Hymn for the day graphic

22 Mary weep not – Constable

Philippe de Grève (fl. 1236)
translated by Laurence Housman (1865 - 1959)

© Oxford University Press, from the English Hymnal by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Additional verses © Douglas Constable

Douglas Constable

Today the Christian Church commemorates one of its most celebrated saints, Mary of Magdala. She’s special for three reasons. First: John’s Gospel told us that, after he rose from the dead, Jesus appeared to her before anyone else (John 20:11-18). Second: she did as Jesus asked her, and told the other disciples she had seen the Lord (v. 18); she is therefore known as ‘the Apostle to the Apostles’. And third: with hardly any evidence to go on, people for centuries made up salacious stories about her relationship with Jesus; and they still do. Although much misunderstood, Mary Magdalen is a bright light in the Church, shining into dark corners of the human psyche.

Early in the thirteenth century, the Chancellor of the University of Paris, one Philippe de Grève, composed a hymn in honour of Mary Magdalen. He set her in what we have come to know as the Easter garden. In the hymn, traumatized from having witnessed Jesus’ execution two days previously, and now from finding his tomb empty, Mary is too far gone in grief to register who it was that had come beside her:

Mary, weep not, weep no longer,
Now thy heart hath gained its goal;
Here in truth the Gardener standeth,
But the Gardener of thy soul,
Who within thy spirit’s garden
By his love hath made thee whole.

Notice how, in that last line, the Chancellor deals gently but firmly with all that people don’t know about Mary’s earlier life. He reminds her - and us - that some years previously, through grace of Jesus’ love, she became a whole person. Perhaps, in the years following, there were rumours about her and Jesus; in the centuries since, there have been plenty. How was Mary to live with, and recover from, all that? Philippe de Grève insists that it would be more than enough for her (and by extension, for all of us) to respond to her soul’s Gardener with love, gratitude, and obedience. She would recover from trauma. And so the hymn continues, softly but resolutely, encouraging:

Now from grief and lamentation
Lift thy drooping heart with cheer;
While for love of him thou mournest,
Lo, thy Lord regained is here!
Fainting for him, thou hast found him;
All unknown, behold him near!

One day in 1975, while leafing through the English Hymnal, I chanced upon this hymn. I was struck by its beauty, both words and music. The words were translated from Latin by Laurence, the younger brother of A. E. Housman, author of ‘A Shropshire Lad’. The music that caught my eye was notated in plainsong, and it straight away sounded in my imagination sung by a thirteenth-century choir in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I wondered if I could turn that medieval music into a song that might help this little known hymn find its way into the hearts and voices of worshippers today.

But there was a problem. The plainsong seemed overly solemn, as though the singers couldn’t quite let themselves go and sing out their Easter joy. There are further verses in the Chancellor’s hymn, as movingly written and translated as the first two; but I couldn’t see the hymn as written ‘taking off’ in congregations today. After a time, I found a way that might possibly appeal to contemporary worshippers.

First, I composed two more verses, that picked up the Lord’s commission to Mary, Go, tell my people that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. In the first of these, I continued to use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, as Laurence Housman had done. But for the last verse, aiming for instant impact, I brought the words into the familiar present: ‘Now may all who hear your story …’

Love, who greets thee, lives unbounded,
Bids thee loose thy longing hold,
Sends thee to each sister, brother,
That the gospel might be told.
Tell whom thou hast seen and worshipped;
God’s own Word shall make thee bold.

Now may all who hear your story
All be moved by your great love,
All be freed from fear and torment,
All give thanks to Christ above,
All inbreathe the Source of glory,
All receive God’s Spirit-Dove.

And then I couldn’t help it: I felt the hymn starting to dance. It cried out for music to dance to. So I turned the plainsong melody - still sounding quite medieval - into a piece I could imagine people dancing as a kind of conga. In church on Easter morning I picture girls and women singing the first two stanzas, followed by an instrumental verse - perhaps flute or recorder and tambour - during which someone from the congregation – a young person, perhaps – dances up, down, or even round, the nave and chancel. The third and fourth verses would then be sung by full congregation and four-part choir, with organ and or other instruments joining in. At the end (and I think this would probably be at the end of the service) the dancer and the choir would begin a conga, and any and everyone who wishes would join in, streaming out into the churchyard or the street.

Jesus, Teacher, Friend, crucified and risen Lord: open the eyes of our hearts, be they grieving or glad. Let us see you enthroned on high and with us all, each one, for ever. Amen.

You can find the music score and a recording at https://www.dougconstablehymns.com/hymns/mary-weep-not-weep-no-longer/

Audio recording of the music
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