Friday, April 10, 2020

Garden Variety Hymns

I groaned when I opened an email from a former church and looked at the worship order. Most of us have hymns we don't care for and since I've never served anyplace called the "First Church of Michael Hammer" I think some forbearance is in order. But this is about more than personal taste. And it is hardly the first time I've seem this happen. There it was, part of the order for Palm/Passion Sunday, right before scripture readings about the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Christ:

In the Garden

If you aren't paying any better attention than the throngs of pastors past and present who thought this hymn was a good idea for Good Friday (or passion Sunday), you are probably thinking, "Hey, Jesus got arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. A garden. In the garden. Boy man, are you stupid, thinking this is inappropriate. It's right there in the story. It's a garden, for Pete's sake!"

It's not the same garden.

I'm not doing this to show off my knowledge of horticultural minutiae, either. Even if it had been the same physical garden, the circumstances are entirely different. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus goes off to pray, knowing that he is about to be arrested and killed. The scene is fraught with tension and despair; in Mark's version, Jesus is sweating drops of blood, and chiding the disciples, who keep falling asleep, unable to provide companionship when he needs it most. Jesus is utterly alone, and hell is about to break loose.

In the hymn that C. Austin Miles wrote in 1913, two figures are in a garden having a nice conversation. One of them is "I" and the other is Jesus. Birds are singing, there is "dew on the roses." The tune is pleasantly saccharine; Miles wrote that as well. It is hard to notice any actual connection with scripture since the lyrics seem only concerned with painting a Norman Rockwellian picture of me having a good time with Jesus, but they were derived from the story of Mary seeing the risen Christ in a garden on Easter. My Methodist hymnal puts the hymn in the section on "resurrection and exaltation" and if you care about liturgical placement you really should sing the hymn on Easter, or the week after. There are good reasons for not singing it at all, and though anyone not wishing to make a congregational ruckus knows not to try that route with older church bodies (it was the most requested hymn for inclusion in the aforementioned hymnal) in this instance some of the general issues conspire to make our liturgical ignorance worse.

St. Augustine once stated that a hymn needed to have three things. It needed to be a song, of praise, directed to God. This is at least sung, and though it is happy, it does not direct itself to God in praise. Instead it is about how I feel (pretty good!) and about how nice it is to spend time with "him." This makes it a forerunner of all of those "Jesus is my boyfriend" contemporary praise choruses. Indeed, some people have complained about the hymn being too "erotic" although I don't notice it too strongly. Perhaps if we concentrate on who the actual subject is supposed to be (Mary, not me) and note that she is "alone" with him; still, all they seem to be doing is walking and talking anyway. Gabriel doesn't really need to chaperone, does he?

The last line really annoys me, though. While in some ways it's just another "walking talking Jesus" hymn from the last century, it isn't content with a little euphoria and instead has to indulge in competitive joy: "and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known." So apparently me and Jesus are having more joy than the rest of you turkeys'll ever have, got that? Me and Jesus rock!

You know, maybe it is a little erotic (just noticed the line about "the melody that he gave to me"). Anyhow...

It is definitely self-centered, because clearly the hymn is really about me and how I feel, and only secondarily about Jesus at all (who is only named once). But the "sweet-voiced" Jesus who can even make the birds stop singing (why do birds suddenly stop singing every time you are near?) might wonder where you were two nights before in a different garden when he was about to suffer greatly and needed someone to pray with him. Did you skip that part?

There is a major push in Christianity to skip the sad parts of the story, which is one reason we now have something called "Palm/Passion Sunday" instead of just "Palm Sunday." It is because people don't want to go to church during the week and besides the crucifixion is such a downer. Noticing that people only got the part where Jesus was triumphantly entering Jerusalem one week and triumphantly being raised from the dead the next (wait? Did he die?), worship planners began reading the passion story on Palm Sunday at the end of the service so people wouldn't miss it. Substituting one garden for another lets us ignore one of the pivotal parts of the story, arguably the foundational story of Christianity. Forget the passion! For that matter, forget the Resurrection! I want some facetime with Jesus all to myself. The rest of you just get in the way (besides, social distancing.)

Ironically, it also puts us in the role of the clueless disciples. Finding the disciples asleep in Gethsemane, a tormented Jesus says "Are you asleep? Couldn't you stay awake with me for just one hour?" And the disciples, dreamy expressions on their faces, say "We were walking and talking with you in a garden, and it was so pleasant." Then they fought with each other over who had known the most joy with Jesus. And Jesus wept.

That's not what it says in my Bible, but maybe it ought to. It might sell more copies.

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