Our friend Grant has been at the keyboard again and offers this reflection on “My Song is Love Unknown” by Samuel Crossman and which is particularly poignant during Holy Week and Eastertide.
My Song is Love Unknown
One of the hymns often sung in Holy Week and especially on Good Friday is our hymn for today. Hymns can sometimes be statements of theological belief and others of a more personal and intimate expression of prayer. ‘My Song is Love Unknown’ actually is a combination of a personal outpouring of love to the One who is Love personified, Jesus Christ himself, and a statement about important events in his life.
My song is love unknown,
my Saviour’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown,
that they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake,
my Lord should take frail flesh and die?
What is this ‘love unknown’? In one sense God’s love is beyond our imagination, we cannot really grasp how unique and stupendous it was that Jesus should die for us on the cross. The emphasis on the word ‘Love’ and its associated words is quite striking and perhaps adds to the fact that this is a memorable hymn. This hymn was penned by Samuel Crossman (1624-1684), a Puritan minister who had been ejected from the Church of England in 1662 at the Restoration of the Monarchy. During these difficult years he wrote this hymn in 1664 but rejoined the C of E in 1665. He died only a few weeks after having been appointed Dean of Bristol and is buried in the south aisle of that cathedral.
The personal result of the sacrificial death of Christ is that everyone has been called to rejoice in that ‘at-one-ment’ so ably presented by St Paul in his various letters to the emerging fledgling churches of the First Century. The answer to Crossman’s question in the first verse is therefore a fundamental basis of the Christian Faith and is answered through the verses of the rest of the hymn. Thus verse 2 begins with the fact of the Incarnation, theologically expressed by St Paul in Philippians 2:4-11. Jesus called his disciples ‘friends’ (John 15:15) and so Crossman has extended that reference to include all believers. Jesus was none other than the long-awaited Messiah or Christ.
He came from his blest throne,
salvation to bestow;
but sin made blind, and none
the longed-for Christ would know.
But O, my friend, my friend indeed,
who at my need his life did spend!
This hymn is particularly pertinent to Holy Week for verse 3 immediately involves us in the events of the first Palm Sunday when the bystanders took tree branches and shouted Hosanna at the entrance of Jesus into the City of Jerusalem. Yet within a few days the Gospels record that this crowd shouted to have Jesus crucified (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 18-19).
The 4th verse of our hymn asks another question: ‘Why, what hath my Lord done?’ and ironically answers it that Jesus had healed the sick and had fulfilled that which was required of the Messiah (Isaiah 61:1-2 and Luke 4:16-21).
Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
he gave the blind their sight.
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
themselves displease, and ‘gainst him rise.
So, the 5th verse adds, in the Crucifixion story, Jesus is brought before Pontus Pilate who, at the crowd’s instigation, releases Barabbas the convicted murderer while handing Jesus, the Prince of Life, over to be crucified. I’m always a little dubious of the word ‘cheerful’ although this can be an interpretation of the conclusion that Jesus had reached in the Garden of Gethsemane – ‘Father, remove this cup from me….yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ (Mark 14:36) It is, perhaps, a shock to realise that ‘his foes’ are none other than us sinners and we are the ones who need to be set free from the bondage of our sin.
They rise, and needs will have
my dear Lord made away;
a murderer they save,
the Prince of Life they slay.
Yet cheerful he to suff’ring goes,
that he his foes from thence might free.
The final verse has been seen by some as a tribute by Crossman to George Herbert (1593-1633) in its imitation of Herbert’s anthology of poems entitled ‘The Temple’. Crossman’s understanding is that we ought to be so amazed at the Crucifixion that we would wish to just stay, ponder and meditate. Jesus as King (viz Herbert’s ‘King of Glory, King of Peace’) is none other than our friend in whose company we should wish to remain.
Here might I stay and sing,
no story so divine;
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like thine.
This is my friend in whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.