Sunday, 29 May 2011

Athens: Moonlight on the temples slept

Some person of very good taste chose the following hymn for Radio 4's 'Sunday Worship' programme this morning, which greatly pleased me; and so here it is. Like this wonderful carol, it was written by J. M. Neale in 1853 to fit a tune in the medieval music compilation 'Piae Cantiones' (the tune is named 'Scribere prosposui', and may or may not be the same as this tune, I'm not quite sure.).

It's inspired by the account of St Paul's visit to Athens in the Acts of the Apostles 17:

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.’As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

A pretty great topic for a hymn, I think you'll agree. The tune in The Oxford Book of Carols is harmonised by Geoffrey Shaw, and for my money is considerably more sane than that medieval tune; sadly I can't find it online, but for the next week you will be able to listen to it on iplayer, at 11:38 mins in.

1. 'Twas about the dead of night,
And Athens lay in slumber;
Moonlight on the temples slept
And touch'd the rocks with umber;
And the Court of Mars were met
In grave and rev'rend number.
Evermore and evermore,
Christians, sing Alleluia.

2. Met were they to hear and judge
The teaching of a stranger;
O'er the ocean he had come
Through want, and toil, and danger;
And he worshipp'd for his God
One cradled in a manger.
Evermore and evermore,
Christians, sing Alleluia.

3. While he spake against their gods,
And temples' vain erection,
Patiently they gave him ear,
And granted him protection;
'Till with bolder voice and mien
He preach'd the Resurrection.
Evermore and evermore,
Christians, sing Alleluia.

4. Some they scoff'd, and some they spake
Of blasphemy and treason;
Some replied with laughter loud,
And some replied with reason;
Others put it off until
A more convenient season.
Evermore and evermore,
Christians, sing Alleluia.

5. Athens heard and scorn'd it then,
Now Europe hath received it:
Wise men mock'd and jeer'd it once,
Now children have believed it;
This, good Christians, was the day
That gloriously achieved it.
Evermore and evermore,
Christians, sing Alleluia.

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