I bind unto myself today

Photo by Tyler Callahan on Unsplash

Last Sunday was the feast of The Holy Trinity. Many clergy worry about what to say on Trinity Sunday. How do you explain the Trinity? Well, here’s my attempt this year to deal with the great mystery of the Three-in-one God.

From time to time the BBC Songs of Praise programme holds a poll to find the nation’s favourite hymns. I had a look through the most recent list of the top 100 yesterday. Anyone know what the nation’s favourite hymn might be?

Yes – it’s Jerusalem.

I was disappointed to discover that two of my all time favourites do not appear. They never do. Mainly, I suspect, because congregations of today don’t have the stamina that people of the Victorian age had when it came to hymn singing.

The first is Lift high the cross. It’s a great hymn, coming in when sung all the way through at eleven verses and choruses, which was sung at my Church Army commissioning many years ago and which is a great Church Army anthem. And it was a delight to sing it as the processional hymn at our Diocesan Chrism Mass this year in Southwark Cathedral on Maundy ThursdayWe sang it in its entirety and it went on long after all the choirs and clergy and bishops had processed in to their places.

The other, our offertory hymn this morning, is 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 in the hymn book you have this morning, 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 think it’s too long! You might want to have it open in front of you as 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.  

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 Cecil Frances Alexander – also known for “There is a green hill far away” 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 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 I believe 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 had gone to Ireland from Wales around the year 455. 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 light and fire 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. But Patrick and his companions escaped their attackers. And tradition has it that it was on this occasion the hymn was written, hence its name of “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate”

And it expresses so clearly the early Celtic Christian Faith of these lands 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.

St Patrick’s Breastplate 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 the God who is Three in One. This is the God who creates – and who is present in his creation. This is the God who loves – and who teaches and guides those whom he loves. This is the God who protects – and who acts as a shield against the attacks of evil. This is the 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