Given October 17, 2021 at New Creation Church (Anglican) by Fr. Justin Clemente in honor of the work of Jesus in Cecil Frances Alexander.
O God of the spirits of all flesh, we praise and magnify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear, especially your servant Cecil; and we beseech you that, encouraged by their examples and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be found worthy to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I have to begin by confessing that sometimes these Commemorations can be quite a challenge! On the surface of it, there is precious little widely available on the life of Cecil Frances Alexander. But, I was able to find one biography online and that biography led me to a smaller one that her husband wrote after Cecil’s death. Her husband, William Alexander, a priest and later a bishop and Archbishop of Armagh, was six years younger than her and outlived her by quite a bit. I found that it was her husband, in his small tribute, that truly captured the beauty and impact her life. Reflecting on her person and contribution to the kingdom of God, Bishop William said this:
“To [me] the thought often occurs that [the] eternal words [of her hymns], rising day after day from myriads of human souls, form themselves into a constant memorial of her before God. The memorial will continue; for the preacher’s influence is of a few years, the hymnist’s is of all time.” (Poems by CF Alexander, edited by William Alexander, pgs. xxviii)
It is to the influence of this hymnist’s life and work that we now turn.
Housekeeping & Basics
Let’s talk about some housekeeping and basics as we do that.
First, I want us to understand that this is not a sermon on Scripture, per se, but more of a reflection on the faithfulness of Jesus as seen in Cecil. And I trust you’ll be able to see how that connects to our readings from Holy Scripture today, even though I won’t address much them directly.
Secondly, let’s talk about the basics of Cecil’s life. She was born in April 1818 at 25 Eccles Street, Dublin, Ireland and died the 12 of October, 1895 in Derry, Ireland. She began writing verse even as a child. Her books include Verses for Holy Seasons, The Lord of the Forest and his Vassals (a children’s allegory), and Hymns for Little Children. Her most famous hymns are “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” “There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” “Once in Royal David’s City,” and “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” though she wrote other hymns that deserve our attention. In all this, she was a teacher of the faith, especially for children. Most everything she wrote was directed to the child.
Her and husband raised four children – two boys and two girls. They knew the struggles of family life – their two boys were ill for a long stretch of time in their childhood. Alongside her husband, she was devoted to charitable work for the bulk of her life. Wikipedia records, “Money from her first publications had helped build the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, which was founded in Strabane in 1846. The profits from Hymns for Little Children were also donated to the school. She was involved with the Derry Home for Fallen Women, and worked to develop a district nurses service.”
As her biographer Valerie Wallace sums her up: “She would be a pillar of family life, a devout Christian and crystallizer of [orthodox Christian] faith.” (Mrs. Alexander, pg. 1)
Singing the Faith With Mrs. Alexander
For the rest of our time together, I want us to look at the hymns she wrote and what they teach us about singing the faith together.
We live in an age of great confusion when comes to Christian worship and music. We live in a time where much that should not pass onto the lips of Christians gathered for worship, does. On their YouTube Channel “Blimey Cow” Jordan & Josh Taylor lampoon the contemporary Christian music scene with their video “How to Write a Worship Song (In 5 Minutes or Less). The secret? Four chords, really loud music, vague struggles, rhymes… and one thing in your song should always be on fire.
Rather, we need to understand that when we sing together, we pray the faith together. As St. Augustine said, “he who sings prays twice.” And we embrace and hold close the axiom of the Early Church, “As we pray, so we believe.” That is to say, what we sing really matters. It forms us. Cecil understood that better than most. In fact, her husband explicitly refers to the impact St. Augustine and St. Jerome had on her thinking. She loved the rule of St. Jerome when it came to hymns: “[hymns] set forth in measure the power and majesty of God, and are fixed in perpetual admiration either of his benefits or doings.” (Poems by CF Alexander, edited by William Alexander, pgs. xxv) Do you hear the God-centered, Christ-centered approach there? According to this, the purpose of music in the church is not to emote about God or give us certain feelings about God, but music is to direct our gaze outward to all that God and has done for us.
And, according to Colossians 3, the goal and purpose of all corporate singing is that the word of Christ would dwell richly in us. (Colossians 3:16) That we would be given words to express the grand mystery of the Faith. That is to say, the purpose of singing together is to teach the Faith. Singing is to “teach and admonish [us] in all wisdom…with thankfulness in our hearts to God.”
Cecil’s songs were written to do just this. “Once in Royal David’s City” was written to teach children the beauty and truth of the Incarnation. It is a meditation on that line in the Apostles’ Creed: “He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” Listen:
We like Mary rest confounded,
That a stable should display,
Heaven’s Word, the world’s creator,
Cradled there on Christmas Day,
Her song “There is a Green Hill Far Away” was again written for children. It was written to explain the heart of Cross – Christ in our place. Again, it was written to enlarge upon a line from the Apostles’ Creed: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Listen again:
We may not know, we cannot tell,
What pains He had to bear;
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.
Again, her hymns tell a story, teach us the faith, and exalt in the gospel of Christ.
Her best-known hymn is probably the one we sung as we gathered, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Again, it was written to explain a line from the Apostles’ Creed. But if you only knew that hymn, you wouldn’t know the depth of her faith and her evangelical spirit. I watched a short BBC special on this hymn and at some points, it was if they afraid to admit how deeply gospel-saturated this woman’s faith and hymns actually were.
For this is the woman who also wrote, “Lift Up Thy Bleeding Hand,” which we sang together just a moment ago. Listen to those lyrics again:
When wounded sore, the stricken heart
Lies bleeding and unbound,
One only hand, a piercèd hand,
Can salve the sinner’s wound.
Lift up Thy bleeding hand, O Lord,
Unseal that cleansing tide;
We have no shelter from our sin
But in Thy wounded side.
No one who listens to those lyrics and sings that song can mistake the faith of its author. They are clearly Christ-centered and objective in a way that many modern worship songs are not. Or, as the “The Worship Song Song” by Random Action Verb Worship band puts it: “Life’s got me down / I’m at the end of my rope / Here’s an out of context Bible verse about hope.” Then comes the clincher at the end of the song, “I know I’m being vague / This song’s not about my ex / This song’s about Jesus / … We forgot to mention Jesus.”
I strive in this church to support and lead a culture where we bypass so much of worship wars in the church today. And so, we do not have a traditional service or a contemporary service. We have Morning Prayer and Holy Communion for everyone. Why? Because our preferences about music style are not king. Because what we sing is more important than the style of music we sing. Because we want the best of the church’s music from Book of Psalms down to the present day!
And if you want to write music for the church then sit at the feet of hymn-writers like Cecil. Listen to her and learn her ways. One of the great unnoticed Anglican contributions to the entire Body of Christ has been our hymn-writers. As the Catechism puts it, “Hymns, from writers like Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, John Mason Neale, and Graham Kendrick, have formed the spirituality of English-speaking Anglicans [and other Christians] around the world. Today, composers in many languages continue in this powerful tradition of catechesis through music.” (To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism, pg. 8)
In the preface of her Sunday Book of Poetry, she summarized the aim of her poetry this way: “In some measure [may it] tend to make Sunday a pleasant day to children. May it help to teach them to praise God, the Father, Son, and Spirit; to contemplate life and death and their own hearts as Christians should; to understand the spirit of the Bible; and, through this fair creation, to look up to Him who is its Creator.” (quoted in The Poets of the Church by Edwin Hatfield, pg. 10)
The Life Behind the Words
I give the last words to one who knew her best: her husband of 45 years. He shows us the power and quality of the life behind her words. “Her life,” he writes, “was always a life of duty. While her health and strength were unbroken, there was morning service every day at the cathedral and weekly communion; in her own room, on her little table, the much-used Bible, and the little book of Bishop [Lancelot] Andrewes’ devotions.”
He continues, “To applause she was more utterly deaf than any one I have ever met. Again and again I have read to her words of lofty, of almost impassioned, commendation from men of genius or holiness, of rank and position. She listened without a remark and looked up almost with a frown. Last year some good man…sent me a little tract. It contained a history…of a great change in the heart and life of a very worldly man. He happened to hear the hymn, “There is a green hill far away,” exquisitely sung. That became the fountain of a new feeling, the creator of new yearnings, the starting-point of a new life. Mrs. Alexander almost sprang from her chair, looked me in the face, and said: “Thank God! I do like to hear that.”
He narrates her funeral this way: “The streets through which the long procession wound its way to the beautiful cemetery were thronged with crowds of people. The utter silence, the reverential hush, was something wonderful. On the hill-side the perfect autumn day slept with its rainbow tints. The hearse passed on, its coffin buried in flowers. We seemed, not [to be] going to a funeral, but lifted up out of time, touched by a magic and soothed by a romance which were not of earth but of Paradise. She was laid in her grave amidst the tears of a great community. The last words of hope were spoken over her by the voice she loved best. So she sleeps sweetly, until the morning breaks.” (Poems by CF Alexander, edited by William Alexander, pgs. xiv, xvii, xxi)
And so, to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit we give all the thanks and praise for the special gifts of grace given to Cecil Frances Alexander to understand and teach the truth revealed in Christ Jesus. May the Lord grant that by this teaching we my know and hold fast to the truth. Amen.