Hymn of the Day for Palm Sunday, Year B

Here is my hymn text for Palm Sunday in Year B of the Roman Catholic three-year Sunday lectionary cycle. I look forward to readers’ suggestions for changes in word choice, rhyme scheme, progress of thought, and hymn-tune pairing. Since this is the last in the series of hymns texts that I will be posting as your Lenten penance this year ☺, I would like to thank all the Pray Tell readers who have offered their comments on these hymn texts. Your reflections have helped me to improve these texts for the sung prayer of the People of God.

Hymn of the Day for Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, Year B

The crowds who cried, “Hosanna,”
Now clamor, “Crucify!”
Where once you rode in triumph
You stumble out to die.
O suffering Messiah,
O Lord of love and loss,
Reveal to us the myst’ry
Of your life-giving cross.

This instrument of torture,
This altar on a hill,
This artifact of evil
Confounded by God’s will
Brings to the godforsaken
The sign of God’s embrace:
Your outstretched arms, Christ Jesus,
A miracle of grace.

Though in God’s form, you never
Claimed parity divine
But in our human likeness
Lived out your human life.
Thus emptied and so humbled,
Obedient unto death,
A slave upon a scaffold,
You drew your final breath.

For this you are exalted
And marked with great acclaim,
Receiving highest honors:
The name above all names.
So at your name, Christ Jesus,
Now ev’ry knee will bend,
With ev’ry tongue proclaiming
Your Lordship without end.

76.76.D.

Suggested Hymn Tune: PASSION CHORALE
Alternative Hymn Tune:

Fr. Jan Michael Joncas
St. Paul, MN
13 March 2012

20 comments

  1. Mike,

    I think this is the best yet. It has meat as well as simplicity. (I was not overfond of some of the others, I have to confess.) The imagery is good, and the scriptural roots clear.

    One or two little problems with false text accents:

    (1) Stanza 1, last line: the main stress on “life-giving” is “life” not “giv”. I have no good solution. The best I could come up with was “within your saving cross”.

    (2) Stanza 2, line 5: a bump on “brings TO the godforsaken”, accentuating the unimportant preposition. Once again, no good solution, but I was looking for something along the lines of “provides the godforsaken / with sign of God’s embrace”.

    I expect some may object to the half-rhymes of divine and life in stanza 3, nor acclaim and names in stanza 4, but I don’t mind them myself.

    Before I had scrolled to the end and found your suggested tune, I found myself singing this to AURELIA. Perhaps more in the spirit of the Philippians canticle than PASSION CHORALE ?

  2. I like this too, and agree with Paul.

    I found myself stumbling only at the beginning of the third verse: the run-on is a bit tricky, and you really need more of a break at the comma musically so as to make it quite clear that ‘though’ covers only that far. What about:

    Though formed in God’s own being
    You emptied out your self,
    And in our human (fleshly?) likeness
    Lived out your (a?) human life:
    Thus humbled as a servant …

    ‘life-giving’ could be replaced by: redeeming, transforming, salvific …

    Tunes: PASSION CHORALE is obviously well known, but feels almost sacrosanct, at least for congregations with enough range to sing new stuff. One difficulty is that you need something which does justice both to the Calvary element in stanzas 1-2 and to the Philippians material later. I wondered about GENEVAN 130–it would need to stipulate only one beat at the end of odd lines, and some stress adjustments on some even lines, but it might catch the mood. I also thought WOLVERCOTE–though that might be too upbeat.

  3. I was going to question the use of “parity” (it’s a nifty word), but I’ve decided it’s not the stumbling block I thought it was: for those who don’t know what it means, its meaning will become evident when they pay attention to the Second Reading. And although “parity” could be misheard as “parody”, we’re expecting that people will be singing these hymns, not simply listening to them being sung, correct?

  4. Mike, as I was reading the words, I was singing to St. Theoduph, a tune that already has Palm Sunday resonances. I’ve loved your courage in sharing these texts in this way.

  5. So, so good.

    The beginning of stanza 3 is the least successful part, I think. The enjambment (you never/claimed parity divine) that works perfectly well on the page is harder to track when it’s sung. The periodicity of the tune teaches us that a phrase has ended here, and a thought is complete. (Not to mention plenty of folks will need to breathe at the end of the line, further breaking up the thought.)

    Too, I find poetic inversion such as “parity divine” hard to process, and the last thing I want to do in prayer is diagram a sentence. (Are you listening, Missal-translation team? No, I guess you weren’t.)

    I don’t have a good answer to either of those nitpicks, but I offer them with respect, admiration and thanks. If this is my Lenten penance, let it continue year-round!

  6. I think that “godforsaken” in verse 2 is not a word that should be used in this context. It gives a warped understanding of the nature of God and of his relationship to His people. God never forsook Israel, and obviously is always with His Church. Who then is “godforsaken?”

    As for “St. Theodulph,” hopefully it’s already been used in the procession (unless the traditional Gregorian melody was utilized). Why sing a hymn twice in one Mass? As much as “Passion Chorale” is wedded “O Sacred Head,” it’s a better fit than “Aurelia” (itself wedded strongly to “The Church’s One Foundation”) and which is much too triumphant for Palm Sunday. Remember the mood and focus of the Mass changes after the procession is done.

  7. I usually weigh in on these beautiful texts, but I have had a bit of “un-scheduled” surgery and am still groggy. I just wanted to say (in a short moment of lucidity ) that I find the images evoked here so wonderful -the paradoxes put forth in verse 1 with with wonderful alliteration – the “altar on a hill” in verse 2 – I agree with the comments about the beginning of verse 3, but it could work as is withno breath at the end of the line (we don’t take a breath there anyway, but try to sing the first 2 lines as one thought) I would love to try this, but I am far behind as it is.
    Michael, any thoughts about continuing for the Easter season? I, for one, would love to see the texts!

  8. I like the first stanza a lot.

    Second stanza, line 5: How about:
    2.5 Brings all the lost, forsaken

    Third stanza, line 1/2:
    3.1 God’s equal, yet you never
    3.2 Clung to a form divine,

    (I like the use of “parity” but I always found the point of the Philippians hymn the letting go, the kenosis…)

    Third stanza, line 5:
    “and so” feels a bit weak; how about:
    3.5 Thus emptied, stripped, and humbled

    As always, these are a great addition to the Church’s prayer.

  9. Once again, I am deeply grateful for your helpful comments. I have probably been too influenced by Moltmann’s _The Crucified God_, but I think it is precisely insofar as the Son of God took on “godforsakenness” (i.e., the sinless one took on sin) that we gain some sense of the awesomeness of the redemption. Here is my presumably final version of the text, incorporating your other suggestions:

    The crowds who cried, “Hosanna,”
    Now clamor, “Crucify!”
    Where once you rode in triumph
    You stumble out to die.
    O suffering Messiah,
    O Lord of love and loss,
    Reveal to us the myst’ry
    Of your redeeming cross. (I like the assonances of “reveal” and “redeem”)

    This instrument of torture,
    This altar on a hill,
    This artifact of evil
    Confounded by God’s will
    Provides the godforsaken
    The sign of God’s embrace:
    Your outstretched arms, Christ Jesus,
    A miracle of grace.

    God’s equal, yet you never
    Clung to a form divine
    But in our human likeness
    Lived out God’s great design.
    Thus emptied, stripped, and humbled,
    Obedient unto death,
    A slave upon a scaffold,
    You drew your final breath.

    For this you are exalted
    And marked with great acclaim,
    Receiving highest honors:
    The name above all names.
    So at your name, Christ Jesus,
    Now ev’ry knee will bend,
    With ev’ry tongue proclaiming
    Your Lordship without end.

    1. In Vol 2 of his “Jesus of Nazareth” J. Ratzinger comments that those who participated in the triumphant entry into Jerusalem were different from the crowd who called for Jesus’ execution. The former, he postulates, were disciples, while the latter were hostile. Although he doesn’t claim to be a biblical scholar, Ratzinger’s work was favourably received by the late Martin Hengel, among others.

      1. I was thinking the same thing, not in connection with Ratzinger, but with a conversation I had with a biblical scholar who was arguing that the two crowds are not the same. Now I cannot, alas, remember the details of her argument.

        If this is true, is messes with a lot of the Palm Sunday sermons I’ve heard over the years.

      2. There was probably a lot of overlap between the two “crowds”. Perhaps they were led by the disciples on Palm Sunday, but fell under the sway of the Jewish authorities on Good Friday. This seems more plausible to me than the postulation that there were two completely different “crowds”

      3. This reminds me of Josephus describing his endeavors as a governor in Taricheae. He was acclaimed sometimes, reviled other times and constantly trying to sway the crowd one way or another. That the two crowds were different makes no difference; they were both crowds of the people of Jerusalem.

        To put it in a more timely way, nine people is not even a crowd, but their collective voice can swing on a single personal voice. 5-4 one way, and they condemn; 5-4 the other way, and they establish what is almost eternal truth,
        a near unbreakable precedent.

  10. A good “hymn of the day,” as this is, need not be used only once every three years. “The Crowds Who Cried ‘Hosanna'” is not so heavily based on the Marcan passion narrative that it won’t also work quite well for Palm Sunday, years A and C. I could also see it being used for the Exultation of the Holy Cross and the solemnity of Christ the King.

    For a good hymn which is assigned as a hymn of the day for a particular Sunday every three years other uses will be found.

  11. godforsaken: the powerful starkness of the word may initially give one pause — but eventually I landed on the resonances with the incipit of Ps 22 (and its resolution) . Okay, so I’m a little slow.

    I have puzzled for many years over the ways the early Church dealt with the question how the Jesus whom they experienced as “son of God” was the same Jesus publicly seen executed in humiliation. Whence, I imagine, came the references to Isaiah’s suffering servant, the Philippians hymn, Ps 22, Mark’s silent Lamb of God, &c. Again, it has been a long time since I studied Moltmann.

  12. Paul, I would NEVER consider such a fine scientist and hymn text writer as yourself to be “slow.” You are correct in noting that the “godforsaken” line is an allusion to the cry from the cross in Mark (and Matthew).

    May I share a niggling issue with the group about stanza three? I know that the underlying text of Philippians 2 has “Jesus did not claim equality with God,” but in our post Nicaean-Chalcedonian era would we understand this as “equality with God the Father”? If so, does the formulation in stanza three suggest that Jesus is somehow “other” than God? I’m hoping that I have stayed close enough to the biblical text not to cause offence, but if anyone has a better solution I’d be happy to consider it.

  13. Part of the answer to the “to whom is Jesus equal” question may revolve around how Paul intended or the Church reads “form of God” (morphe theou) and “regard equality with God” (egesato isa theo) in the ur-hymn Paul quotes in Phi 2. A fair bit of docetist hay could be made from morphe theou. (In fact, that issue may pop up in “But in our human likeness/lived out” — “But sharing human being/you lived” might avoid it.) I have no idea if trinitarian feathers would get ruffled by the statement “Jesus is isomorphic to the Father,” but I also doubt that was Paul’s concern.

    Besides, this is a _hymn_ — words of prayer in the hearts and on the lips of God’s people. What is prayed must cohere with the faith of the Church, but needn’t say everything. (When someone complained to me once that “All are welcome” simply wasn’t true, I noted (after commiserating about sins of exclusion) that “All white, straight, ectomorphic males of European descent are welcome” didn’t scan.)

    1. Unfortunately Paul, heresies were spread quickly and more readily because those teaching them set them to catchy little popular ditties that were easily learned and sung by the people, ingraining it in their brains.

      “Besides, this a hymn…” doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be theologically precise and EASILY understandable by the average congregation. There’s enough out there already that’s borderline.

      I’m sorry Fr. Jan, verse two is neither of those things, as nicely as it starts out. If it takes that much thinking and explanation, something isn’t correct.

  14. I don’t disagree. I take serious theological issue with a lot of the “praise music” uncritically appropriated by well-intentioned music ministers because people are attracted by the contemporary musical (Disney-ized) vocabulary and don’t scrutinize at the questionable (e.g. vicarious atonement) soteriology embedded therein. But hymn writers within the Catholic tradition take seriously (should and do — present company emphatically included) the responsibility of orthodoxy as well as the artistic responsibility of crafting poetry that hangs beautiful, meaningful, accessible words on the public prayers of the worship-assembled Church.

    But I’m confused. Are we discussing the use of “godforsaken” in verse two (with which I for one have no difficulty) or issues with verse 3A “God’s equal, yet you never/ Clung to a form divine, / But in our human likeness / Lived out God’s great design” — which has a fairly obvious scriptural warrant? If there’s heresy therein (NOT my claim), I thought I was arguing that it would spring from the (mis)interpretation of the Philippians text in se, not in this (rather deft, imho) metrical realization of it.

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