The 3rd July is widely observed as St Thomas’ day, and, having been Vicar of St Thomas’ parish in Derby, I am happy to share my affection and sense of kinship with Thomas. I first became aware of him seventy years ago, the Easter before my tenth birthday.
I had joined the choir at St Martin’s Dorking some months previously, and had recently been awarded my surplice. Had I still been a probationer in the choir, I would not have been able to sing in what proved the most uplifting experience of my life to that point. For, at Evensong on Easter Day, after the sermon, while the organist solemnly played over the hymn, the Vicar was clothed in an ornately decorated cope. Servers meanwhile gathered banners standing in the corners of the sanctuary and slowly processed through the chancel, leading along the south aisle of the nave and back down the centre, followed from the choir stalls by the head choristers and the rest of us.
All of which is to say that my real gut-level introduction to the story in John’s Gospel of Jesus appearing on the evening of that day to the disciples behind locked doors was not from the pages of Scripture, but through a heady mix of ceremonial, colour, unison singing in procession (and there were a lot of us, men and boys), and, above all, by a full-on, open-your-throat-and-let-it-all-come-out strong tune O FILII ET FILIAE in the deeply affecting key of G minor. Reflecting on that experience seventy years later, I think that procession did as much as anyone in sowing faith in the fertile ground of my young self; it helped to form this life-long Christian believer. It gave me an overwhelming sense of having a voice in the Church’s proclamation echoing through twenty centuries; a profound conviction that ‘This is what we do, what the Church is meant to do’. As the years have gone on since then, it seems to me we don’t proclaim the faith as much in the way I first experienced it; are there as many singing processions nowadays? But I remain grateful that one of the ways I know myself and my fellow believers is as participants in this procession of faith, as corporate witnesses of the Resurrection.
So what is this hymn? It comes to us in a translation by John Mason Neale (1818-1866). In the English Hymnal, the (Latin) words are ‘ascribed to the 17th century’, but the stronger consensus is that they were composed by a French Franciscan, Jean Tisserand (d.1494;) very possibly for a procession to honour the Blessed Sacrament. The twelve stanzas present a synopsis from Mark’s and John’s Gospels, of the events of the first Easter Day: ‘the Marys’ (in the Latin: two Marys and Salome from Mark’s Gospel) coming to the empty tomb; afterwards, from John’s Gospel: having received the news from Mary Magdalen, John and Peter ran to the tomb; then back again to Mark, where an Angel in white addressed the women; after which, to John once more, where Jesus appeared to the Apostles ‘met in fear’. Three verses are then devoted to Thomas’ story: his absence, and afterwards his glorious cry, ‘Thou art my Lord and God’. From that climax the hymn’s narrative climbs to a further summit, incorporating the Gospel comment, ‘Blessed are they that have not seen’, and gathering ‘sons and daughters of the King’ from earth’s every corner to ‘unite’ with ‘Holy Church’, The hymn as set out in English Hymnal is as follows:
Alleluya! Alleluya! Alleluya!
- Ye sons and daughters of the King,
Whom heavenly hosts in glory sing,
Today the grave hath lost its sting.
- On that first morning of the week,
Before the day began to break,
The Marys went their Lord to seek.
- An Angel bade their sorrow flee,
For thus he spake unto the three:
‘Your Lord is gone to Galilee.’
- That night the Apostles met in fear,
Amidst them came their Lord most dear,
And said: ‘Peace be unto you here!’
- When Thomas afterward had heard
That Jesus had fulfilled his word,
He doubted if it were the Lord.
- ‘Thomas, behold my side,’ saith he,
‘My hands, my feet, my body see;
‘And doubt not, but believe in me.’
- No longer Thomas then denied
He saw the feet, the hands, the side;
‘Thou art my Lord and God,’ he cried.
- Blessèd are they that have not seen,
And yet whose faith hath constant been,
In life eternal they shall reign.
- On this most holy day of days,
To God your hearts and voices raise
In laud, and jubilee, and praise.
- And we with Holy Church unite,
As evermore is just and right,
In glory to the King of Light.
Alleluya! Alleluya! Alleluya!
While we were in Derby, the parish celebrated a hundred years since the founding of St Thomas’ Church; and I wrote lofty words and music for the occasion. I am interested now to see that the fervour that took hold of me each Easter from ages nine to thirteen plainly informed this hymn from 1981. If composing it today, I would certainly write it differently, but I hope I would express the same fervour and commitment.
‘Most holy Jesus, thou way of truth and life, almighty vanguard of victory in our strife: bless us
thy servants with peace from heaven above, imprint our lives with thine own seal of selfless love.
As in the fullness of life restored, you came to free th’apostles from deadly fear and shame:
in sovereign freedom your presence still bestow on us now gathered here for fellowship below.
And, as with mercy your wounded hands and side you showed to Thomas - “My Lord and God!” he cried: so grant us truly your nature to perceive, as we your sacred blood and body each receive.
Most glorious Saviour, the Father’s only Son, enfleshed among us, to bind us into one:
breathe forth your Spirit, that, as we go our ways, we may be bold to serve you all our livelong days.
And now, great Ruler of all our passing years: accept our praises for all before who here beheld your glory, who worshipped and adored, who with their faithful lives declared you Christ and Lord.
By building surely on faith’s foundation stone we hope to prosper, but for thy love alone; that, when at last heaven and earth shall be no more, thy name will hallowed be by all, thy face adored.’
Prayer: Evermore, O Lord, to thy servants thy presence be nigh;
ever fit us by service on earth for thy presence on high.
(Liturgy of St James trans.C.W.Humphreys 1840-1921)