It’s Good Friday here in Tucson. Outside my office window, the blue palo verde trees are alive with buds of yellow, their annual bloom timed almost in celebration of Easter weekend.
It’s always a bit difficult for me to write about Easter. Putting into words an expression of the Divine has been mankind’s great struggle for centuries, across a multitude of disparate fields ranging from art to law.
But as a recovering choir member, my favorite reflections on God have always been through music. I’ve only recently discovered the Pax Plena Song of the Week, but it has made a significant impact on the way I think about Jesus, and his death on this Good Friday, in particular.
My Song is Love Unknown is not a new hymn. Written in 1664 by Samuel Crossman, an influential Anglican minister and eventual Dean of Bristol Cathedral, the original music was set to a tune called “Wesley” from a much earlier era. But the most famous iteration of the hymn’s music was composed by John Ireland in 1918 – a tune aptly titled, “Love Unknown.”
Crossman’s words, in essence, are a collection of ruminations on Jesus’s death. As with most hymns, and much of aesthetics generally, the beauty of the lyrics is their simplicity.
Seven stanzas strong, the song begins with a meditation exploring one’s personal insignificance vis-à-vis Jesus’s timeless act of sacrifice. In the opening strains, Crossman wonders, O who am I, that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die? Although simply stated, Crossman’s question is really the mystery of the Gospels. Indeed, this ‘love unknown’ is exactly what humanity still hasn’t quite figured out, some two thousand years removed from the event.
Other stanzas of the song include refelctions about the trial of Jesus (stanza 3), and the freeing of Barabas instead of Jesus (stanza 6). But the most interesting aspect of the hymn is the theme of friendship that runs throughout the lyrics.
Toward the begining of the piece (stanza 2), Crossman acknowledges Jesus’s Divine origins, but rather than leaving the Son of God in abstraction, Crossman simply calls him “my friend.” But O, my friend, my friend indeed, who at my need his life did spend. In concluding the piece (stanza 7), Crossman again returns to the theme of friendship. After proclaiming the risen Christ, Crossman is not content to leave Jesus to the Heavens, but describes Jesus as simply a “friend” in whose company he longs to spend his days. This is my friend in whose sweet praise, I all my days could gladly spend.
The compelling thing about Crossman’s emphasis of friendship is that when two people are friends they bring no obligation into the relationship. Typically, a person considers another to be a friend because they want to, not because they have to.
When this dynamic is applied to a relationship with Jesus, and by extension God, the result is a beautiful expression of ‘love unknown.’ I suppose, in this way, Crossman actually gives definition to the abstract. The ‘love unknown’ in Crossman’s hymn becomes something that is quite familiar: the Love Unknown is the relationship of friendship itself – one between man and He who came to die for all mankind. And assuming one has free agency, one loves Christ because one wants to, not because one has to.
In all, the song is a perfect song of the week for this Good Friday, and Easter weekend. In keeping with Crossman’s theme, my Friends, please enjoy a beautiful performance of the hymn below by the Choir of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London.
My Song Is Love Unknown
By Samuel Crossman (1664)
Arr. by John Ireland (1918)
My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take frail flesh and die?
He came from His blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But men made strange, and none
The longed-for Christ would know:
But O! my Friend, my Friend indeed,
Who at my need His life did spend.
Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry.
Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
Themselves displease, and ’gainst Him rise.
They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of life they slay,
Yet cheerful He to suffering goes,
That He His foes from thence might free.
In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was His home;
But mine the tomb wherein He lay.
Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.