him and offered him cheap wine, and said, “Save yourself if you are the king of the Jews!” Above him were written these words: “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals hanging there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The other one, however, rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you fear God? You received the same sentence he did. Ours, however, is only right, because we are getting what we deserve for what we did; but he has done no wrong.” And he said to Jesus, “Remember me, Jesus, when you come as King!” Jesus said to him, “I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me.” Luke 23 v 33-43
Many of us during lockdown are beginning to notice the brightness of Spring and are making the most of being allowed out to exercise each day. Perhaps we are walking a great deal more than we normally do or spending quality time in the garden. I’m sure one of the good things to come from this period in our lives is that our fitness levels may have improved a great deal and we appreciate so much the fresh air we can breathe outside. Walking for further or longer, exploring new pathways and even building up stamina in tackling some hills, are all to the good. As the anniversary of the first lockdown approaches on the 23rd March, I was remembering how at this time last year I managed to get to the top of a hill I’d never climbed before and although it was a steep and tiring climb, when I got to the top the view was it’s own reward. I discovered locally that the hill is known as “Easter hill” which not only made it special to climb at this time of year but when I got to the top, in awe, the hymn “There is a Green Hill” came into my mind. That Easter hymn is one I have sung every Good Friday for as long as I can remember and it’s steady tune and solid words have probably taught me more theology than many books have.
A Spring hymn we also enjoy in this season is “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. Did you know that that hymn was written by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander (1823-95) who also wrote “There is a Green Hill”? Mrs Alexander was born in the emerald isle in County Tyrone and her many hymns (over 400) had a few recognisable stylistic trademarks. She had a way of including nature in her hymns and in the same way she included the poor. Perhaps her most famous hymn is ‘There is a Green Hill far away’. This hymn was inspired by a little hill outside the walls of Derry. In her mind it was on a hill like that that Jesus was crucified. Her hymn was to help her godchildren to understand the statements of the apostle’s creed: “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried” but it was also composed while she sat by the bedside of a sick child, demonstrating Mrs Alexander’s ability to offer comfort and strength to others through expressing her faith through her hymn writing talent. Mrs Alexander was of a humble disposition and disliked praise and flattery. She died greatly beloved by the many poor she had helped by her kindness.
Today as we continue to climb the hills before us in these challenging times, we keep going, one foot in front of the other, drawing strength from the gifts of God. In the middle of the First World War a doctor was busy in his consulting room with patients who were affected by the many tensions of the war. As he was listening to their anxieties, he heard singing from a room above his consulting room. It was his wife and children singing “There is a Green Hill Far Away”. The doctor said to his patients, “If we all believed in the truth of that hymn we hear being sung, we would have less worry, anxiety and fear”.
Today we too learn from a green hill and the view it enables us to see, it enables us to see that there are gifts for us to realise even in the darkest of days: the gift of nature, the gift of music and the gift of faith.
This week’s prayer is one verse from Mrs Alexander’s metrical version of a hymn known as St Patrick’s Breastplate and we introduce it on St Patrick’s day (17th March):
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. Amen
This week’s music: