The cry of the deer

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday. And this year I chose to preach on one of the great hymns about the Trinity known as St Patrick’s Breastplate. Here’s what I said.

The BBC has been in the news of late over licence fees for the over 75s. But one piece of BBC news you may have missed is that it is giving you the opportunity to vote for your favourite hymn. At least it is, if your favourite hymn is on the shortlist of the 100 most featured hymns and worship songs from the last five years of Songs of Praise.

The vote is open until the end of this month, so do go and have a look and see if your favourite hymn is there. The vote was brought to my attention by our school head this week when I went in to lead collective worship. So I went home and had a look – and sure enough, my current favourite is there, so I’ve voted for it.

Coincidentally, I also received a week ago an email from our Church Copyright Licence company listing their top 20 most used hymns and songs in the UK. And my current favourite is there too – at no 1. And as you’re probably wondering by now what it is, let me tell you.

It’s Bless the Lord by Matt Redman, more usually known as 10,000 reasons. Anyone know it? (no, they didn’t – except for the priest I live with!) It’s one we haven’t sung at St John’s yet and it’s clearly time we did if it’s No 1 in the charts, so I have here the music which I will pass to John, our organist, after the service, so we can have it at a service soon. But two of my all-time favourite hymns disappointingly didn’t make it to the BBC top 100.

The first is Lift high the cross. I suspect it doesn’t appear because it’s far too long. It’s a great hymn which was sung at my Church Army commissioning many years ago and which is a great Church Army anthem. We sang it out our national gathering of the Church Army Community a week ago. As we did 10,000 Reasons. Yes, everyone in Church Army knows 10,000 Reasons.

But we didn’t sing the other, our last hymn this morning, the great Trinitarian hymn known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate – and another very long hymn.  Go back to the good old days of the English Hymnal, published in 1906, and it has nine long 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 use here and which is in every other way an excellent hymn book, has reduced it further to only five verses and still some people thinks it’s too long! You might want to have it open in front of youas I talk about it – it’s number 277 in your hymn book.

One well-known broadcasting cleric tweeted a while ago that no hymn should be more than four verses unless it’s for a procession. Sadly, people in this modern age like brevity! Church services, people tell us, must be over within an hour. Anyone would think we locked the doors to prevent people escaping. People cannot cope with long sermons, we are told. I always thought a long sermon was forty-five minutes – that’s what they were in the Baptist church I was brought up in! 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 in their entirety. 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. And I’d happily sing all nine! 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!

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 God. But this is no ordinary belief – Patrick expresses a belief in a God of power, a God who acts, a God who protects – the God of signs and wonders, this is the God Ibelieve in and experience:

David Adam, in his excellent book “The Cry of the Deer” – a series of meditations on the hymn. Gives an alternative translation. He begins the hymn:

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 to Ireland as a missionary, which he did around the year 455.

David Adam 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. And as it happened, Easter 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. And providing them was a symbol of the king’s 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 the king that unless this Paschal fire was extinguished immediately it would flood Ireland with its light and burn until Doomsday.

And so 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. For 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”

And it expresses so clearly the early Celtic Christian Faith and the faith of Saint Patrick. A faith in a God who is involved in the everyday. A faith in a God who overcomes evil and protects his people. A faith in a God of power.

It is a faith which, as David Adam puts it in his book, 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