The deer’s cry … a sermon for Trinity Sunday


I wasn’t preaching this week – and like many preachers there was something like a sigh of relief that I didn’t have to wrestle with trying to explain the Trinity! However, one of the hymns we sang was the wonderful St Patrick’s Breastplate in the wonderful translation by Mrs C F Alexander. After the service someone commented to me how long it was, despite the fact that the version we sang from our hymn book has only five verses. It brought to mind the Trinity Sunday sermon I preached three years ago on the same hymn. I share it with you again today.

The press sometimes seems to take great delight in quoting one survey or another claiming to show that religious belief is in decline. Actually not true although patterns of churchgoing have changed – and in this diocese at least we have begun to see some growth.

But there is one area that we have seen real decline – and that is in the length of hymns that churchgoers are apparently willing to sing. And even clergy. One well-known broadcasting cleric tweeted not long ago that no hymn should be more than four verses unless it’s for a procession. And you can measure this decline in the acceptable length of hymns by looking back at our hymn books.

Take a hymn we’re singing today – the great Trinitarian hymn known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate – which is one of my favourite hymns. All vicars have their eccentricities and one of mine is to make you sing this hymn at least once a year all the way through. Go back to the good old days of the English Hymnal, published in 1906, and it has nine verses. Ancient and Modern Revised which came out in 1950 still had nine verses. But by the time of the New English Hymnal in 1986 it had shrunk to six verses – not even including the others as optional. And the latest hymn book to be published, the new Ancient and Modern (which we now use at St John’s) which is just off the presses and is in every other way an excellent hymn book, has reduced it further to only five verses. And all the verses that are getting chopped are in my opinion the best ones. I just love verse seven:

Against the wizard’s evil craft
Protect me Christ, till thy returning.

This may be an old hymn but it’s also a hymn for the Harry Potter generation!

Well – I know that at Saint John’s, being a traditional lot, you would never let anything like society’s modern taste for brevity to get in the way of singing all nine verses so that’s what we’re going to do today – though just in case you’re not as keen on the hymn as I am I have split it into two.

We live in the culture of the sound-bite, the soap opera, and the short attention span. Anything that requires anyone to think for longer than a few seconds, or to exercise their brains, is out. This is a visual age. Politicians search for short, attention-grabbing phrases that will be picked up by the media. News is only shown on the television if there are pictures to go with it.

Church services, people tell us, must be over within an hour. Anyone would think we locked the doors to prevent people escaping. There has been a growing emphasis in recent years on keeping people entertained in church, rather than worshipping the Triune God – a trend that mercifully is now being reversed. People cannot cope with long sermons, we are told. I always thought a long sermon was forty-five minutes, but I’ve known people complain at more than just five. No wonder, then, that we no longer sing hymns like Saint Patrick’s Breastplate. Nine verses we are told is far too long to be sung at a normal service these days. A great shame – I think this is one of the greatest hymns ever written.

This wonderful hymn, Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, was translated from the Gaelic by Mrs C. F. Alexander – also known for “There is a green hill” and “All things bright and beautiful”- though I can’t help thinking that the Church would have been better off without the latter. St Patrick’s Breastplate, though, is a classic – and it also has another name – “The Deer’s Cry” – which I’ll explain later. It expresses so clearly Patrick’s belief in the Trinity – The Three in One and One in Three. But this is no ordinary belief – it is a belief in a God of power, a God who acts, a God who protects – and this is why the hymn speaks to me:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of  the Creator of Creation

Patrick was born around the year 414, on the west coast of the Roman province of Britannia in what is now Wales. As a young boy of sixteen, Patrick was captured by a raiding party and sold into slavery in Armagh. After six years he escaped and, it is believed, returned home. But during those six years in captivity, as he grew in faith, Ireland began to take hold of him. And when he returned home he became determined to return as a missionary, which he did around the year 455.

David Adam, in his book “The Cry of the Deer” – a series of meditations on the hymn – describes its origin. One year, as Easter approached, Patrick was determined to keep the festival in Tara. Tara was the centre of witchcraft and idolatry in Ireland. As it happened, it coincided with a great pagan festival. All lights were extinguished and all fires put out, and only the king would provide people with light and fire. Providing them was a symbol of his power over the forces of nature and his power over his people.

Patrick and his companions pitched their tent, collected wood, and kindled the Paschal fire, still lit of course every Easter at churches across the world, as it is here. They lit it despite the fact that on this festival night no-one was allowed to kindle any lights or fires except the king himself. The king’s wise men warned him that unless this Paschal fire was extinguished immediately it would flood Ireland with its light and burn until Doomsday.

The king was in no doubt that Patrick had to be stopped, so he sent soldiers to kill him. Patrick and his companions escaped their attackers. As far as the people were concerned Patrick’s escape demonstrated without a doubt that this new faith was far more powerful than the old religion. Legend grew that Patrick was far more powerful than the druids and people believed that he was a “shape-changer” – a bit like Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for those of you who are Star Trek fanatics. It was said that when the army attacked him Patrick and his companions turned into deer, or at least that was all the army saw. Tradition has it that it was on this occasion the hymn was written, hence its two names “The Deer’s Cry” or “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate”.

The hymn as we know it today in fact probably belongs to three centuries after Patrick, though that doesn’t really matter, as it expresses so clearly the early Celtic Christian Faith. A faith in a God who is involved in the everyday. A faith in a God who overcomes evil and protects his people.

It is a faith which, as David Adam puts it, is centred in: …the God who surrounds us, the Christ who is with us, and the Spirit within us. In these affirmations, the Divine Glory is woven into all of life like a fine thread; there is a Presence and a Power that pervades everything.

This hymn conveys a belief in a God who is worth believing in. This is no stained-glass window kind of God, simply to be looked at or revered. Neither is it a judgmental God, demanding constant confession and crawling in order that we might be alright on the night.

This is the great and powerful Three in One and One in Three – the Triune God – yet also a God who involves himself totally in our daily lives. This is a God who creates – and who is present in his creation. This is a God who loves – and who teaches and guides those whom he loves. This is a God who protects – and who acts as a shield against the attacks of evil. This is a God who is present in all around us – Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

This is not a God for Sundays and Church – this is a seven-day a week God for church and home and work and play.

Patrick knew the presence of God – Father, Son and Spirit – in his life. He knew his guidance and his protection as he risked his life to preach the good news. He was able to draw on God’s strength as he set out to face the soldiers at Tara. Our God – the Great Three in One – will be with us on our journeys – whether spiritual or physical. His strength is available to us, his protection is there for us, his love is there to support us. He desires to be present in our lives. Patrick expresses this belief in the Presence of God in the recurring words of the hymn “I bind unto myself today…”

Each day when we arise from sleep we arise in God’s presence, and as we face the joys and the challenges and the difficulties of each day we can do so knowing that God is present. We, like Patrick, can “bind unto ourselves each day the Three in One and One in Three”. Because we commune with God daily, we do not just go to visit him on Sunday.

The presence of God in our lives, day by day. The presence of a God who supports, who strengthens, who protects. The knowledge, in our hearts and not just in our minds, that we are immersed at all times in:

The Peace of the Father
The Love of the Son
The Power of the Spirit.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of  the Creator of Creation.