Ash Wednesday, 26th February 2020
A way back before the flood, when I was recently arrived on this side of the pond, I started singing in the choir of St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow. In the 60s we sang Evensong twice a week on Sunday evenings and Wednesdays as well which was not bad for an all voluntary choir! For me one of the especial joys was the office hymns sung before the Magnificat. The year began with the great Advent hymn ‘Creator of the Stars of Night’ but petered out a bit by the time we had sung ‘O Blest Creator of the Night’ for the umpteenth time during Trinity to Advent. The Cathedral Provost did finally allow a major variant of ‘Three in One and One in Three’ as long as it wasn’t too often!
During the period leading up to Good Friday, one knew the importance of ‘the fast, as taught by holy lore’ which led to ‘the healing time decreed’ which itself pointed one toward ‘the royal banners’. There’s something about the archaic language that both John Mason Neale and Thomas Alexander Lacey used in their translations of the three office hymns shown above that took you out of this time to a different time and place: it let your mind go somewhere else, away from things normal. When Ralph Vaughan Williams, the editor of the English Hymnal, tied the first two to an old French tune and a 17th century German one, I believe he did something quite splendid, putting them into a more timeless place to be heard.
There is something so profound in managing to get to that place where we encounter the numinous, where we get a small glimpse of God. For me this is most often helped by music: it can be a simple old hymn, a bit of plainsong, or a Taizé chant that separates the self from ordinary life and goes beyond.
Tom Emlyn Williams