Sunday, July 25, 2010

St. James deserves better

Today is the feast of St. James the Greater, perhaps the most important of the apostles after Peter, the rock of the church. As it so happened, I attended two Anglican services today — one that observed the feast day and one that ignored it.

Both the 1928 BCP and the 1979 prayer book honor James on this date with his own readings, following the 1789 American BCP which in turn uses the readings from the English 1662 BCP. The Gospel is the familiar reading (Matthew 20:20-28) about James' mom trying to install her two sons in a privileged position at Jesus' left and right hand.

Meanwhile, the Epistle is Acts 11:27-12:3, about his martyrdom at the hands of Herod in 44 A.D. My history isn't very good, but it appears James the Greater was the 2nd documented Christian martyr, after Stephen — consistent with church chronologies I found at FreeRepublic and CTLibrary. James is also interesting because of how he is called by Jesus (along with Peter, Andrew and John) from his work fishing along the Sea of Galilee.

However, James seems to be sorely underrepresented in the 1940 Hymnal. He is used as a symbol of the martyrs and apostles, and for this feast the choirmaster is encouraged to schedule one or more of these hymns. The best of these is perhaps Hymn #136: “Let us now our voices raise.” It uses a 9th century text by the greatest Greek hymnographer, as translated by John Mason Neale. The melody is a 13th century tune, first published in the 16th century. But the Hymnal 1940 Companion says the hymn is (for the Orthodox tradition) a hymn for the martyrdom of St. Timothy (May 3). Hymnal 1982 (#237) uses the same words but a 16th century German tune.

Hymnal 1982 offers another option, with a general purpose roll-your-own hymn for the saints (#231 and #232 differ only in the tune). Peter, Paul, James, Matthew, Luke and both Marys are represented by relevant verses.

The Hymn Makers Cecil Frances Alexander and Fraces Ridley HavergalHowever, further down in H82, hymn #276 ("For thy blest saints") by Cecil Frances Alexander starts with a general tribute to all martyrs, and then lays out what little we know of John: leaving his father Zebedee, witnessing the Annunciation, and being slain by Herod. The blog Conjubilant with Song lists the hymn as “For all thy saints, a noble throng,” with a different tune.

This is not one of Mrs. Alexander's best known hymns, which include "He is risen, he is risen," "Once in royal David's city," and "All things bright and beautiful." Still, for a hymn written in 1875 by an English bishop’s wife, it’s surprising not to find it as one of the 13 Alexander lyrics in The English Hymnal (1906), nor in Songs of Praise (1933) or New English Hymnal (1986).

Is the hymn obscure because we don’t make a big deal about James (or most of the saints)? Is it because the major hymnals list two other hymns with a similar opening line: "For all the saints" (with the magnificent Ralph Vaughan Williams tune) and "For thy dear saints" by Richard Mant?

I don’t know the reason, but it seems like an apostle — and a major one at that — might have expected better treatment by posterity.

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