The Divine Hours of Lent

My father was an academic all of his adult life. He started his career as the entire faculty and administration of a tiny, rural school and ended up as the Academic Dean of East Tennessee State University, a position he held for almost two decades before his retirement. The undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral level education necessary to the leading of that kind of professional life was expensive, however, even in the early twentieth century when he was trying to obtain it.
As the fifteenth child in a family of sixteen, he had understood from the beginning that while he might expect some financial help from his family, he had best be prepared to hustle the lion’s share of the requisite funds for himself. Accordingly and by his own admission, he went looking early in life for something he could do that was both lucrative and still flexible enough to not interfere with class schedules and academic calendars. At what exact point he figured out that music was the answer, I never knew; but he did. I never knew, either, how old he was when he determined that he needed to know how to play a piano and, having so decided, managed to earn lessons for himself by yard work and fast talking, but he did.
I don’t think the result would ever have been regarded by an accomplished professor of piano as being of concert quality, which was all right. All my father wanted to do–at least originally–was play piano bar well enough to take in significant tips in the speak-easys and honky-tonks. But because Sunday was also a free day academically and because he was going to be in church anyway, he also wanted to be skilled enough to hire out as the pianist for a decent-sized church in the urban areas where universities are normally located. He succeeded in both venues, never apparently remarking, even to himself, upon the dichotomy between honky-tonk all night on Saturday and the chancel all morning on Sunday. What mattered to him was that it worked and allowed him the funds with which to do his real work.
Over the years, of course, he ceased to play publicly. First, in the bars, for reasons of reputation and professional politics. Then, in church, for as a devout Presbyterian, he wanted to worship within his own communion. And then too, as a persuaded Christian, he spent all the Sunday mornings of his full adulthood, not playing the piano, but teaching Adult Sunday School, serving as church elder, and frequently performing as the guest preacher somewhere or other. The result was that by the time I came along, all of his piano playing was for Mother and me….and then, increasingly, for me.
It broke his heart that I had no ability at all for playing or even for singing; but his heart was somewhat repaired by the fact that I loved passionately to hear him play, especially when he would play the old hymns of his earlier career and would sing the words as he played. He was a tall man–6 feet, 4 inches–and his voice was in proportion to his size. I can remember when, at about six and a half, I perceived for the first time that I could “feel” his voice as well as hear it.
But the years rolled on, and by the time I was ten or so, he had developed arthritis. I don’t think it ever pained him in the way that that disease process pains many people, but it did cripple his hands beyond any hope of music-making. He would sit at the piano, rub his hands together and then one with the other, shake them, and then try; but he would miss the notes or slur a timing or simply not be able to strike a chord powerfully enough. The loss was more painful to him than arthritis itself could ever physically have been.
Yet to the end, there was one hymn or song he would not give up. Mangled or not, less than perfectly delivered or not, he always played it, every Christmas and every Easter. He played it and he sang it and he rejoiced in it. All of Holy Week, he played it until I, tone-deaf and musically inept as I was, could even sing it with joy. It was “The Holy City” by Frederick E Weatherly and Stephen Adams.
“The Holy City” was originally written and scored by Weatherly and Adams in 1893, and one does not hear it sung much anymore, if ever. What it meant to my father’s generation, I shall never know, of course, other than to know that it was very important culturally as religiously. James Joyce, for instance, even uses it in Ulysses as well as again in another fragment, Stephen Hero. For me, its importance is my father, obviously, and the dear way of the song’s coming into me. Entering Holy Week without “The Holy City” is an impossibility for me. It’s just that simple. But there is one other reason for my re-printing it here.
Yesterday, I wrote about my great admiration for, and rejoicing delight in, N. T. Wright’s volume, Surprised by Hope. It is not lost on me, however, that the grandeur underlying the lyrics of “The Holy City” is the grandeur underlying at least part of Bishop Wright’s theology. May we all find joy in both.
Last night I lay asleeping.
There came a dream so fair.
I stood in old Jerusalem
Beside the Temple there.
I heard the children singing
And ever as they sang,
Me thought the voice of angels
From heaven in answer rang:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Lift up your gates and sing
Hosanna in the highest
Hosanna to you King!
And then me thought my dream was changed.
The streets no longer rang.
Hushed were the glad hosannas
The little children sang.
The sun grew dark with mystery,
The moon was cold and chill
As the shadow of a cross arose
Upon a lonely hill.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
Hark how the angels sing!
Hosanna in the highest!
Hosanna to your King.!
And then methought my dream was changed.
New earth there seemed to be.
I saw the Holy City beside the tideless sea.
The light of God was on its streets.
The gates were open wide,
And all who would might enter
And no one was denied.
No need of moon or stars by night
Or sun to shine by day.
It was the new Jerusalem
That would not pass away.
It was the new Jerusalem
That would not pass away.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Sing for your night is over!
Hosanna in the highest,
Hosanna forever more!
Hosanna in the highest,
Hosanna forever more!