O Christ, who faced in deserts bare
Timothy Dudley-Smith (1926-)
For Europe and Africa © Timothy Dudley-Smith
For the rest of the world including the USA and Canada: © 2003 Hope Publishing Company
Tune: WOODVALE, John Crothers (1948-)
The recording was produced by Adam Binks of Resonus Classics
O Christ, who faced in deserts bare
the fiercest test temptation brings,
to win for us a pasture fair
and water from eternal springs:
now, lest our feet be led astray,
Good Shepherd, walk with us today.
We know the voice that calls our name,
the patient, low, insistent word;
a voice, for evermore the same,
that James and John and Peter heard:
to follow where their steps have gone,
Good Shepherd, lead your people on.
For all your scattered flock we pray,
whose eyes the Lamb of God behold;
come as their true and living Way
to other sheep of every fold:
from powers of sin and death and grave,
Good Shepherd, stoop to seek and save.
Good Shepherd of the life laid down,
Great Shepherd of the ransom paid,
that life, and glory, and a crown
be ours, in righteousness arrayed:
our ways direct, our wants provide,
Good Shepherd, still be guard and guide.
Teach us to journey here below
as those who seek their rest above,
and daily by your grace to grow
in truth and holiness and love:
and when our pilgrim days are past,
Good Shepherd, bring us home at last.
Reflection: John Crothers
Hymn texts which include references to Christ, the Good Shepherd, are not unknown in the English language. Sir Henry Baker‘s ‘The King of Love’ and the children’s hymns, ‘Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me’ (Mary Duncan) and ‘Loving Shepherd of thy sheep’ (Jane Eliza Leeson), are only three which will be familiar to many.
In November 2001 the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Texas, requested Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith to write something appropriate to them and specifically suitable for the season of Lent.
What emerged from the pen of the hymn writer was not a paraphrase of Psalm 23, but is surely one of the most remarkable, finely detailed and richly worked prayers to Christ that exist in the language of today. He is indeed the Good Shepherd, whose name appears at the conclusion of each verse – a summary of what has just been sung.
The Lenten theme is introduced immediately in verse 1, with a reference to Our Lord’s ‘temptations in the wilderness’. Note that ‘faced’ does not only mean ‘encountered’ but suggests ‘deliberately faced up to’, resulting in victory won by Christ but gained on behalf of his ‘sheep’—that is, we who sing these words. His victory is ours in the sense that by his self-sacrifice we ‘find pasture’ and enjoy the ‘water springing up to eternal life’—both now and hereafter. Our prayer is that his constant presence will keep us on that ‘straight and narrow’ path.
Like the first disciples in verse 2, our call to follow in the first instance, says the author, was, and is, personal: the Lord’s own invitation. And there is mutual recognition here: we recognise the one who ‘calls our name’, who already knows us intimately. Pilgrimage, a particularly Lenten theme, is following the steps that people of faith have trodden before us – an encouraging suggestion of the ‘company of the saints’ or fellowship of believers.
It is difficult not to find the third verse affecting, where we are privileged to participate in Christ’s intimate prayer that his ‘scattered’ people may be one. Pilgrims follow ‘a way’, and Christian pilgrims are called to follow the one who uniquely declared himself to be ‘the Way’. (Note how ‘way’, ‘truth’ and ‘life’ are all woven into this line!) Christ’s ‘other sheep’—all of whom we cannot know—are just as precious to him as we are; it is only right, then, that our prayer asks the one who took ‘the form of a slave’ for our sake to ‘stoop’—to deal mercifully with them too.
In verse 4 we consider not just the Good Shepherd-Victim but the Great Shepherd-Victor, whose willing death has provided not just for the here-and-now but the hereafter, with the signs of his triumph being conferred on the people he ransomed. Yet, for so long as we are on earth, we still depend on him as Shepherd-Guardian and Guide.
Christian life seen as ‘pilgrimage’ has long been emphasized by one branch of the Church; ‘discipleship’, or learning, mainly by another. In the last verse (and in the spirit of verse 3) our author brings both together: we need to learn that our active pilgrimage is preparation for restful fulfilment in the Father’s presence—to live sub specie aeternitatis, in the light of our final destination. And on the way—mercifully—there is always a plentiful supply of grace available to allow us to take on more of those characteristics of our Good Shepherd, whom we are learning to know.
Of course, who can fail to associate one of Bishop Timothy’s favourite endings for his texts—'home at last’—with ‘the house of the Lord’ of Psalm 23? On looking back, we can indeed trace that our path, however steep or rocky at times, has essentially been surrounded by ‘goodness and mercy’.
Here then is not ‘just another hymn text’ (as if that could ever be case with TD-S!) but a deeply poetic, original weaving together of a multitude of strands of Scripture, a worthy companion on our own pilgrimage to the Father’s house.
In place of the customary prayer, why not make some of the profound words of this hymn a prayer of your own? I suspect you will find it not just suitable for Lent!
SING THE TEXT
To accompany this moving text, I considered that it was fitting to name the tune after a place that had special significance for me—that part of the city of Belfast where I grew up. Happily, the contrast between the ‘deserts bare’ and a ‘wooded vale’ perhaps reflects the development in the first verse.
To enable you to sing the words of the hymn, there is a recording of the tune below, kindly provided by Matthew Owens, Director of Music at Belfast’s St Anne’s Cathedral.