Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
It is hardly original to observe that a great poet can capture a thought in a few words that might take much longer to express in prose. I’ve long thought that Crossman captured something simple and striking not only about Christ’s ministry on earth, but about our Christian calling in the phrase “Love to the loveless shown / That they might lovely be.” But to turn great poetry into a great hymn (or even bad poetry into a good hymn – lots of scope for discussion there) you need a talented musician, and I suspect Crossman’s verses would have been unknown not only to me, but many readers of this Devotion, had it not been for the twentieth century composer John Ireland. His tune ‘Love Unknown’ seems to me to capture the melancholy and loneliness of Christ’s passion so well, with the flexibility to respond to the changing mood of the poetry as it is sung.
I wonder what drew John Ireland to these verses. Did the loneliness of the Passion had a particular resonance for him? His brief marriage was annulled unconsummated, and his private papers and biographers suggest he was a gay man at a time it wasn’t possible for him to form a relationship with someone he loved.
Our Scripture reading is the fourth ‘Servant Song’ from Isaiah, which is variously interpreted as a prophecy about Israel, or the Messiah. It picks up key themes of the Passion, and is at once both familiar and troubling – do we agree with Isaiah that God would want to crush anyone with pain? And I’m not happy with a ‘jam tomorrow’ theology that those who suffer in this world will be rewarded in the next. This is a reading to wrestle with, rather than gloss over due to its familiarity.
Lord, we give thanks for the poets and musicians who help us explore, by looking at our faith through different eyes. We pray that they may be inspired by your Gospel to strengthen us in faith and service, and to challenge us to see familiar texts anew. Help us to step out of our comfort zones of familiar words and music, and open ourselves to new possibilities in our Christian lives. Amen